Who was the best, who was the Worst, and who was most improved? Find out which players were highlighted for individual discussion following the sides defeat to Millwall
Middlesbrough left the Den downtrodden and disappointed as they failed to return from London with any points. Neil Warnock complained about his front line in the first half by way of explaining his numerous changes going into the second half. These changes failed to make the difference though as all three points slipped past Middlesbrough as they struggled to break down the oppositions defence to create many notable opportunities. Simply put, this has to be considered a match to forget for Middlesbrough.
An early goal from Millwall, as some good play by Wallace led to an own goal, of which little of the blame can be placed at the feet of the diminutive centre back, Grant Hall; ended up being the deciding goal for the Lions. When regarding the result and the key moments may lead to some pointing the finger of blame at Hall as it was his touch that gave the London-based side the gap they needed to win the match. This would be unfair to his situation though. The halftime substitutes and Warnock’s post-match comments are more indicative of the issue that eventually sunk the Boro. Chuba Akpom, who has been coming in for considerable complaints over recent weeks, struggled to have an effect on the game and the ball simply didn’t stick and for that he has been named the sides worst performer. Alternatively, defender Dael Fry had another impressive performance and Bettinelli raised up to the challenge set down in the previous article with a very impressive performance, earning him a second positive ranking in a row as he is named in the most improved category.
Best: Dael Fry
The pre-match build-up was dominated by the comments of the Boro manager as he affirmed that both Marcus Tavernier and Dael Fry would remain at the club for the following season. This news was met by a lot of positive reaction from Middlesbrough fans that had been nervous about their potential departure at the end of the season. It would come as no surprise if either had garnered the interest of a Premier League club following their performances so far this season and, while Tavernier struggled before being forced off with an injury, Fry put in another consistently impressive performances that has had Boro fans eager to retain him.
The Middlesbrough born centre back came into this game in a good run of form as was highlighted among the post-match praise of Grant Hall’s performance against Preston. Yet this was only a single example of the impact that he has had since his return as he has consistently proven to be a formidable centre back. The sides foundations look far more sturdy when he is the metal frame that holds it all together.
Some fans questioned Warnock’s tactical decisions going into this match as the side deployed a back three formation with Bola playing alongside the budding partnership of Hall and Fry. It is clear to see where the complaints came from, particularly in retrospect. The side had found a formula that appeared to be working well as the side won both of their last two games before facing Millwall but there was sound and responsible reasoning behind his decision. Warnock has made no secret about his desire to be numerically dominant in central defensive areas, allowing the extra defender to cover for the one/or ones, that are man-marking the opposition’s front men. Millwall has deployed a front two in a large bulk of their recent games and so the Sheffield-born manager deployed a back three in order to maintain this numerical supremacy. Regardless of your perspective on this decision, it was the nature of Fry’s situation when coming into the game before the team was shifted back to a centre back pairing.
The game developed in an unusual manner as the first 30 minutes were bereft of any real chances for either side, presenting very little for Fry to deal with during the opening period. Then the goal went in and Millwall recognised the importance of remaining defensively resolute and so a large portion of the latter stages of the game turned into an attack versus defence drill; once again posing little threat to the heart of the defence. This can be a difficult situation to deal with as a defender as long periods of the game can pass by without the need for defensive action and then all of a sudden they are called upon. They can be caught unawares during games that pan out this way but that was not the case with Fry who dealt with everything that came his way, managing to make a tackle, interception and a clearance when he was called upon.
Instead, the defenders became the reference points from which attacking moves started, and where the ball returned when an avenue closed on the more offensive players in the side. The teams need to find a way past Millwall’s sturdy defensive structure meant that the centre backs that were deployed played the role of deep-lying midfielders and they had the possession to show for it. Grant Hall had the most of the ball with 7.7% of possession closely followed by Marc Bola, who would move into a wide role in the latter stages of the game, as he had 7.4% of the games possession and thirdly Dael Fry with 6.3%. This defensive domination of the ball can be seen most prominently when comparing it to the player with the next most possession, Jonny Howson, with 5.9% and none of the Millwall contingent came near to the centre back trio. While this highlights Millwall’s impressive defensive structure, not letting others that were more proficient on the ball, to dominate possession it did give Fry the opportunity to display his on the ball prowess. The former England youth International attempted 54 passes against Millwall with 63% of them finding their intended target. This isn’t particularly impressive but his 1-in-3 long ball success rate brought the players average down from a rate slightly better than 2-in-3 successful short passes.
This was not a game that asked much of Fry but he did everything that was asked of him without any issues. His passing was solid and helped to maintain the sides possession when they were trying to break the opposition lines which may explain a minor drop in the pass success rate for this match. Overall he put in another confident display.
Worst: Chuba Akpom
Comments about Chuba Akpom’s signing will still be fresh in the memory for Middlesbrough fans as they watched the former Arsenal man struggle to make any sort of impact against Millwall. Signed in the summer for £2m, Akpom was presented to the fans as a potential solution to their attacking issues. Instead it has been a resounding disappointment for Middlesbrough with the striker finding the net just 4 times in 32 appearances.
A direct goal contribution every 271 minutes highlights how the player has been a stark let down for Warnock and notes the limited number of minutes the player gets per appearance as Warnock is clearly discontented with the player this season. In fact, comparing his direct goal contribution per appearance, shows a more stark reality as he has provided a direct goal contribution every 5 games. In most cases it is better to highlight the former statistics as it is more representative of the time he has had to make an impact but, in this case, the latter may be more indicative of the situation with Akpom as he has been pulled off during a number of fixtures that he appeared unlikely to make an impact.
Neil Warnock deployed a 3-4-3 formation against Millwall with Akpom playing as the main striker. A role that is often used as a reference point for the more dynamic players on each side, Akpom appeared to struggle in this role from the very start as few of the balls that made it to the forward stuck as a point to build an opportunity from. One of the biggest complaints about Akpom is his passive style of play, letting the game happen around him and that was seen to a greater effect against Millwall as the player remained central for the majority of the game. If he had been more pro-active going forward then it may have helped the side come unstuck in the midfield area. He wasn’t alone in this issue though as Bolasie and Spence were also removed for their failures in the first half.
The most glaring issue in Akpom’s performance can be seen in his lack of offensive output. Despite playing for 45 minutes the forward failed to attempt a single shot with his best offensive contribution came when he was fouled twice by Millwall defenders. On the other hand, he had 1 unsuccessful touch and he was dispossessed on one occasion which is pretty disappointing since these equate to 22% of the players touches against the Lions.
This pattern continues in the players distribution too as he attempted the fewest passes, with just 5, and with the lowest pass success rate of just 20%. Many attackers struggle to find their teammates in attacking areas as they are frequently at the cutting edge of forward moves and so are often attempting difficult passes, but such a low pass success rate, from so few passes has to be considered alarming.
These complaints highlight the key issue for Middlesbrough in the first half; the inability to offer an offensive threat and Akpom was at the fore of this issue with a performance that he will wish to forget. This is not all doom and gloom for the former Arsenal striker though as he has shown that he is capable of putting in some very impressive performances at this level. If he wishes to stay at the club next season, or have the opportunity to move to another Championship side in the next window then he needs to find that form again between now and the end of the season.
I also want to take this moment to congratulate Chuba Akpom on becoming a father, I can imagine that it is one of the greatest and most difficult experiences that you may have. Family must come first as you adjust to this new addition to your life. Good luck.
Most improved: Marcus Bettinelli
The Fulham loanee has come in for a lot of valid criticism so far this season as the goalkeeper has failed to meet Middlesbrough fans high expectations for the man between the sticks. Yet there is no doubt that he is a talented player and is certainly capable of doing a job at this level; as the fans instead questioned whether he was the goalkeeper needed to push the side into a promotion chasing position. His more recent performances, against Millwall and Preston show that the player may well be good enough to wear the gloves for Boro going into the following season but more consistency is needed before coming to that conclusion.
The most telling component to the statistics for Bettinelli comes in Millwall’s shooting statistics; as all four of the sides shots on target were saved by the 28 year old that was only beaten by an own goal that he simply couldn’t do anything about. A number of these shots asked serious questions of the 6ft 4 goalkeeper and matched each one with some impressive instinctive and reflex saves that prevented the Lions from finding the back of the net. It was Bettinelli’s heroics and the stable defence in front of him that led to a first half of limited opportunity and, then he helped to keep his side in the game as they chased the goal they needed to take away a point.
I laid a challenge at Bettinelli’s feet following his success at Preston and he replied with a great performance against Millwall. Now, if he can continue in this vein until the end of the season, then Middlesbrough may consider the possibility that Bettinelli was their future goalkeeper after all.