Updated: Jul 7, 2020
Middlesbrough lost one of the key 6-pointers against Hull City, in the run up to the end of the season, leaving Middlesbrough's Championship future in further jeopardy. The results was made even more painful as it appeared during the match that if anyone deserved to gain the three points, it would be Middlesbrough. As they had the better opportunities but failed to capitalise and then were punished at the last for their lack of conversion.
A cagey affair:
It was an exciting start to the game as two of the goals were scored before the first drinks break. It slowed after the drinks break but some fluidity in the match remained and Middlesbrough showed that they were still capable of creating creating chances. However
this changed dramatically in the second half, as it grew increasingly scrappy as neither team was able to string a passing phrase together. In turn, the game became a taught and difficult watch after originally being so promising. The reason behind these dramatic changes are covered later in the article.
Much the same plan:
Middlesbrough started the game in a similar formation and style as the game against Stoke, with the only notable change to the team coming in the inclusion of Hayden Coulson for Ashley Fletcher. This in turn meant that Britt Assombalonga played the centre forward role while Hayden Coulson took up a role on the left wing.
Meanwhile, Patrick Roberts continued to be Middlesbrough’s main outlet and form of attack, which is represented by the number of tackles from the Hull City contingent on Boro’s right flank. He also showed his ability to cut inside during the game, to the point where he found himself in a shooting position.
Coulson, on the other flank, offered a complementary impact, attempting 4 dribbles down the left hand side. Positionally he would hold his position out wide until the final third where he would cut inside and offer another option for incoming crosses.
Meanwhile the midfield three set up relatively similar to the game against Stoke. Howson played as a deep lying playmaker once more, (until the injury of Djed Spence) making 10 long passes during the game, with Dael Fry, Marvin Johnson and George Friend putting up similar numbers.
Saville played a box to box midfield role, offering support to the ball side and working to suppress possible counters and press the ball when possession was lost. He was relieved of his role on the left wing as Coulson kept the width during this game.
On the other hand, McNair was encouraged to find spaces between the midfield and defence to help transition into attacks. He also make runs into the box for when the possibility for crosses arose, giving the winger three options to pick out inside the box. During slower build up play, McNair would also move to the right hand side in support of Patrick Roberts. This would often help the gifted winger to break behind the liners.
When there was a change of possession higher up the pitch, Middlesbrough would press Hull City. In these situations McNair was actively encouraged, if he wasn't part of the pressing unit, to float, around between the midfield and attack as a quick outlet, should Middlesbrough be able to capitalise on a pressing move. However, if they moved past Middlesbrough’s press then he would move back into the pre-set 4-3-3 formation.
Defensively, Middlesbrough set up the same as in the previous game and the centre backs built up impressive clearance numbers once more. On the attack, three of the back four played a role in playing long balls while Djed Spence was encouraged to run on the ball.
Left Winger Coulson:
Hayden Coulson has played at left wing on a number of occasions this season with a mixed impact, leading many to wonder whether the young attacking fullback was capable of playing the role. So it was a surprise, when Neil Warnock featured him in the left wing position.
Coulson produced one of his better performances from this position and showed himself to be relatively more comfortable in the role. He was also one of Middlesbrough's strongest threats with his runs and general good positioning; producing a number of highlights as well as forcing Hull City into committing the foul that resulted in Britt Assombalonga’s penalty.
There was still a blatant issue in Coulson's play as he struggled to convert the opportunities that arose into decent attempts on goal. This is hardly surprising as he has learnt to play as a wingback who would get little to no chances to shoot during a game and so isn't typically one of a coaches aims when training a full back. This issue has echoes of George Friend early in his Middlesbrough career when his shooting was wayward. If the youngster could learn how to shoot then he would fit better into the left wing role.
In defence, Coulson would often come inside, sitting beside Howson to free Saville in pressing the opposition.
Overall, Coulson had a relatively impressive game, after returning from a minor injury and showed that he could potentially play as a winger in the future.
It was clear during the first half that Middlesbrough's direct style was a massive issue for Hull City, one that they tried to combat in the second half, in a way that also caused the game to stagnate: committing tactical fouls.
During the game, Hull City committed 18 fouls, including 10 inside Middlesbrough’s half. Of those 10, 2 were committed inside the box, leaving 8 fouls around the Middlesbrough half.
These fouls were not due to a bad tackles in a pressing system, as Hull only attempted 4 tackles in the Middlesbrough half, which doesn't fit with Hull City's fouls. Furthermore these fouls were committed in the areas that Boro's best long passers were located. There were two fouls at left back, where Johnson was playing, three fouls in the area that Howson patrolled and three fouls at right back, where Djed Spence was encouraged to run at the opposition on transition.
So it is reasonable to deduce that Hull City actively fouled Middlesbrough players that were key to our direct style, in order to prevent it from being a threat. This also meant that Hull City were able to come back and set up in a defensive system making it difficult to break them down. This indicated that Hull City were content with the possibility of obtaining a draw from the match against Middlesbrough.
It also had a key role in the games stagnation as the first fouls stopped the flow of the game, then the two teams were locked in a battle neither seemed to control at any point during the second half.
Trying to beat a low block:
In the second half Middlesbrough ended up facing a different task, in trying to break down an oppositions defence.
At this point, Middlesbrough maintained a 4-2-3-1, with Howson and Saville sitting before the defence and they often rotated possession between the defenders as they looked for passes through the midfield line.
The main aim of the team at this point was to still play through the wings and they would occasionally find a way through, however, this wasn’t very frequent and so when Boro had the ball they often found themselves playing the ball between the deep lying midfielders and defenders with little to no penetration.
Still there were indications that with more movement Boro could have converted this situation into chances. A concern, though, was the lack of a creative midfielder as however talented McNair is, Middlesbrough could have done with a someone who is particularly good at ‘picking the defences lock’. Some would point to Ravel Morrison as the answer to this conundrum, however his impact on the pitch has yet to match the potential that everyone is aware he has and Middlesbrough aren’t in the position, nor have the time to wait for him to find that elusive form.
Far post overload:
Hull City’s goal came from a far post overload when Boro seemed to have switched off.
In this situation, Middlesbrough’s defence had moved to the ball side of the pitch in an attempt to overload, regain possession and start a counter attack. McNair and Saville moved forward to press the ball, leaving five defenders at the back.
A big issue in Boro’s defending in these moments came from Marvin Johnson, who appeared to recognise that he was considerably outnumbered at the far post but didn’t warn his team mates to adjust accordingly.
By the time the ball came in, Johnson was stranded unable to challenge all of the Hull City defenders and soon enough the ball was in behind the defensive line for Mallik Wilks to convert.
However the most disappointing thing about the late goal, is that Middlesbrough never appeared to be threatened during the game as they comfortably dealt with everything that came their way. Neil Warnock will be making the point that his team needs to be focused throughout the game.
In terms of Hull City’s free kick, there were sone questions about Stojanovic’s positioning, as he seemed to give himself too much to do when it came for covering the wall covered side of the goal. It was clear that he was scrambling along the line before diving, in the end colliding uncomfortably with the post. Although I am speaking from a position of relative unknown as I am neither a goalkeeper or goalkeeping coach and the position is particularly nuanced.
To summarise, Middlesbrough had a good first half, in which they failed to convert some very good chances. The second half became cagey and dull, however, Middlesbrough still looked to be the slightly better team; though in the end they were punished for not converting their chances when they conceded in the final minutes.