This series highlights three of Middlesbrough’s performers from the last game indicating which of those players deserves praise. Points at a player that could be on an upward trajectory and one that will be hoping for a better performance next time out.
The impact of a covid effected two weeks were painfully visible when Middlesbrough faced Birmingham City yesterday, as they looked unlikely to create anything that could overturn the 1-0 deficit. This was matched in Neil Warnock’s post-match interview too as he was critical of his side for the first time since he arrived in the North-East.
Middlesbrough will be hoping that this is a blip that they can soon turn over and forget, particularly if they can get a win against Nottingham Forest in mid-week.
Due to Middlesbrough’s poor display, there were few, if any people who could be highlighted for their positive contributions during the 90 minutes. However, Marc Bola continued with the consistent displays that have shocked so many Middlesbrough fans this season, considering the lacklustre performances a year ago. It was also great to see Jonny Howson return to the team following his time out due to injury. Finally, although he no longer plays for the club, George Friend’s ‘man of the match performance’ for Birmingham was impressive and he deserves praise for snuffing out any half opportunities that came Middlesbrough’s way.
Best: Marc Bola
There is little new to add to an introduction about Marc Bola, the Englishman has turned into a reliable and consistent performer at left back. It is this consistency that he is being praised for here as he had a typical solid performance despite the teams failure.
The players consistency is shown in the 5 league games coming into the match against Birmingham, showing that he has become a formidable defensive force even in the clubs loss to Sheffield Wednesday. The former Arsenal youth player has made the left back position his own this season and the previously mentioned recent form highlights that that is not going to be under contention any time soon.
There is little surprise that Marc Bola played as a left back against Birmingham as that has been the role he has played almost constantly for Middlesbrough so far this season. Johnson has often been picked ahead of him allowing the player to focus on what he does best, being defensively solid and supplying the ball to more attacking players.
Bola’s defensive solidity was again on display against the blues as he made 2 tackles and 3 clearances, dealing with the few times that Birmingham City attempted to attack down the right with the confidence and capability that resulted in the team focusing on the left flank as a way to get at Middlesbrough.
Meanwhile, Marc Bola’s pass success rate of 45.7% is far from ideal, but it is always important to consider the nature of these passes as 6 of these attempts were long balls of which only one succeeded. So removing long passes from his passing numbers shows that he is a more successful passer making 55% of short to medium pass attempts. Admittedly this isn’t a phenomenal but it is an added component to what is a defence first full back.
Finally, Bola did contribute to the team going forward as one of the few players that attempted to cause quick transitions through his 2 dribbles. Middlesbrough’s biggest chance for success against Birmingham was from wide areas or free kicks and Bola contributed to both, making 3 crosses and winning 2 fouls.
The performance against Birmingham was not Bola’s best, but he is always consistent and that should be praised, particularly when playing in a team that performed beneath managers standards.
Worst: The team
Middlesbrough struggled as a unit against Birmingham with none of the players standing out as particularly influential in the sides failure against 18th placed Birmingham City as such the whole team is to blame. The performance, in all likelihood, is a one off with players struggling with the demands of Championship football following their recovery from coronavirus. That said, it is important to note where the team failed so that these issues can be addressed.
Middlesbrough has been in relatively good form in the league recently having won all but one of the past 5 league games coming into game against Birmingham scoring 12 goals. The teams form is possibly petering off in recent times though if the Birmingham game and all competitions are considered when looking at Middlesbrough’s form then the club has lost 3 of its last 4 games. There is no need to panic yet. Two of these three losses have caveats that go someway to explaining the teams supposed slump. First, against Brentford FA cup clash Middlesbrough fielded a number of Under-23’s as a large number of the first team were self-isolating following a number of positive tests. Secondly, Birmingham was the first return to action for many Middlesbrough players following positive covid tests. Nonetheless, it will be important to stop this from becoming a prolonged issue as entering a poor run of form at this point of the season would be less than ideal.
Marcus Browne was not available following his injury in the cup match against Brentford, and it appears as though he will remain on the sidelines for the foreseeable future as a scan highlighted a cruciate injury. So Middlesbrough went for a different formation against Brentford, with Tavernier and Johnson starting as wingers, either side of Chuba Akpom. The three behind them, Lewis Wing, George Saville, were set to connect the defence to the attack with Sam Morsy protecting a back four that included Anfernee Dijksteel, Dael Fry, Patrick McNair and Marc Bola.
The change proved to provide bigger issues than expected as the lack of movement from the midfield three and Tavernier’s limited involvement resulted in a stale performance when on the ball and the majority of the teams possession was limited to the defence, with Dale Fry, notably having 7.3% of the games possession.
Middlesbrough looked lacklustre throughout the pitch, even with the numerous changes in the second half, the team never looked like causing a breakthrough. There appeared to be a lack of energy among the Middlesbrough XI that is more apparent in the games heat map with the team covering far less of the pitch and without the same fervour that typically makes it difficult for the opposition. The most notable sparsity comes on the right flank, only further highlighting how Middlesbrough were unable to make the most of Marcus Tavernier in the first half and Djed Spence in the second.
The Middlesbrough squad will wish to forget that this game even happened but it is doubtful whether Warnock will let them. They need to learn from their mistakes in this game and develop as a team. It is true that many of the struggles may have been caused by covid related issues and so it may well be the case that Middlesbrough will return to their usual performance next time out.
Most Improved: Jonny Howson
One of the best performers up until his injury, Jonny Howson’s return to fitness and the squad will be seen as one of the few positives that came out of Middlesbrough’s clash against Birmingham City. The 32 year old has been at the club since 2017 and made a total of 147 games and he has aged like a fine wine with his best performances coming in recent seasons. Many questioned his role this season, as the former box-to-box player’s abilities could have been capped by playing as a defensive midfielder. Instead, Howson was impressive in the role, becoming key to the direct, quick transition style of play that Warnock prefers. Defensively his reading of the game and the opposition and his tackling ability helped to screen the back line, merging a destroyer presence to his distribution.
Due to a hamstring injury, Jonny Howson had not been involved in a first team match since 9th December, when he obtained the injury. So there is little recent form to judge the player from and it also proves to be an indication that expectations of the player should be dulled on his return to the first team after over a month on the sideline.
Johnathan Howson came on in the second half against Birmingham, with the side already a goal behind, becoming a midfield pair with George Saville. Despite having a partner, his role was similar to the one he has had all season, breaking up any opposition attacks and instigating the teams attacking moves.
Despite only coming on in the second half, Howson made the 5th most passing attempts, albeit with a middling success rate of 58.6%, it is already an indicator of how influential the player can be, even on his first return to the team in a month. He mixed up his passing lengths too in the second half, with 8 of his attempted passes travelling a long distance, of which 2 were accurate. It is this type of distribution that the team has particularly lacked in his absence, instead relying on direct play and shorter passing moves.
Finally, he put his body on the line to defend his own goal too, blocking one shot, while he also made a single interception.
It would be unwise to throw Howson straight in for full matches, as easing him back into playing time would be the best way to limit the chance of him causing a reoccurring injury. However, in the half that Howson played it was apparent that he offers something different to the midfield that can prove to be very effective at times and a full recover and return to the first team could prove to be vital in Middlesbrough’s push for the play-off places.