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
A lot of Boro players deserved to find themselves in this category with their performances against Millwall. Sam Morsy deserves serious plaudits for how he screened the defensive line and supported the attack throughout. He was so good at the defensive side of his game that he had the most tackles of any Boro player, rarely seen in a deep-lying midfielders (as he played the majority, not all of the match) stats. Dael Fry once again put up very impressive defensive numbers and dealt with the physical challenge imposed on him by Millwall’s strikers. Duncan Watmore, who is mentioned later in this article, scored the brace that gave Middlesbrough the platform for the win. However, Paddy McNair deserves serious praise too for his performance and some of his stats indicate his understated influence.
McNair started the season with a bang, being the ball carrying defender in a back three allowed him licence to attack the opposition more frequently than playing in a back four, and as such his impact has sometimes been limited, but this is not due to his abilities or any drop in his own form.
The symbiotic relationship between the more defensive focused Dael Fry and the Northern Ireland International was explained in the last Best, Worst, Most Improved article and this game followed in the same ilk. However, in order to prevent the team from being outcompeted in midfield, during the early stages, the central midfield pair had to be supplemented by a defensive player, though this role was shared between Dijksteel, Bola and McNair, with at least one of them sitting back with Fry, the player that did this the most was Paddy McNair as the player most used to this role. This continued after Middlesbrough changed from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1, but to a lesser extent as the two defensive midfielders sat with Tavernier, in a more offensive role, offering support.
McNair’s moves into the midfield had an impact on his distribution numbers with 52/59 passes finding their man, giving him a pass success rate of 88%, the highest success rate in the starting XI. 18 of these passes were made in the opposition half, showing how he moved up the pitch to augment the midfield. He continued to make an effort from deeper positions too though, as he made 9 successful long passes from 12 attempts (he was top in both) giving him an impressive success rate of 75%. From this insight it is clear that he was heavily involved on the ball, with him having 15% of Middlesbrough’s total possession, considerably higher than the average of 3% per player and the second highest, Saville with 11%. The amount of possession McNair had shows how important he was to the teams performance as a whole.
His performance defensively wasn’t as impressive as his distribution, with him making 2 decent tackles and a single clearance. Millwall’s biggest threat, from crosses, was mostly dealt with by Dael Fry, who won 12 aerial duels, a stark comparison to McNair’s 3. However, McNair was defensively solid, maintained good defensive positioning as a part of the defence that comfortably dealt with Millwall.
Finally, and surprisingly, considering his position, McNair was a threat going forward too, making 3 attempted shots (second highest in the team), with a shot on target rate of 33%. Unfortunately none of these attempts provided any goals, as adding one or two goals to his three assists so far this season would be the icing on the cake. Meanwhile, had the goalkeeper not pulled off an impressive save then, his free kick could have been the cherry on top.
It wasn’t that long ago that McNair wasn’t a frequent first team starter, but a player that seemed to blow hot and cold and fail to jell into the team, but it now feels like an alternate reality. McNair has shown time and time again that he is pivotal to the teams success.
Worst: Chuba Akpom
It seems harsh to give anyone the ‘worst’ title after such a convincing victory. It seems even harsher to name a striker after the team scored a hat full, particularly when his movement and footballing intelligence helped to create a number of good opportunities. However, it could have been a lot more had Akpom been firing on all cylinders.
There were some questions about the signing of Akpom in the summer, but his two goals in two games early on in his Middlesbrough career helped to dispel these complaints. However he has failed to hit the net since, meaning he has gone 13 games without scoring. His current goal drought has extended his minutes per goal to 448, or a goal every 5 games. This isn’t the full story, though, as an article presented in the Gazette stated that his off the ball movements were key in the goals scored against Swansea City. While it is important to praise the selfless work of Akpom, it is growing increasingly difficult to ignore his goalless run, as with Assombalonga.
Chuba Akpom has spent the majority of his game time at the club as an only striker, which has certainly been an influence in his latest barren run, as has the lack of opportunities in a number of Boro’s latest matches. However, neither of these were an issue against Millwall, as he started in a striking duo with Duncan Watmore and had a supporting player behind him after the change from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. He is usually key in Boro’s build up play too but that wasn’t the case here as Tavernier and Watmore relieved him of these duties, as his mere 5 successful passes show.
Akpom’s distribution wasn’t a key component of his role in the match but his 50% pass success rate was far from brilliant. However he did make 1 key pass, meaning that 1/5th of his successful passes were vital to creating an opportunity, as such it is reasonable to view his poor pass success rate as a symptom of his more daring pass attempts.
The biggest issue was in his finishing. Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough focus on defending and so will often have very few goalscoring opportunities, as such it is important that these opportunities are converted, conversely, it can be excused if a player doesn’t score as chances are few and far between. That wasn’t the case against Millwall though as Akpom had numerous opportunities, from these chances he managed to get a shot off 4 times. The most shots of any Boro player, 50% of these hit the target and yet he failed to convert any shots, some of which timid and easy to deal with by the goalkeeper.
He was clearly a nuisance to Millwall though, and his movement was very impressive, in turn helping to create these opportunities. He was fouled 3 times by Millwall which indicates how he was a constant threat to the back three throughout the time he had on the pitch.
Chuba Akpom should have scored against Millwall. A number of good opportunities arose and the lack of conversion on his part is disappointing. However, the biggest disappointment was that he was unable to get the monkey of the goalless run off his back as his intelligent runs and knowing how to get the best of the defence was clear to see against Millwall. Unfortunately its effectiveness was limited as he failed to finish the opportunities he helped to create.
Most Improved: Duncan Watmore
Including Duncan Watmore in most improved and not Best player may frustrate many Boro fans, however giving him this title isn’t meant to belittle his efforts in anyway, but instead finding a way to fit his deserved praise into the ‘best, worst, most improved’ system.
Duncan Watmore is proving that his performance against Preston was an anomaly after his clinical display against Millwall, as he scored two of Boro’s three goals. Interestingly that makes him Boro’s inform player at the moment as he has almost been involved in a goal per game, scoring 4 goals and getting an assist in 6 matches: A very impressive outlay. In turn Neil Warnock, announced that the former Sunderland winger would be offered an extension to his stay at the club.
Duncan Watmore started the game against Millwall as part of a front two alongside Chuba Akpom. It was in this role that he scored both of his goals, before he was moved out-wide, with Tavernier coming inside to occupy the No. 10 role. There is no doubt that his best period in the game occurred during the time he was playing as a striker, however he still performed admirably on the wing too.
Duncan Watmore, surprisingly, didn’t have much of the ball in the game against Millwall, with him having only 1.2% of the games possession, joint 10th lowest in the team with Chuba Akpom. The majority of Middlesbrough’s attacks came through the left flank, the opposite side to where Watmore spent the majority of the match. This lead to him only making 1 failed cross and 7 successful passes in the 70 minutes he played.
Excluding his goals, the most impressive ability of Duncan Watmore was his constant effort and movement, both of which were integral in healing some of the ailments of the stagnant Boro performance last time out. Unfortunately, though, it resulted in him becoming exhausted before the end of the game as his stamina has yet to return following a number of serious injuries.
Despite these positives, Watmore had the worst control in the team. A concern levied at him after the Preston match. Watmore’s 4 bad touches, show that this niggling issue may start to become a sticking point in an otherwise great overall attacking threat.
Finally, his time at striker needs to be noted, as the best period of the game for the former Manchester United academy player. He attempted 2 shots, both of which were on target and resulted in two goals. Eerily similar to his brace against Swansea, it shows that Watmore, is more than an attacking workhorse, but one that can prove to be incredibly clinical. If he continues on this track then he could go someway to limiting the issues that Boro have when it comes to being clinical in front of goal.
Duncan Watmore has proven his worth at the club and at this level, every Boro fan should be hoping that the club can tie him down to a more permanent contract so that a player that can offer something a little bit different, isn’t lost to one of their championship rivals.