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Middlesbrough 3-0 Norwich: Best, Worst, Most Improved

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

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.

Overall, Middlesbrough performed well against a weak and drastically out of form Derby. The team also managed to score three goals which was a refreshing change to the usually limited scoreline.


Best: Jonny Howson

It was announced earlier this week that Jonny Howson had signed a new contract at the club as the reliable midfielder was tied down until the end of the 2021/22 season. This news caused great jubilation among the fans as he has been one of the clubs best performers this season in the deep lying midfielder role. Howson also has an impact away from the pitch too as one of the experienced leaders of the squad; his levelheaded and hardworking personality is a true indication of what is needed in young players in order to succeed at this level of the game.

Howson has had a number of roles during his time at the club from central midfielder to centre back to left wing back. His current position as a deep lying midfielder has brought out the best in the former Norwich man as his knowledge and reading of the game comes to the fore helping to protect the second best defence in recent Championship history (up until this point in the season), and orchestrate the start of many of the teams attacking moves. Although this role has been near constant for the 142 capped Boro player this season, it was adapted a little for the match against Derby County as Middlesbrough set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Saville pairing with him at the base of the midfield. The pair played a similar role in the team but Saville was instructed to join the press while Howson covered the area left behind and as such Saville’s statistics show more involvement in the game than those attached to Howson.

An example of this disparity comes in Saville being fouled 4 times, a glaring comparison to Howson’s 0, indicating that Saville found himself in more areas where Derby needed to commit a foul. However these are more indications of the roles played by the pair rather than a reflection of their performance. Rather the success of Howson’s performance can be seen more in his passing statistics, with him making the second most success full passes with 30. Unfortunately these were only 53% of the passes he attempted, once again this doesn’t tell the complete story as his passes were mostly progressive and focused down the right flank of the pitch, which can lead to more interceptions. Furthermore, he attempted a total of 10 long balls and while Derby dominated aerially, it forced a question out of Derby’s defensive players who looked uncomfortable on the ball throughout, particularly when they were put under pressure by the Boro team.

He also contributed to the clean sheet that Middlesbrough earned in the match, as he made 6 tackles, the joint most interventions with George Saville as well as contributing, 1 pass interception and 2 clearances. Furthermore, these stats do not include how many times Howson collected the oppositions clearances. In this category Howson was clearly the best in either team as he consistently positioned himself to calmly collect the ball in and around the halfway line allowing Boro to maintain pressure on a creaking Derby defence.

Jonny Howson’s displayed his ability once more against Derby, clearly indicating why he has deserved the contract extension that he has recently been awarded. Neil Warnock spoke during the latter stages of last season about making Howson the lynchpin of his team and so far this season he has fulfilled this role and long may it continue.


Worst: Duncan Watmore

Also in recent Boro news Duncan Watmore made his debut against Derby after a long period of uncertainty about his future at the club. He has been on a trial with the club for a few weeks and as this period developed so did media interest in the potential of him being a Middlesbrough signing. Time and again journalists asked about whether the former Sunderland man was going to be signing a contract at the club and Warnock spoke about his aim to do so, his message to the player to sit tight and wait and the tight financial restraints that the club was working under in their attempt to sign the wide man. Then journalists had their questions answered as the new broke that Watmore had signed a short-term contract with the club, keeping him until the new year. The reason for this could well be two fold. The first being that it limits the financial output on the deal, with the hope that fans may soon be reintroduced to the stands. It could also be an extension to his trial period at the club as without a contract, there was no way to get him competitive game time to discover whether he is a good fit to the team or not. This short contract gives the club time to assess the player without having to commit a lengthy contract with the player in the meantime. The nature of Watmore’s personal position before signing the deal, means that the player has had few competitive minutes over recent months and as such was drastically in need of some minutes on the pitch, as such expectations were low for his debut and although there were some elements of serious promise it was clear he that he needs time to readjust to the competitive game.

Watmore can play anywhere across an attacking trio, left wing, right wing and striker. Warnock’s aim in this match was to have a more centralised attacking trio and as such both wingers played on sides that opposed their strongest feet. In this system Watmore set out in a left wing role. While his heat map shows an overall focus on the mid-left of the opposition half, it also shows that his sole aim wasn’t to stretch the opposition as it also shows that he moved into the central midfield and striker areas, indicating his role was more an inverted winger, matching Tavernier on the other side.

The crux of the issue here comes in his influence of the game as he appeared a step behind despite providing an assist and giving Assombalonga a good option on one of his missed strikes. Notably, he only provided 12 passes during the game with a lowly success rate of 42%, which is a stark contrast to the 83% pass accuracy of Tavernier or the 80% of Patrick Roberts, both of which often found themselves in similar zones of the pitch during the game. Further still, Tavernier produced 23 passes on the opposite flank a marked improvement on Watmore’s numbers. Alternatively, it would be possible to criticise the fact he didn’t make a single cross during the game, however it wasn’t an imperative of the role he was asked to play and so he can be excused here. A positive of his statistical game, though, was his 1 tackle and interception as although these aren’t incredible numbers, they are relatively high for a player in his position and it indicates his willingness to do the defensive side of the game too.

Duncan Watmore may not have been the best player on the pitch against Derby, but he can be excused for his failings due to his extended period out of the game. Further still, there were glimmers of a good winger in his performance and Boro fans should be excited about the possibilities that that may offer in the near future.


Most Improved: Britt Assombalonga

Britt Assombalonga is a player that gets a lot of criticism from Middlesbrough fans about certain elements of his game and many of these raised issues are justified when talking about the DC Congo player and this season has continued in the same ilk with many questioning his capabilities. However, there have also been a few instances where Assombalonga has put on a good show and the best of those this far probably comes in his performance against Derby.

Neil Warnock chose to set up his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Derby and there is a real possibility that this change of formation was one of the key factors to the players improved performance. Playing as the forward in this formation with the dynamism of Tavernier, Roberts and Watmore around him as support, he never looked isolated and there was always early passing options when he gained the ball outside of the opposition box, which lead to his improvements on passing.

There was one move that was particularly synonymous with this change in passing build up, as Assombalonga received the ball midway through the opposition half and played a ball down the right flank, mere seconds after receiving it, starting an attacking move. This is thanks to having players that have enough pace to make runs past the primary striker in situations such as these. In previous instances Assombalonga would not have dropped deep into the midfield area to collect the ball, instead he would have lead the line, causing situations where he would be attempting, and frequently failing, to protect the ball from opposition defenders. This is an issue that fits with the possible misuse of Assombalonga in the teams tactical set-up. Either way this change in his role is represented on his heat map as it shows him moving about the pitch over holding a more stationary role. It was also visible in his pass success rate too, with 69% of his passes reaching their intended target, a considerable mark up from his usual stats in this area.

Ultimately, though a striker is judged on what he can produce in attack as their main task is to score the goals needed for their team to win. He also showed a considerable improvement here too as he managed to score the first goal of the match. BBC Tees pundits mentioned how the striker could have earned himself a hat trick before the start of the second half. Simply put, indeed he could have, with four attempts and two on target, Assombalonga was top of Boro’s stats table for both, implying that he had a marked improvement during the match.

Britt Assombalonga showed a marked improvement in this match and after a mediocre start to the season, he may well see this as the point to kick off from in an attempt to find serious form. If he could turn a corner here and score the 20-25 goals that many of his previous managers thought him capable of then it would go a great deal of the way towards a Boro promotion push. The idea of an in form Britt Assombalonga and one of the best defences to ever grace the Championship, would be a frightening proposition for anyone in the league

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