Middlesbrough has fallen into a poor run of form in recent weeks and so pressure was building for Boro to get 3 points against a struggling Huddersfield Town. This was only exacerbated by the realisation that the side needed to end up on the right side of the fixture if they wished to hold more than an outside chance of reaching the playoffs. So it came as a relief to everyone on Teesside that the side was able to come out of the game as 2-1 victors.
It was an eventful watch too that kicked into life during the early stages of the game as Mbenza, the one to watch, scored an impressive free kick to give the visitors the lead presenting a difficult challenge for the Teessiders to overcome. While the goalscorer had to leave the action early due to an unfortunate injury and I wish him a speedy recovery.
While most supporters would have noted Boro’s slow start to the game, conceding the free kick appeared to spur them into action as the side begun to dominate the rest of the second half, asking numerous questions of the compressed Huddersfield back line before breaking through with an amazing goal of individual brilliance from Duncan Watmore and a penalty that was converted by Ashley Fletcher who returned to the starting XI following a lengthly injury.
This victory has brought a great amount of relief to Middlesbrough fans as the side now puts pressure on Bournemouth as if they slip up against Rotherham United then the North-East based side could sit just 3 points behind the team based on the South coast. Johnathan Woodgate has done well in stabilising the club and getting point on the board but the question over the future of the role may prove to be detrimental in the long run as players grow uncertain about how the side will be run in the near future presenting a possible situation that Boro could exploit.
While the immediate praise for Middlesbrough’s performance has to go to goalscorers Ashley Fletcher and Duncan Watmore, who have earned the plaudits for this game, there were a number of performances that also deserve credit. For one Marcus Bettinelli may have conceded from a well taken free kick that he was second favourite to come out on top of, he managed to pull off some very impressive saves particularly when the side was under pressure during the second half which turned out to be vital to the teams successes against Huddersfield Town. The change in formation saw Grant Hall return to the starting XI following his extended period on the sidelines and he got up to speed with the game impressively quickly. His history as a captain helped to organise the defence while his aerial presence helped to secure a weakness that the side had had in recent matches.
The list of impressive performances goes on through the full XI and substitute players and while it would inaccurate to say that the side was infallible, no player deserved the worst player award and so the games referee has been named in this category.
Best: Duncan Watmore
Fans will fondly remember Watmore’s early appearances for Boro as he found impressive goalscoring form, which has helped him to find the net 5 times in 15 games so far this season. Due to this early form the player has become a fan favourite as he has the ability to get people out of their seats with the expectation that something brilliant may happen and that was the case against Huddersfield Town.
While at a glance Watmore had appeared to have fallen into a sticky patch of form coming into this match, having not been directly involved in a goal in his last 7 appearances, Neil Warnock’s desire to protect the player means he had actually only played 321 minutes or 3 and half games since his last goal involvement and such stints would be expected from a player in his role.
Neil Warnock changed formation to a back three with wingbacks and so while he deployed two players that could play as wingers, they spent the majority of the game in central areas behind the striker. This move may have been on the cards after the side fell to defeat to Derby County or he could have found inspiration in Chelsea’s victory over Newcastle United, as they played the same system as the Teessiders deployed against Huddersfield Town.
Duncan Watmore occupied one of the attacking roles behind the striker, putting him central where he has had the most success so far this season. While Neeskens Kebano, who has shown his talents early on in his Middlesbrough career, occupied the other role. When in this position, Watmore’s instructions were simple but effective: to attack the half spaces between the fullback and centre back and he would also make runs into and out of the wide areas which was where he started his run before the goal.
Middlesbrough fans dubbed the player ‘Middlesbrough’s Messi’ following his impressive performance against Huddersfield Town. The most impressive part of this display came in attack where he managed to score a brilliant individual goal, that managed to beat half of the Huddersfield defence. The stats back this perspective too as all of his two shots hit the target, showing that the Sunderland player asked questions of Huddersfield’s Ryan Schofield. There is no secret that the 26 year old favours dribbling with the ball over attempting intricate passing moves and that was clear to see against Huddersfield as he dribbled the ball more times than any other Middlesbrough player. Ultimately, the opposition felt the same way about the threat that Watmore posed to their defence committing 3 fouls on the player.
Despite his impressive performance, the former England Under-21 International had just 2.2% of the games possession, sitting as the second lowest amount of possession in Boro’s starting XI which also explains why the player sits second lowest on pass attempts. Yet 85.7% of his 14 pass attempts found their intended target which placed him 4th highest in the side indicating that if the opportunity for him to run at the opposition defence then he would aim to maintain possession by finding a Boro man.
Finally, Middlesbrough found themselves under pressure during the latter stages of the game as Huddersfield Town attempted to find their way back into the game. At this point it is vital for the offensive players to take the pressure off the defence and Duncan Watmore was brilliant in doing this before he was pulled from the game in the 86th minute. He got hold of the ball deep in his own half and ran down the flanks forcing Huddersfield Town into action to regain possession and so relieving the defensive pressure for vital seconds. Meanwhile the former Altrincham player also made 2 successful challenges, the joint second most in the side, helping to break up attacking moves while he managed one interception during the game too.
The 26 year old has proven to be an impressive signing for Middlesbrough, even if he has been used sparingly to protect him from injury, it will be interesting to see if he will be eased into more consistent first team minutes in the future and what that may mean for his form. Until then the player continues to perform well as an exciting and impressive option in the attacking areas of the pitch.
A referees job has to be considered as one of the hardest jobs in football as fans, pundits, coaches and players all scrutinise their decisions ready to condemn the poor ones and rarely praising them for the right ones. They are often held to an impossible standard where being completely infallible is a referee doing an ok job. At the end of the day referees are human and they will make mistakes as do anyone else and this needs to be remembered.
However, there does appear to be a concerning drop in the standard of refereeing at Championship level and you only have to listen to the post match reactions from Neil Warnock to know that Middlesbrough have felt hard done by so far this season. The Sheffield-born manager has also revealed that the FA has often sided with the managers perspective having written to the 72 year old in apology about the decisions that have been made in some instances. While he was also invited onto a call with FA officials about the very subject. Yet one of the key talking points coming out of the Huddersfield game was the refereeing performance.
The main complaint from Neil Warnock surrounded the red card incident as McNair made a tackle on the edge of the box but the incident split the fan base with one side viewing the tackle as clean and precise while the other agreeing that the red card was merited. In this case, it is understandable how the officials came to this decision as it can be viewed as the player raising his studs when he went in for the tackle. Yet, it was the sideline official who gave the advice for the decision who Warnock claimed had an impaired view of the incident and so was in no position to recommend a red card to the centre back. Ultimately beyond these complaints on how the officials came to this decision is whether the card given was the right one and when seeing it live for the first time, I personally viewed it as a strong tackle that was within the laws of the game, having met the ball before coming into contact with the man. However the question is whether the tackle was endangering the opponent through raising his studs. This rule disregards the rule about getting the ball before the man as player protection is considered to be of the highest importance. Yet the incident doesn’t appear to be a red card even in this case. In the replay, it is clear that McNair’s studs are pointed down at an angle to trap the ball and maximise the chance of him being successful in the tackle, a technique frequently used by the best defenders in the world. However Juninho Bacuna made contact with the ball just before McNair preventing him from getting the purchase on the ball that he had intended and causing a slip in the angle of his foot so his studs met the ankle of the attacker. In this instance there is no intention to foul or injure the player and it is instead a tackle that was intended to be fair but strong, yet the actions of both himself and the attacker unwittingly created a different situation and as such it should not be a red card.
This incident aside there were a number of inconsistencies in how the game was refereed and the epitome of this was how he distributed different punishments for Sam Morsy, who got a yellow card, and a Huddersfield player who committed a near identical foul.
There is no doubt that refereeing is one of the hardest jobs in football and so it is important to excuse the occasional mistake from referees as they are only human. However if a referee makes multiple mistakes in a game it is important to make note of them so that managers, players and officials can learn from them to keep improving the game.
Most Improved: Ashley Fletcher
On 28th July 2017, Middlesbrough shelled out £6.5m for Ashley Fletcher and the player has made 103 appearances for the North-East based side in the 4 seasons since the club signed him finding the net 27 times and assisting in 11 other goals. Yet it appears the former West Ham United player may be reaching the end of his time at the club as his contract expires in the summer and the club has yet to have agreed a contract extension with the player. Most Middlesbrough fans would see it as a massive loss if he was to leave the club on a free in the summer.
Ashley Fletcher has been unfortunate so far this season as a hamstring injury has kept him out of the side between September and late-January and so he is now going through the process of regaining match fitness with the player making a number of substitute appearances of late. Yet the player found little if any of the ball in these appearances so how he would fair against Huddersfield was an unknown.
The 3-4-3 system that Neil Warnock deployed against Huddersfield had the 6ft 1 striker leading the line with Neeskens Kebano and Duncan Watmore behind in attacking midfielder roles. The role held by Ashley Fletcher was a relatively stationary one as Watmore and Kebano added dynamism and movement to the attacking line with Fletcher posing as a figure head to occupy the two centre backs and to make the most of opportunities that came from Watmore and Kebano, and the crosses from the wingbacks.
Many fans would have been cautious to expect too much from the 25 year old as it was his first return to the starting XI since his injury and yet he hit the ground running in assisting Duncan Watmore’s goal, albeit an assist that bare a resemblance to Alba’s famous assist to a Messi goal that started at a run from the halfway line, and managing to squirm a penalty past Huddersfield’s 21 year old goalkeeper Ryan Schofield. Both of these contributions were vital to the teams success against Huddersfield Town giving every Boro fan a gentle reminder as to what the player can do.
He may have only attempted 8 passes but it is equal to the amount of possession he had in the game as the player had just 25 touches, the second lowest of the 22 players who started the game. Though what may be seen as more concerning was the players low pass success rate as just 37.5% of his passes found their intended target. However this shouldn’t take anything away from what was a really good return to the first XI.
There have been a number of questions surrounding Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga’s futures at the club as their contracts are due to expire in the summer but in the meantime Ashley Fletcher could prove to be vital in Middlesbrough’s chase for the playoffs.