The dust has settled on Middlesbrough's draw against Cardiff City presenting the perfect opportunity to name the best player from the game, a player that performed beyond expectation and one that could have done better.
A lot of the pre-match build up focused on a mentor vs apprentice narrative as Mick McCarthy once cleaned the boots of the current Middlesbrough manager and since those early days in McCarthy’s career, the pair have developed into key figures in English football with them both having respectable managerial careers too. This game didn’t finish with either the apprentice or the master coming on top of their opponent with the friends taking a share of the points in a 1-1 draw.
This was an impressive result for the Tessiders as they came into the game on the back of a defeat while Cardiff City had recently torn up the Championship and steamrollered their way into 6th place. So it was quite a surprise when Middlesbrough looked the most likely to score in the early stages of the game; yet a defensive lapse in concentration meant that the Welsh side went into the break in the lead. A lead that they held for the majority of the game as Middlesbrough huffed and puffed as they attempted to blow the Buebirds defence down. Eventually they succeeded with McNair, who was moved into the midfield against Cardiff, found the back of the net. From that point onwards it appeared as though the North-East side may well nab the three points but it wasn’t to be. All-in-all Middlesbrough would have been happy with the point.
Neil Warnock rung the changes coming into the match and so Marcus Tavernier returned to the side following his time stuck on the sidelines and deserves praise for his efforts when little was expected from him. The post-match reaction on BBC Tees rang with bewilderment about the sides only goal of the game leading from a mistake by Bettinelli and Neil Maddison described it as a ‘nothing goal’ but this summarisation doesn’t seem fair as there was a some deliberate actions in the build up and it would be unlikely that the goal would have come into fruition had any other player been in Kebano’s role at this point in the game.
On the other hand, Middlesbrough’s strikers have been the target of Neil Warnock complaints over recent times with the manager first speaking admirably about other strikers before revealing that the club won’t be signing any more forwards in the same manner as they did with Chuba Akpom. When asked about Britt Assombalonga he said that he was fine, in a comment that was far from a raining endorsement for his forward man and he looked bereft of confidence against Cardiff with the DR Congo International extending a run that he will want to forget.
Best: Neeskens Kebano
The Fulham loanee has come in for a lot of praise at Riverside Observer as he appears to offer an alternative option in wide and central attacking areas and usually looks more threatening with him involved. Neeskens Kebano may have started the game on the bench but our review of the sides winter hires showed that the player can be particularly effective as an impact substitute.
Since his arrival on January transfer window deadline day, the DR Congo International had made 5 appearances before facing Cardiff, and has managed to find the net on one of these occasions while a cross from the player on his debut lead to an own goal and so for all intents and purposes this will be included as a direct goal involvement too. He has a goal involvement every 93 minutes of game time which was an impressive rate for the attacker.
The former PSG player entered the fray in the 71st minute for Mendez-Laing, a player that made his first start of the season when facing his former club, and so the player originally took over his place in the wide right role adding width to the attack and primarily focusing on getting the ball into the box. Warnock switched the rest of the front line in the 81st minute and Kebano took a central role behind which allowed him to have the influence he had on the final moments of the match.
Substitutes typically have less possession than the starting XI as they usually have less time to get on the ball yet the ball appeared to be drawn to Kebano as he had more possession than Britt Assombalonga and he was within touching distance of the next lowest starting player, Watmore who had 4x more game time than the former KRC Genk player. This shows that the squad looks to the attacking midfielder to create opportunities and that was something he did putting the joint most balls into the box and providing one of the games few key passes all within a 20 minute span. This output was key to putting Cardiff’s defence under pressure and there is a reason why the side looked more dangerous after he was introduced to the match.
Moreover, he attempted 11 passes during his substitute appearance with an impressive 90% accuracy, the joint highest in the side, allowing the side to maintain possession in the attacking third without moves breaking down which allowed the North East side to pile the pressure on the Bluebirds defence.
Finally, his involvement in the goal must not be overlooked, as it is the epitome of what the player offers this side. He took the ball between two blue shirts and made a horizontal run with the ball before playing the ball ahead of Spence allowing him to run onto the ball and continue the attacking momentum. Joe Bennett pressured Spence at the corner of the box opening a gap between the former Boro man and the rest of the back line, that was exploited by a Kebano run that arched away from the goal and towards the touchline. A run that was found by a Djed Spence pass. Having found his way past Joe Bennett giving him space to be selective with where he placed his cross, he attempted to find a Boro shirt with a low cross across the face of the goal, this asked questions of a Cardiff defence that was back tracking and a timid deflection into the middle of the box lead to the scrambling goal. In this run of play Kebano finds a way past two blue shirts, provides a pass that maintains rather than squandering the attacking momentum, makes a clever run beyond the defence before asking serious questions with his choice of cross.
The January signings have been something of a mixed bag so far with Mendez-Laing and Bolasie struggling against injury and fitness but Kebano has proven to be the spark that can create opportunities/
Worst: Britt Assombalonga
There has been a growing frustration within the Middlesbrough camp over their current forward options as Warnock chose to discuss oppositions forwards over other talented players at the disposal of the likes of Brentford indicating his dissatisfaction with where his forward line is at and Warnock has critiqued the recruitment’s covid restricted methods of finding a forward. There is no saying whether this has had an impact on Assombalonga, who has looked bereft of confidence, during a season to forget it is symptomatic of the situation that the club is at. Two of Middlesbrough’s highest paid players, and key forwards, are set to leave the club on a free in the summer while Akpom’s future is shadowed in doubt placing the club at the cusp of major change in the attacking third.
The 28 year old has made 28 appearances for Middlesbrough so far this season and he has found the net just 5 times showing that the player still has some way to go before he reaches the 15 goals a season benchmark that he once met with impressive regularity. The player has been directly involved in a goal every 353 minutes or once every four games and while his appearances have dropped in recent weeks with the short return of Ashley Fletcher, the fact that the forward hasn’t scored since 20th January will be of concern to the coaching staff. Does Assombalonga have the motivation to succeed at the club between now and then considering he may be moving onwards in the summer?
His return to the starting XI and there was some anticipation to see how the player would perform having spent the last couple of games on the fringes of the starting XI with Ashley Fletcher taking the starting role. It wasn’t as successful as hoped as the player was replaced in the 81st minute with Warnock turning to his bench for an alternative.
Despite the players timid performance, the 5ft 7 striker managed the most attempts at goal with three shots with one of these hitting the target. However he was the most dispossessed player in the side and he struggled to make the ball stick as poor touches led to the turn over of possession on four separate occasions causing the break down of build up play and forcing his teammates to look elsewhere when picking a pass.
One of the biggest issues with Middlesbrough’s attack this season has been the lack of involvement from strikers, particularly in build-up play, an issue which has been contrasted by the strikers praised by Warnock as they are considerably more involved in build up play. This continued into the game against Cardiff as Assombalonga attempted just 9 passes having had only 1.3% of the games possession and more alarmingly, his pass accuracy sat at just 55%.
There are two different schools of thought when it comes to attackers roles in defensive play with some indicating that they are the first defenders while others free them of defensive responsibilities so they can focus on having an impact going forward. But both sides can agree that it is important that the forward plays against the oppositions weaknesses and not into their strengths, something that Assombalonga undeniably failed at as he committed 3 fouls during his 81 minute appearance providing the opposition with opportunities that they can exploit.
Believe it or not, I am sympathetic to Assombalonga as a player and see the player as an under-utilised talent that has great potential to succeed away from the club but his display against Cardiff was not good enough and it emphasised how the player is ultimately unfit to how the side is currently trying to play and so him moving away from the club may well be the best decision at this point although I will wry the loss of a player that could have fired Middlesbrough into the Premier League under different circumstances.
Most Improved: Marcus Tavernier
Marcus Tavernier was one of a number of injuries that occurred within a couple of weeks and it didn’t take long to notice that the player was sorely missed as the side struggled to break its poor run of form. Neil Warnock’s comments about Tavernier surrounding the Cardiff game only emphasised how sorely the player was missed during his time out of the side. However it would have been remiss to expect much from the 21 year old having just returned from a considerable time on the side lines and so the player performed above expectations.
Middlesbrough’s formation shifted and warped throughout the game, particularly down the right hand side where Dijksteel and Mendez-Laing shared a number of attacking and defensive roles throughout the game. Yet Tavernier’s role was a constant but it didn’t hinder his usual fluidity. When playing with a midfield three, Neil Warnock likes his players to set up asymmetrically with one advancing further forward which was Marcus Tavernier in this match. The brother of Rangers fullback James Tavernier suits this role and it is one of a few options that get the best out of him.
The Newcastle born midfielder was an integral part to all Middlesbrough’s build up play with the second highest share of possession of any player on the pitch and this came with a high number of attempted passes as he tried to find a Middlesbrough man 45 times. He was also pretty successful with his passing as he had an 82% pass accuracy, the third highest in the side, finding a Boro man with 37 of these attempts. While over short distances his pass accuracy improves to a 85% chance of success showing that he helped the side maintain possession and pressure on the opposition. While he may have had the joint highest unsuccessful first touch with Assombalonga, it is important to consider the condensed area that he was functioning in and how frequently he was involved in play unlike the sides forward.
Middlesbrough lacked a drive from midfield in the absence of Marcus Tavernier and his return as brought an agility and forward drive to an otherwise defensively focused midfield line.