Now the international break is upon us, it is time to reflect on the first stint of league matches, with 5 things that Middlesbrough fans can take away from the early run-in and what it means for the team and club as it moves further into the thick of the upcoming season.
Middlesbrough started the Championship season, on the 11 September against Watford, who managed to take all three points from the encounter. However Middlesbrough put on a good display during the match showing that the team was beginning to show signs that it may be able to compete at the right end of the table this season.
Then Middlesbrough took on Bournemouth at home. Boro’s home form has been a disaster in 2020 as they hadn’t yet earned a home win since the turn of the year and unfortunately the pattern continued after this undoubtedly difficult match as a late Marcus Browne goal helped to salvage a point from the match with a 1-1 draw.
On Saturday 26th September, Middlesbrough played QPR, with Chuba Akpom scoring a debut goal that gave Middlesbrough the lead before they were pegged back by a Osayi-Samuel goal in the 28th minute, making it another 1-1 draw. That gave Middlesbrough a decent early foundation of 2 points out of 3 games. A respectable return as two such teams had just been relegated from the Premier League.
Finally, on the 3rd October, Middlesbrough scored 2 goals from Chuba Akpom and Howson, as Middlesbrough ran out 2-1 winners against Barnsley. Akpom’s goal in the game meant that he was the first player to score in his first two matches since Mido. Most importantly the match put three points on the board as well as getting the home form monkey off their back.
The current question for the squad moving forward relates to the use of Saville and McNair by Northern Ireland as Warnock will have to weigh using his most important players against Reading after an intense period with their International team. For now, Boro fans will be watching with interest to see how frequently the pair are used over the next few international games as they try to gauge whether Warnock will rest them or not.
Middlesbrough’s constant formation changes last season were a symptom of a manager struggling to formulate the best way forward within the constraints of his team and, under the same ruling, it appears that Warnock has outlined the exact way he wishes to maximise the talents of his current squad. The team has been constant in its 3-1-4-2/3-5-2 formation and the team is starting to adjust to the nuances of such a formation.
In the long run, however, Warnock has a desire to be able to flip between two formation choices. The 3-1-4-2 that has currently brought some relative success and the 4-3-3 that he has a personal preference for, which could be a real benefit to Middlesbrough going forward as it finds the middle ground between having two options to choose between as the team adjusts to the wide range of tactical set-ups and in-game situations that they may well face this season, as well as preventing the team from flipping between any number of options once again this season.
Warnock has identified the wingback roles as key to the teams mobility and width going forward and so has taken a particular focus on these roles and, when he wasn’t content with the output of Johnson and Spence, he switched them for Bola and Tavernier, as seen in the match against Barnsley. Having at least two options in these roles will also be key for Middlesbrough as the games are due to come at a rate of nots this season and a healthy rotation in a position that demands a lot, could be vital in staving off any future muscle injuries that could prove detrimental to what is a thin squad.
Becoming more of a threat
One of the biggest issues last season was the lack of offensive creativity with the team lacking a player that can unlock a defence for great swaths of last season and the dynamism that often compensates for a team without such a player was also lacking, that ultimately meant that Middlesbrough were the lowest scoring team in the division.
Interestingly, Middlesbrough has still lacked a player that can unlock defences in the early stages of the season, as Roberts’ loan has yet to be completed, and yet the team as a whole has looked a lot more threatening going forward. Paradoxically, this difference starts at centre-back.
While watching a Sheffield Wednesday match last season, I marvelled over two of their players, the first Bannan oozed class on and off the ball that invited praise on the deep lying playmaker and Iorfa. Two players that could have had a serious impact at Middlesbrough at the time. Now, though, it seems that Middlesbrough have found such players within the remits of their current squad. McNair and Howson have shared the role of the deep-lying playmaker with relative success, helping the team to transition quickly and effectively when they have needed to. On the other hand, during the game I watched Iorfa playing an adapted libero role, playing as a typical defender when the team was without the ball and once his team was attacking, he dribbled into midfield making an offensive impact by overloading his side of the pitch. While in Dijksteel and McNair it appears Middlesbrough have two players that can play such a role, and by sharing it, when they are both available, they ask more questions of an opposition who cannot pack one side of the pitch in expectation of such offensive moves.
This is a promising start for Boro going forward and by adding and tweaking the system slightly, they may well have a winning formula. A big question, however, will be how does the team cope if any of the current key players become unavailable.
By the end of last season, Middlesbrough had begun to focus their attacks down the right wing, utilising the talents of Marcus Tavernier and Patrick Roberts in order to get the best of the opposition’s defence and there has been a continuation of this in the early stages of the new season, as shown by the percentage of offensive possession in the right hand side of the pitch during the first four games of the season, against Watford it was 49%, against Bournemouth 41%, against QPR 51% and against Barnsley 44%, all of which are a considerable mark up from the middling 33% that would be an equal spit between each area.
As such it is reasonable to suspect that the team has been directed to focus its play down the right wing, due to the talented recruits that the team have in this area, namely Marcus Tavernier and Djed Spence, with Patrick Roberts also due to return and so far the tactic has proven to be relatively effective considering the opposition that Middlesbrough have had to face in recent times. However there will always be a concern that it may become a little predictable and, in turn, be counteracted by Boro’s upcoming opposition. For now, though, it is proving to be a good way to move forward.
Every Boro fan is aware of the talent that Marcus Tavernier has and is frequently regarded as one of the shining lights in the current Boro set-up. However, in the first few games he seemed to be struggling to recapture his form from the previous season after he was moved back into the middle of the pitch.
That was until the final stages of the game against QPR, Tavernier was moved to a right wingback role and, even in the few minutes that remained, he appeared to have a new lease of life that brought praise from BBC Tees’ Neil Maddison. Inspired by his performance in the wider role, Warnock picked the 21 year old to play at right wingback from the start against Barnsley and he gave his best appearance so far this season. He mirrored his late form last season when he was deployed as a right winger, showing that he currently seems more comfortable and more effective from the wing.
The most interesting part of his performance was the freedom he had to move into more central areas when the team was attacking the final third. This is a very atypical way to utilise a wingback as in the majority of cases it removes the teams width. In this case, however, it worked as he found space and possession of the ball, helping to create centralised chances with 77% Boro’s shots coming from the central area of the pitch an improvement on the 57% against QPR. This may seem like a menial difference, but expected goal statistics prove that shots taken from a more centralised position are more likely to be converted and so this greatly improved Boro’s chances to score.
It will be interesting moving forward, if Tavernier is used more extensively in this role as his attributes and capabilities mean that he offers a tactical alternative to the pacy young Djed Spence and as such could be alternated depending on which one is more likely to have a bigger impact against different opposition.
Middlesbrough has been eerily consistent in the goals they have conceded in the league so far this season as they conceded 1 goal in each of their four games this season and Neil Warnock will be disappointed that his team has yet to keep a clean sheet, particularly as they would have completely shut out Barnsley, had it not been for the penalty they conceded.
However only conceding four goals in the early run in is nothing short of impressive as they faced attacking talents such as Joao Pedro, Glen Murray (who was still able to score goals in the Premier League), David Brooks, Dominic Solanke, Arnaut Danjuma, Illias Chair, Lyndon Dykes, Bright Osayi-Samuel and Cauley Woodrow respectively. Many of the aforementioned players are considered some of the most talented forwards that the league has to offer and so limiting the amount of times that the net rippled to just four is an impressive feat.
Warnock will see this as a foundation to build an all the more sturdy defence upon with his main focus in the transfer window, outside of bringing in Patrick Roberts, is a defensive loan signing. If any incoming player is integrated successfully and Boro manage to play through the season without too many serious injuries then there is a serious possibility that Middlesbrough may return to the defensive solidity of old.