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.
Best: Paddy McNair
The Northern Ireland International had yet another outstanding performance as Middlesbrough came out of the Barnsley match 2-1 winners, playing in the right centre back role that he has recently made his own. In turn his statistics show this performance in particular to be one of his best as he refines his abilities and continues to settle into his new position.
Neil Warnock spoke about the 25 year old calling him a “Rolls Royce” defender and it would be hard for anyone to disagree with this assessment as he has shown himself to be a class above the championship in the early stages of the season. Time almost seems to warp when the versatile 6ft player is on the ball, which is a call back to Downing’s performances at the club after his move from West Ham as it was clear that he was a step or two ahead of his opposition.
His qualities do not begin and end at his ability to find time and space as he was also considered when he was picking how to move the team forward from his position; successfully reading the picture ahead of him before deciding to put a driven pass into midfield, send a long raking ball across to the other flank or to dribble into the midfield third. Due to his astute abilities to read the game, he was often the lynchpin that started Boro’s transition from defence to attack.
Further from displaying these mental attributes, it is also important to highlight his passing. In the first half, McNair had a 90% pass accuracy, which is nothing short of phenomenal, even as his focus during this half was more on moving the ball into the midfield where the likes of Saville, Howson and Morsy instigated attacking moves. Unfortunately, his success rate dropped to 85.3% by the end of the game as he turned the team from defence to attack in a more direct fashion, picking out more offensive players in the opposition half. Even in this instance, he still had the best success rate of any Boro player, making 9 accurate long passes from 12 attempts as he benefited from the accuracy that his considered approach provided. By the end of the match, the Northern Ireland International had made 34 passes, only beaten by Sam Morsy (35), Dael Fry (35) and Bettinelli (36). Meanwhile, his 3 key passes were the most of any player on the pitch, showing that not only was his statistics impressive but they also had a vital impact on the match. These statistics inflated the teams overall pass success rate as he performed at one of the highest pass success rates of any player in the league.
McNair also dribbled into the midfield helping to cause overloads in more offensive areas, making a total of 2 dribbles during the game. Though this number seems far from phenomenal, most attacking players don’t make more than 5 dribbles a game (Tavernier made 3), showing that he was able to input about half of an attacking player from a more defensive position where dribbling situations are harder to come by. Similarly, Dijksteel was able to make 3 dribbles during the match, however more opportunities for such actions arose more frequently for the Dutchman as he played on the side that Boro focused their transitioning play through. Similarly, the quality of the dribble needs to be considered when reflecting on dribbling moves and McNair was able to push the team forward and disrupt the defensive lines with the 2 dribbles that he made.
McNair was also a defensive influence as his 4 tackles were the most of any Boro player and he also put in 2 interceptions. His solid defensive performance is the most important component of a centre back and he proved himself as capable at preventing the opposition from making many chances, shown by the fact that Barnsley only had one shot on target all game, which came from the penalty. Since he has shown himself to be a defensively sturdy choice, it is reasonable to see McNair continue in his role at right centre back where he is currently displaying his “Rolls Royce” capabilities.
Improved: Dael Fry
Dael Fry may well become the epitome of “form is temporary, class is permanent,” after his first full match after returning from a forced Covid break. Many Boro fans will remember his performances in the seasons after he broke into the first team, as well as the praise he received from behind the scenes as he was lauded to become better than who was the current local hero, Ben Gibson.
The 23 year old had a disappointing season last time out though as he appeared to be a shadow of the combative and assured defensive presence that Middlesbrough fans had become used to. It could well be that being part of a defence that leaked considerably more goals than that of the seasons before had an adverse effect on his mentality and confidence or perhaps the ever changing defensive line stopped him from being the defender that Middlesbrough had relied upon. It is also possible that he suffered from losing Ayala, whom every Boro fan knows built a brilliant on the pitch relationship with the local centre back.
This is all speculation and none of it particularly matters as it appears that Dael Fry is beginning to halt the slump of form and has started to return to his previous impressive form.
Neil Warnock shared delight on Dael Fry’s performance against Barnsley as he spoke about how he got the team to applaud him when he came into the dressing room after the match saying: “I got the lads to give Dael Fry a round of applause in the dressing room.” Boro fans would have joined in with celebrations of the former England Under-21 International had they been allowed in the stadium to applaud his efforts at the end of the match. Instead they had to stick to praising the player on social media.
Dael Fry put in 3 tackles during the match preventing the passing side of Barnsley to break through the defensive lines to create goalscoring opportunities. He also made 2 vital interceptions as failing to do so could have allowed Barnsley to get in behind the defence and finally he made a total of 3 clearances, mostly from scrappy moments in the box that frequently turn into serious opportunities for the opposition. It was thanks to the performance of Fry and his defensive partners that most of Barnsley’s possession was in front of the defence, which in turn made the majority of the game comfortable for the team from North-East England.
The role of Fry didn’t end at just being defensively solid however, as he also had to marshal a defence that included two attacking wing-backs and a left centre back and right centre back that made a total of 5 dribbles up the pitch. As the only permanently defensive player, Fry had to instruct and order those around him to shift to cover the spaces that were opened from the offensive movements of the other defenders. This was one of the key reasons why Hall was brought in as, as a former captain, he knows how to lead and direct a team and so the smaller team of a defensive line is one that he can comfortably instruct. However during this match, Dael Fry has shown that he is also capable of running such a role and he has begun to stake a claim for the position ahead of the injured former QPR player.
Meanwhile he also displayed relative success in distribution, making the joint most passes of any of Boro’s outfield players meaning that he was more than just a defensively solid performer against Barnsley. However he only had a pass success rate of 62.9% and while this isn’t a bad ratio he would most likely want to improve a little more in this area. The 6ft 4 centre back also made 5 successful long passes out of 12 attempts meaning that he helped to create quick transitions from defence to attack.
Worst: Marc Bola
Marc Bola looked far from comfortable during games before he was shipped out on loan last season and his performance against Barnsley was a clear improvement from what Middlesbrough fans had last seen from the former Blackpool fullback. It was also his first competitive minutes in the Championship this season and so there is reason to believe that it may take more time for him to settle into the squad.
The 22 year old put on a solid performance but not far from spectacular performance and there were a few issues that presented themselves throughout the game.
The English player was drafted in at left wing back for the match against Barnsley and as such was expected to contribute to Boro’s defensive number, but he only made 1 tackle and 0 interceptions during the match. This could well have been due to him defending the side with fewer opposition attacks though and as such he would have had less to deal with which explains the lack of individual contribution in this area of his game play. The Greenwich born player did manage to contribute 2 clearances which further supports the idea that he had a quiet game defensively as the wingback would tuck in when the attack was on the opposite side and as such be in the right position to make such clearances.
Bola’s distribution, while not heavily involved, was pretty consistent as he made 18 passes with a pass success rate of 66% or 2 successful passes for every 3 attempts, which comes out better than defensive compatriot Dael Fry. However, that is some 6 passes less than Tavernier on the other side of the pitch, which is a reliable comparison as they covered similar roles and the actions of which are going to be compared further later on. He also attempted 6 long passes but only 1 of them was successful, a larger concern for Boro as he should be at his best when converting such passes as they hold a similar technique to that of a cross, an attribute that is widely considered to be very important in modern day fullback and wingbacks.
Bola also offered little going forward in the game as he didn’t attempt a single shot or dribble during the 90 minutes. The latter of which is of concern as Boro were playing in a formation that relies on the dynamism of the wingbacks, which is hindered when the wingback is unable to make any sort of on the ball runs. He may be partially excused for this, however, as it appears that Boro line-up with a left wing back that focuses on turning any possession in the final third into crosses, as was seen with Johnson. Equally, Bola made 6 attempted crosses during the 90 minutes, which would have been a very good return but none of them were met by the head of an attacker. This may well have been due to the incapability of the forwards to meet such crosses but at such a ratio it is likely that some of the blame can be left at Bola’s feet.
Middlesbrough has grown increasingly reliant on the right flank for the teams build up play with quite a lot of success and as such isn’t inherently a negative, with, in this instance, Tavernier producing a lot of attacking threat from this area. However the team may grow increasingly predictable if they continue in this ilk and so they need an alternative option and there are a number of prospects that could come into fruition over the next couple of weeks. However, this was an opportunity for Bola to show that he could offer an alternative out ball, particularly if his crosses and long balls had been more accurate and more effective. In turn allowing him to stake a claim as a deep crossing alternative to the current build up method. However he failed to offer much in this perimeter and seemed to disappear from the match at times which was reflected in only 29% of Boro’s play being played down his flank.