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.
Despite having the most chances and forcing Blackburn’s Kaminski to make more saves than his opposite number Marcus Bettinelli, Middlesbrough fell to defeat against Blackburn Rovers following some questionable defending by the north-east based side. While there are some arguments about whether play should have continued following an entanglement just beyond the halfway line, it was an incident in the first half that drew the most attention, infuriating Middlesbrough fans, players and manager alike.
The team in red and white delivered a corner to the far post, onto Dael Fry’s head but Fry’s head made contact with more than just the ball as Jarrod Branthwaite’s boot forced the player into an early exit. Despite the clear impact of the challenge on Fry’s face the referee gave the 18 year old a free pass. Jarrad Branthwaite and Dean Whitestone will both be criticised for their role in the incident. I want to stress that there is no place for abusing the player or referee on social media and although he should be reprimanded for his actions, this should solely occur in a professional manner from the governing and refereeing bodies.
On a more positive note, there were a few solid performances last time out with the side making a number of opportunities against a weak Rovers defence and they were defensively solid up until they conceded too. If it wasn’t for the lapse of concentration on behalf of the whole of the defence, Marc Bola and Djed Spence would have been named as the best players of the game but their failure at a decisive moment resulted in the team losing the match. Instead, it was Jonny Howson, who was recently praised as the most rounded midfielder that Warnock has ever managed who earned the main plaudits with the now groin strained injured Marcus Tavernier getting second place.
Best: Jonny Howson
The defensive midfielder was signed for the club on 7th July 2017 for £5.09m, his early performances were average at best but once he settled into the side his performances improved considerably with the Middlesbrough faithful altering the song ‘winter wonderland’ into a comedic reference to his improvements. He hasn’t looked back since then either with the player now seen as a Lynchpin by Neil Warnock who was impressed after learning the extent of his abilities this season. So the return of the former Leeds United player was praised by the coaching staff and the fans alike.
Although he has been awarded the best player award for his performance against Blackburn Rovers, it was the second game following his return from injury that truly highlighted his capabilities. He managed to play the full 90 minutes showing his injury had not affected his fitness. In this game he managed to set up one of the goals and create the balance and support in the midfield that was needed to get the better of Nottingham Forest.
Neil Warnock recently commented on giving Howson a consistent role in the team, instead of moving the player across the first XI in order to fill holes as he has been forced to in recent seasons. This consistency has helped to get the best out of the player as a defensive midfielder. In this role he pairs his reading of the game and understanding of how to screen a defensive line with his ability to find people higher up the pitch, although that was limited against Blackburn Rovers.
It is hard not to underplay Howson’s importance to the team when he is in the starting XI. The former Norwich City player had 5.5% of the ball, second to only Paddy McNair for the most possession of any player on the field. He made 34 pass attempts with this possession, which is less than what would normally be expected from a player has had as much of the ball as he did. In fact, he only made the 5th most pass attempts in the team. This could indicate that he was dictating the tempo of the game, which he is capable of, or being selective with his passing. The latter of which can be discarded by a pass success rate that was just beneath 60% and the former would be more accurate had the team won the game. Instead it is an indication of one of the prominent successes in Blackburn’s performance, stopping Middlesbrough playing quick transitions. These quick transitions, moving quickly from defence to attack, have been a prominent feature of Middlesbrough’s games and the team struggled to play that way in this match as the typical rapidity of attacks and high turnovers that occur in this style of play doesn’t fit with Middlesbrough’s more dominant possession stats. Further still, Howson’s own influence was limited by Blackburn, in this instance as he was only able to attempt 5 long balls. However, his control of possession shows that he was one of the more prominent players in working out ways that they could get the best of Blackburn Rovers.
The desire to find a way past Blackburn can be seen in his offensive stats too, as he drifted into wider roles to make crosses on four occasions with one of them finding a man and one of his passes directly resulted in an opportunity.
The 32 year old may have just been his usual consistent self, rather than being phenomenal but that is worth praising when it can play such a role in the team as a whole. In truth, he would not have been named if the lapse in concentration had not occurred but he is, nonetheless, a key player for Middlesbrough.
Worst: Jarrod Branthwaite and Dean Whitestone
The reason why these two have been named as the worst people to come out of the fixture will need no introduction for Middlesbrough fans as hundreds of them voiced their complaints about the player and referees actions in the incident that lead to Dael Fry’s removal in the 18th minute. The incident has been seen as the turning point of the fixture and one that has thrown shadow on the game in the memories of the Middlesbrough faithful.
The game was still young when Middlesbrough’s Paddy McNair, near the corner of the box, sent a cross to the far post aiming for the head of Dael Fry. The 23 year old managed to header the incoming ball but it wasn’t the only thing that made contact with the players head as a Jarrad Branthwaite’s high foot, studs raised, made contact with the left side of the players face. The 6ft 3 player went down holding his face and the game was halted so he could get treatment. It was clear early on that he had sustained an injury and would have to be removed from the match for further treatment. No action was taken on behalf of the referee.
It is clear that the actions of Branthwaite were an attempt to deal with the incoming cross and he was by no means aiming to cause the severe facial injury. However a lot of questions have to be asked about his actions during and after the incident.
In the first instance, as the ball came into the box, Branthwaite raised his leg high enough to come into contact with man that stands at 6ft 3in which is instantly risking a high foot call, particularly as such decisions have been made on less. Secondly, he doesn’t do anything to assess his surroundings, despite the fact that the ball was undoubtedly aimed at an opposition player in the box, one that was relatively close to himself. Finally, little was done to ease any potential impact as raised studs made impact on the defender from Middlesbrough, and raised studs on a thigh or calf would be enough for to warrant a straight red and three match ban for dangerous conduct, let alone on an opposition players face.
After contact was made, Dael Fry dropped to the ground holding his face and despite being wholly aware of what had occurred in the incident, as it was his foot that made contact with Fry’s face, Branthwaite ignored his fallen opposite number. This would be reasonable, up until when the whistle is blown but his behaviour didn’t change after the game was halted. Branthwaite’s attention was almost completely on the referee and not the injured player with Douglas appearing to check on the player long before Branthwaite appears alongside the referee. This was perhaps the worst part of the accident as the mistake of a defender who wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings or his actions is bad enough but not having the humility or the good sportsmanship to check on the player afterwards is an indication of a selfish attitude and one that isn’t remorseful for his own actions.
There are a number of complaints towards Dean Whitestone with everyone discussing the game spoke about the apparent downfall in refereeing standards in the league. There were dramatic falls long after contact was made that were awarded, fouls on a defender in the build up to the goal that was not and he didn’t even attempt to address the apparent time wasting on the behalf of Kaminski. The icing on the cake of his dismal performance was the incident involving Dael Fry’s facial injury.
Some pundits posed questions on whether his view was impeded but the appearance of Fry’s face would have been enough to recognise that a serious incident had occurred that needed immediate addressing, which he did not do. While a camera behind the goal highlights that he could indeed see the incident and indicates that there was more incompetence or perhaps even bias involved in his decision.
Neil Warnock was furious after the incident and took it upon himself to give the defender a dressing down as the two teams made their way to the tunnel following the final whistle. Whatever the Sheffield born manager said, provoked a reaction in Branthwaite who argued back, perhaps another indication of his lack of empathy or good sportsmanship.
Then the infuriated manner of his post-match interview indicated his opinion on the incident even if the words spoken were instead replaced by grunts and noises. He spoke about the state of the injury revealing that the centre back was mere millimetres from being blinded in one eye, before a stark selfie was posted to social media with Fry’s facial stitches clear for everyone to see. He spoke of it as a turning point in the game, pointing to the fact that If the red card was given and the penalty awarded then he believed that the result would have been very different. It is hard to disagree with the 57 year old’s view on the incident.
Meanwhile, Tony Mowbray’s standing in the teesside faithful may well have taken a hit as he explained that he hadn’t seen the incident and that it was a hard to see despite an unanimous perspective on first viewing by both BBC Tees and Sky Sports commentary and Neil Warnock who was stood nearby. He then went on to defend his player pointing to the inexperience of being 18 years old to try and garner some sympathy and understanding for the player. However this falls a little short due to his failure to act empathetically which should be capped by age, let alone not recognising the risk of raising a foot that high when you are close to another players.
Many pundits have pointed more blame to the referee and I believe that is fair. After all it is up to he man in black to uphold the rules of the game and protect players from dangerous actions, which he failed on both accounts in this instance. Interestingly, he is far from inexperienced having ruled over 400 games in his career so far and so he should be capable of dealing with the incident in a better way than he did.
On the other hand, there has been a lot of positive opinions about Branthwaite’s potential to succeed in the game and there have been indications during games for his parent club that he is capable of playing at a higher level. However, he needs to learn from this incident to become both a better person and a better player.
Finally, the comments from Blackburn Rovers manager are disappointing from the view of Middlesbrough fans, who expected the manager to admit that the incident was as bad as the outcome show. He did extend an olive branch though, pointing to the need for more stringent governance over the referees in the league as he has also seen a drop in the standard of refereeing recently. Alternatively, it is understandable that he would say what he did to the press, anyone who remembers Mowbray’s interviews during his time managing the club will remember him always defending his players and remaining as diplomatic as possible over situations. Furthermore Branthwaite has recently joined the club and weighing against the player could cause further disillusionment from the Blackburn faithful as he appears to admit his own very recent signing was at fault for a violent incident. Additionally, this could prove to disillusion the player and demand an early exit from the club, which would spell further disaster for Rovers as the defence is the teams problem area.
Once again I must stress that neither of these men deserve to be abused on social media for the incident.
Most Improved: Marcus Tavernier
The Boro team may lack creativity but Tavernier has gone a long way to bridging the gap particularly when playing 3 defensive minded midfielders in the heart of the team, and so it comes as a great disappointment that the 21 year old struggled off the pitch in the latter stages of the game following a groin strain. It is currently unclear if the player will be able to play a part in the upcoming match against Rotherham United and if he is unable to play then he will be missed.
The Leeds born midfielder’s recent form has been solid with he player getting an assist in the win against Nottingham Forest and performing well despite the teams loss against Brentford and scoring in a win over Wycombe Wanderers. These performances may have been interspaced with the game against Birmingham City, in which the team struggled to get the dynamic midfielder the ball.
Neil Warnock deployed the former Newcastle United academy player as a right winger where he offered a wide presence and some creativity, moving into more central areas to pull the strings and pose a threat to Blackburns back four.
The most important feature of his game was his impact going forward as he made 2 attempts at goal with one of them threatening the goalkeeper. While this gave the player the joint most shots in the team, his shot on target rate of 50% was beaten by forward Britt Assombalonga (2-in-2). However Tavernier was a direct threat making 4 dribbles during the match as he attempted to make the most of his on the ball ability, getting at and past defenders and managing to attempt 2 crosses.
Meanwhile his involvement in general build up play was limited with the player only having 2.5% possession, considerably less than the central midfield trio of Howson, Morsy and Saville and as such he only attempted 15 passes. However his success rate was the best in the whole team with 80% of his passes finding its intended target, which can prove to be vital as moves frequently break down in the final third thanks to interceptions and poor link-up play.
Finally, Warnock expects his wingers to help out defensively and Tavernier did that as well making 1 block and 1 tackle in his 81 minute appearance.
There is no secret that Neil Warnock is looking to the transfer window to bring in some attacking talents and this should be seen as a positive for Marcus Tavernier who has been key to many offensive moves particularly in the games that Marvin Johnson has struggled in.