Middlesbrough 1-1 Watford: Best, Worst, Most Improved
Who was the best, who was the Worst, and who was most improved? Find out which players were highlighted for individual discussion following the sides draw against Watford
The Opposition Profile on Watford highlighted the gap in ability between Middlesbrough and Watford that meant Middlesbrough were the undoubted underdogs coming into the game. This gap between the two sides was only extended by Watfords success in recent weeks as they had managed to win all of their last 6 matches. Meanwhile Middlesbrough came into the game after a far from ideal performance against Bournemouth and Boro fans were not expecting much of an improvement when they faced Watford. So the result, a 1-1 draw, was a very positive surprise for the North East side; further still, they could have converted the single point into three if they had managed to score the chances that were created later in the game.
Middlesbrough’s success against Watford was founded on an outstanding defensive performance and without the two centre backs the game would have fallen in Watfords favour; so both Grant Hall and Paddy McNair have been highlighted for individual praise. Meanwhile Hayden Coulson has spent much of this season on the periphery of the first team and he has had to be content with limited minutes so far this season as he has failed to show the same form that gained him such high praise last season. However his performance against Watford was a marked improvement in a relatively unfamiliar position.
Best: Grant Hall
One of last summers signings, Grant Hall has been unfortunate with injuries this season and he has made just 14 appearances so far this season. Yet he has still managed to impress Middlesbrough fans with his domineering performances at the heart of the defence and, while he works best alongside Dael Fry, he has managed to provide a stop-gap during Dael Fry's omission. In all likelihood, Hall will be partnered with Fry at the start of the next season and keeping the pair fit and performing at their best will give the side a solid foundation.
Hall has played 10 games since his return to the side in February and he has managed to find the net on two of these occasions. This return of a goal every 5 games is very impressive for a centre back and shows that he offers an offensive threat from set pieces as well as being solid centre back.
SkySports curiously questioned how Middlesbrough were going to set out before the game opting to present the team in a 3-5-2 graphic with Djed Spence paired alongside Grant Hall and Paddy McNair. This unsurprisingly didn’t come to fruition as Warnock has never favoured the Spence as a centre back instead favouring the currently injured Dijksteel or Dael Fry in that role. Instead he opted for a 4-2-3-1, pairing Grant Hall and Paddy McNair in the heart of the defence. The pre-match opposition profile on Watford highlighted that frustrating João Pedro would be key to Middlesbrough’s success and this job fell to Hall who was assigned to man mark the talented 19 year old. He certainly succeeded in this task too as he frustrated the frontman.
Hall’s tight man marking role allowed him to read attempted passes into João Pedro allowing him to make 3 interceptions, the most of any Boro player. This would have frustrated Pedro who was also denied scraps within the box as Hall made 7 clearances, a a statistic only matched by Watford's Masina. Finally, when the 19 year old forward did manage to get a hold on the ball, Hall was in poll position to prevent him from finding a way past Marcus Bettinelli, closing down the striker, giving him an awkward angle to work with and putting his body in the way to block a shot.
While he was not dominant on the ball when the team was in possession, with Saville, Bettinelli and McNair all having larger percentages of the ball, he did get involved as he attempted 24 passes, the third most in the side, with four attempted long balls, that helped to relieve pressure and release the likes of Kebano and Watmore on the Watford defence. Unfortunately, his success rate is a little concerning as only 54% of his passes found a teammate which is just over 1 in every 2 attempted passes. All the same, Hall was unafraid to get on the ball to help rotate the ball to find angles that could penetrate Watford’s impressive defensive line.
While the fans will be disappointed about the players lack of first team minutes, due to his unfortunate injury, they will be pleased with how he has performed when he has managed to get onto the pitch. In Grant Hall, Middlesbrough has a strong, commanding centre back that may well be exactly what the side needs alongside Dael Fry. The maintaining of a partnership between the pair may well be vital to any success that the side may have in the future.
2nd Best: Paddy McNair
One of, if not the, first name on the team sheet this season, the Northern Ireland International has had one of the best seasons of his caree. He has matured into a brilliant defender who’s reading of the game, positioning and range of passing led to him being dubbed a ‘Rolls-Royce’ defender by Neil Warnock. While his constant presence is typically felt in the heart of the defence, as was the case against Watford, he has also been involved further up the pitch with Warnock opting to use him as one of his central midfielders when both Fry and Hall are available to be picked. He has succeeded in both roles so far this season and there is an ongoing debate over which position suits him best. It is unlikely that we will see which position Neil Warnock favours him in before the end of the season but he has shown time and again that he can be one of the best players at the club in either role.
A lot of the Middlesbrough squad will have been thankful for International break as it presented a period of rest-bite from the relentless covid impacted season; McNair, on the other hand, was not, considered one of Northern Ireland’s key players, he continued to don his boots but in the green shirt of Northern Irisland. His time with the national side was spread across three games, including two World Cup qualifiers. He played as a central midfielder for Northern Ireland and was awarded man of the match for his performance against Bulgaria highlighting his ability to perform on the International stage too.
McNair played as a centre back against Watford, pairing up with Hall as the only defender without a man to mark, this allowed him to cover for Hall, in turn preventing any notable gaps from arising in the defence and sweeping up behind his centre back partner when needed. This role is particularly important as it quickly becomes a reference point for the rest of the defenders so that they are aware of where their opposite number has taken them. McNair is particularly good at this role as his reading of the game is second to none in the championship and freeing a player that talented on the turnover helps to set the side on the front foot without wasting possession.
While McNair was not a massive contributor to the side defensively as he only made 1 tackle during the game, he was involved in possession. In fact, McNair had the largest share of possession in the Boro side as he has saw 4.2% of the ball. This equated into 23 attempted passes, the 4th highest in the side, with a decent success rate of 65%. Therefore McNair found a teammate in two of every three pass attempts. Hiis long balls were even more impressive as 80% of his 5 long balls found their intended target highlighting the variation in McNair’s passing ability and why he can be so influential tin kick starting attacks, even from a defensive position. His attacking influence was supplemented by his free kicks that ultimately brought about the equalising goal as his impressive delivery was met by Yannick Bolasie's run into the 6 yard box. There is no doubting that these free kicks supplemented his crossing statistics but nonetheless, attempting 7 crosses and managing to find a red shirt 42% of the time is an impressive output especially considering the lack of aerial threat in attack.
There is no doubting McNair’s ability and he has been one of the sides best performers this season. Middlesbrough will be eager to keep the Northern Ireland International at the club if they wish to stake a claim for promotion next season and Middlesbrough fans will be looking forward to seeing him live in the stadium.
Most Improved: Hayden Coulson
Sam Morsy was forced off the pitch in the 29th minute due to an unfortunate injury that will rule him out until the end of the season. Hayden Coulson, a player who has had limited opportunities under Neil Warnock, was called upon to replace the Egyptian International and he played the remainder of the game in the No. 10 position. The case of Hayden Coulson has been a curious one as the Gateshead born player was considered one of the sides best performers under Johnathan Woodgate but he has since fell to the fringes of the squad, failing to impress Warnock during the little time that he has had on the pitch. However, his performance against Watford has to be considered as a positive for Warnock as the player put in a decent display indicating that he may have a future in Neil Warnock's side.
The 22 year old’s 14 games this season have often been clustered into groups as Warnock uses the player for a stretch of games before dropping him back into the role of an unused substitute. He has yet to contribute a single direct goal contribution so far this season and his performances have ranged from good to average to poor during his time under Neil Warnock and this glaring inconsistency will be one of Warnock’s biggest concerns with the player.
He was introduced back into the side against Bournemouth, coming on as a substitute for the last 20 minutes and while he managed to get into promising positions, that would typically ask questions of the opposition, he frequently lost the ball and became a crux of frustration for Middlesbrough fans as one of many sites where any attacking moves broke down. Warnock was also unconvinced by his performance on the wing, instead opting to keep Kebano out wide after his introduction against Watford.
The injured Sam Morsy had been playing in defensive midfield so the introduction of Coulson saw him switch with Saville who took on a deeper role with Hayden Coulson playing as a number 10. This is a role that typically has more influence in sides that dominate possession as it is a position that is often utilised to break down a passive defence. This was not the case against Watford though as Middlesbrough had just 35.7% of possession that meant that Coulson was expected to defend from the front more often than he was expected to break down the oppositions defence. This is highlighted in his own possession stats as 1.2% of the ball would be a low figure for most players who play in this role.
It will come as no surprise then that Coulson’s 24 touches was 5th lowest in the side while his 9 passes were 4th lowest; despite this he managed to have a serious impact as the vast majority of these passes were used to instigate an attacking move. While his impressive pass success rate of 88.9%, the highest in the side, meant that the player may well be the perfect fit for a No. 10 in Neil Warnock’s system. He also played a defensive role in the team as while Watmore pressured the man on the ball, it was up to Watmore to obstruct the most dangerous and/or the easiest passing option for the Watford defender; asking questions of the defences distribution and limiting their attacking moves.
Hayden Coulson has been quite the anomaly for Middlesbrough, while Dijksteel, Bola and so many others have managed to improve under the 72 year old boss, Coulson has not. He has found himself on the fringes of the first team and yet it is clear that Warnock believes that there is a good player in the 22 year old as he kept him at the club while other fringed player Lewis Wing was sent on loan. Earlier in the season, Neil Warnock discussed the possibility of playing Coulson as a No. 10 but it was a limited experiment as the side chased a playoff spot; now it appears that the playoffs are an unlikely proposition, and so may be time to see if he can cut it in the hole.