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.
Middlesbrough, overall, performed admirably against a strong and threatening Swansea side. The unity and cohesion, alongside the hardworking efforts of Neil Warnock’s men would have garnered the support of the Boro fans had they been allowed into the stadium to watch the spectacle. Still, game after game, those fans sat at home must be growing increasingly excited about watching their team, now only 2 points away from the play-off positions, attempt to take a run at the possibility of promotion. The nature of this performance made picking a ‘worst’ player particularly difficult and as such their nomination here doesn’t mean they were massively poor or a liability to the team.
Best: Duncan Watmore
Duncan Watmore has had a steady, but not amazing start to his Middlesbrough career so far, with his only start before this match coming in an average display against Derby County. However, he truly showed his capabilities in the match against Swansea that saw him score the brace that resulted in a Middlesbrough win against the South Wales side.
Even with his average performance in his last match, his current form is looking pretty impressive as he has been able to bag 2 goals and an assist in just 3 games, showing him to be statistically involved in a goal per game, which is increasingly impressive when one of these appearances came as a late substitute. Further still, Middlesbrough’s weakness is in attacking areas and so being able to produce these stats are all the more impressive when considering the nature of the team he is playing within.
Duncan Watmore can play in any position across an attacking midfielder trio, be that as a central attacking midfielder, left winger or a right winger and his comfort in these roles were important to the overall performance of the former Sunderland performer as he played a free secondary striker role, that saw him find space across the attacking third of the pitch and often trying to make runs past the teams striker, Chuba Akpom, showing why the 26 year old had an average position that was higher than him. This provided a dynamism in central areas that was key in the opening of the defence, particularly as the team played with wingbacks on this occasion.
As previously mentioned, Watmore scored a brace in his match against Swansea, which, alone is a true indicator of his attacking threat during the game, however, his clinical nature during the match is even more impressive. Duncan Watmore had 2 shots all game. Both of these shots, as you would expect, were on target as both resulted in a goal, making him as clinical as possible.
He was also a manifestation of the phrase “not having possession for possessions sake”, as he may have only made 8 passes throughout the match but his impressive 87.5% success ratio shows that there were few failed attempts. Meanwhile 2 of those 8 passes were considered key passes, meaning that 25% of his passes were important to the teams attacking move. A statistical profile such as this shows that Watmore was one of the most decisive and creative players in either team during the match.
The previous comments on Watmore, focused on him being not quite match fit, but it appears through his performance against Swansea, that this is an issue he has begun to push aside, and if he can continue to perform like he did against Swansea then he may well be a player that provides something different to any of the other players in the squad. Ultimately, Warnock was right to applaud him for his performance.
Worst: Chuba Akpom
Chuba Akpom hasn’t been in his best form recently, after dramatically announcing himself on the Championship stage with 2 goals in his first 2 games, the goals have begun to dry up. This is natural in a strikers career as goalscoring sprees come and go through out weeks, months and careers. It is important to note that it is the case. Further still, Akpom has been performing consistently decently and the match against Swansea was no different in this respect. Unfortunately, he was the lesser performance of a team that overall had a very good performance against last seasons playoff contenders.
There were some questions about the signing of Akpom as some supporters indicated that his goal per game ratio was worse than the players that were at Boro’s disposal at the time. This didn’t tell the full story, though as many of Akpom’s appearances, last season came from the bench, equating to fewer minute and a better goals per 90 ratio than Britt Assombalonga. It is still early in the season, at this point, but the stats so far show that Assombalonga is the more clinical as he scores a goal in fewer goals than the Akpom alternative, with Akpom hitting the net once every 369 minutes in the league and Britt Assombalonga does so every 286 minutes. This will most likely fluctuate throughout the season but it is something to note when fans are considering which striker should be starting games.
Akpom attempts to play closer to the midfield line than Assombalonga, allowing him to be more involved in build up play and, in the match against Swansea, help to allow Watmore to make runs past the striker. This is truly highlighted on his heat map that shows him spending more time around the lower half of the oppositions side of the pitch than inside the opposition box. He is relatively mobile, however and found himself in the mid-spaces on both sides of the opposition at certain points during the game. Unfortunately, this lent into him having few chances in the match as he only made one attempt on target all game.
Aside from his limited inclusion in the opposition box, Akpom wasn’t a very successful passer of the ball, only having a success rate of 46%, somewhat less than 50/50, providing a stark comparison to Watmore, he did provide one key pass though which shows that he made a contribution to a key moment in the game.
Akpom’s role in this match, one that was co-dependant on Watmore, meant that the player seemed starkly grey in comparison to Watmore’s performance. However his performance wasn’t as bad as it first appears, his ability to find room and his neat technical touches have been displayed in a number of games and continue to be seen in this match too. Unfortunately, as it is with strikers, average performances become more glaringly clear when there’s an omission of goals and as such they end up being scrutinised further than other positions. Akpom is a decent player but the interchanging of players that is needed with the current busy schedule is interrupting any consistency that we may have seen in the player. Hopefully, when the fixture schedule settles, or Ashley Fletcher returns, reducing concerns about squad depth, then we may see an extended period of Akpom as the starting striker, at which point he can be properly judged.
Most Improved: Paddy McNair
McNair has recently gone through an expected drop in performance, with one supporter voicing concerns about whether his ‘head had been turned’, most probably from a Premier League club and while it wouldn’t be a surprise if McNair was beginning to draw lower Premier League club interest, the explanation for this momentary drop is something more simple than that.
The Northern Ireland player has been a revelation under Warnock, turning him from a talented first team player to a key component in the team, one that Warnock has begrudgingly mentioned that his role in the team was vital, and removing him from the squad for any game, meaning that he has been a constant in the Middlesbrough team, playing weekend, mid-week almost every single league week. Further still, he is a key player for Northern Ireland meaning that while other key Boro players have had well deserved breaks during the international breaks, McNair has been playing for his country. Even Saville, who’s also a consistent in the Northern Ireland squad has been fortunate enough to have a few breaks from the first team.
Ultimately, playing this many games constantly without much of a break will lead to physical and mental fatigue. The results of which we have been seeing in some of Boro’s more recent matches, at least until the game against Swansea.
The 25 year old plays as a central midfielder for his country and has played there for the majority of his Boro career. However, he has also played at wingback and centre back during different periods at the club. This season he has played at centre back. The skills and abilities from midfield, haven’t been forfeited, however, as they have become a vital part of his game and have put him above the majority of the Championships other defenders. His role in the team is often tweaked depending on how many centre backs are playing and who is holding the wide defensive role in the team. In recent matches, where Middlesbrough played a 4-3-3, and Marc Bola played as a left back, McNair’s role was as a ball playing defender, given the freedom to step into the midfield area, thanks to the defensive fullback role held by Bola he was encouraged to instigate passing moves. Unfortunately, this formation restricted the number of long ball opportunities available to him, as one of his best talent, but his short and medium distance passing was always solid and impressive. The formation against Swansea baffled a number of football experts, with the defensive fullback role, of Bola, that saw him tuck in when the team was in possession, was tweaked, turning Bola into the left sided centre back. This gave McNair increasing more freedom that paired well with his improved performance.
Swansea has been an impressive attacking force so far this season and so McNair’s defensive performance was the most important, had he struggled then, in all likelihood, Middlesbrough wouldn’t have come out of the match with all three points. Thankfully, as indicated by the result, McNair had a successful defensive performance, making a massive 7 clearances and putting in 2 tackles and interceptions. He wasn’t alone in exceptional defensive performances, though as Fry made 8 clearances and put in 2 tackles, interceptions and blocks, while Bola produced 4 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 clearances, showing the solidity of the whole defence during this game, and how there was little to split Boro’s defenders in their defensive play.
McNair, though, made 29 passes, the third most of the team and attempted 12 long balls, albeit with only a success rate of 20%, but the attempts were higher than any outfield player and he also attempted the most crosses with 5, showing that he was constantly attempting to get Middlesbrough on the front foot and cause a threat to the opposition.
There is no doubt of McNair’s talent, but it was nice to see him back to his best.