Even the most optimistic Middlesbrough fans would have been subdued in their belief that the side could come out of the game with a point. The Teessiders came into the game on the back of a poor run of form having particularly stuttered at home. Meanwhile Norwich City had opened up a gap between themselves and the chasing pack coming into the game and were certainly the favourites to come out on top in this clash.
So it came as a surprise to fans and pundits alike that it was Middlesbrough that appeared to be the most likely to turn a draw into a win in the latter stages of the game. Neil Warnock’s man-marking system, which has been a feature of his Middlesbrough side for some time, proved to be very successful in subduing the wide-men who would pose the largest threat. However it was Buendia’s second yellow card that was the turning point in the game, with the North-east side gaining control of the game from that moment onwards.
Even if Middlesbrough looked like the most likely to break the deadlock in the later stages of the game, picking up a draw against a formidable foe must be seen as a successful outcome. Additionally, Neil Warnock will be happy with Darnell Fischer’s performance having signed the day before gracing the pitch in a Boro shirt and there will be some extra satisfaction in getting some minutes in the legs of Yannick Bolasie as the winger hasn’t seen any action for quite sometime.
Jonny Howson also deserves a lot of praise for his performance against his old side, as he took up a different role to the one that Middlesbrough fans have been used to seeing him play in. Instead of screening the defence and using his passing range to instigate moves, he displayed the talents of a box-to-box midfielder.
Finally, Middlesbrough failed to make many notable chances in their more dominant periods creating the sense that it was two points wasted. Chuba Akpom has flirted with some seriously good form this season but this wasn’t one of those games, coming on in the 55th minute the striker failed to have a single shot in 35 minutes, let alone one that would challenge Tim Krul.
Best: Jonny Howson
Playing against your old club can bring about a multitude of reactions in a player. Some players can seriously struggle with the task while others succeed with an impressive regularity. So there may well have been some interest in how Howson would deal with the situation. However he is the model professional and so he dealt with the situation with the same level of professionalism.
Jonny Howson has continued to show his classy consistency since his return from injury showing why he was sorely missed from the side during his time on the sidelines and gaining the plaudits his performances have deserved too.
Middlesbrough fans have been wowed by his performances in defensive midfield thanks to his reading of the game and his passing ability, however he played a different role against Norwich City. Neil Warnock moved the player further up the pitch giving him a central midfield, box-to-box role. A position that he warmed into as the game went on. The Teessiders succeeded in limiting the creativity of Cantwell and Buendia, so Norwich looked to overload Middlesbrough’s man-marking system with one of their centre backs carrying the ball forwards. In these instances it was often Howson who left his man in order to deal with the player. Meanwhile, in the second half he took this a step further, pressing deeper sitting players often catching the Canaries out and putting Middlesbrough on the front foot.
The Yorkshireman’s press was able to get Middlesbrough on the front foot, creating some of Middlesbrough’s most threatening situations. He was also heavily involved in these moments himself as he attempted to set up a goal through his two crosses and he made 2 attempts on goal himself, one of which troubled goalkeeper Tim Krul.
It will come as no surprise to Middlesbrough fans that everything that the side did came through the midfielder. Howson’s dominance of possession has become a reoccurring theme with the all-round midfielder and his 5% of the games possession was the most of any Middlesbrough player once again. So it will come as little surprise that the maestro also had the most pass attempts 27 of which found their man. Many of these passes helped with the teams build up to opportunities as 20 of his passes occurred in the Norwich half.
Finally, it will come as no surprise that Jonny Howson had the joint second most tackles as his pressing and defensive capabilities helped to catch the opposition out and help Middlesbrough to a clean sheet. Equally his 2 clearances, the joint most in the side show that he was willing to step into a deeper position when the team needed it.
It is rare that a game will pass by the former Norwich player. Neil Warnock recently spoke about the 32 year old leading by example and it’s clear to see why, the midfielder always gives 100% and usually adds his intelligence, tackling and passing into the mix.
Worst: Chuba Akpom
It was always going to be hard for Middlesbrough’s strikers as Hanley and Gibson pose a formidable foe, while Tim Krul has plenty Premier League experience to help him protect the net. Additionally, Akpom was brought on in the second half as Warnock favoured playing Bolasie up front in order to get some minutes in his legs, which poses a further question as it is hard to get up to speed with the game.
It has been hard for either of Middlesbrough’s strikers to find a run of form as Neil Warnock has favoured heavy rotation in order to protect the two players from injury. However, his most recent appearances have left something to be desired as he has been a limited threat. The 2nd January was the last time the player was able to score a goal during a game that he also managed to get an assist in. So he has the ability to score and create chances but he certainly needs to do it with more consistency.
His introduction on the 55th minute for Bolasie made him the first auxiliary striker for Middlesbrough in this match and so he went up front with the aim to finish any opportunities that came his way.
While there were few opportunities of note in after his arrival on the pitch, he didn’t help those with creative incentives either, holding a central role between the two centre backs and rarely making any movement to disrupt the defensive line. Ultimately, Akpom failed to have a single shot, only managing a small amount of touches during his time on the pitch.
He can be proud of his pass success rate though with four of his 5 passes finding their man. However his lack of involvement in the game will be seen as a let down by most Middlesbrough fans.
Some fans questioned the plays goalscoring rate when the club signed him in the summer and he has failed to set the world alight since his arrival. Yet there has been indications that the player has the ability to score goals at this level but he needs to improve on his consistency.
Most Improved: Darnell Fischer
The signing of Darnell Fischer was confirmed on Friday and so there was no expectation for the player to start against Norwich, particularly since he has not kicked a competitive football in 3 weeks. The former Preston man was involved from the start at right back and he put in a very impressive display.
Despite his lack of involvement towards the end of his stint at Preston North End, his form before then was relatively impressive indicating that the player could be an impressive coup for Middlesbrough and that his display against Norwich wasn’t just due to the influence of him making his debut.
Playing as a right back, his main role was to man mark Cantwell out of the game. While his offensive game was put on hold for this match as any escapades going forward could have posed as an opening for the Norwich man to create something.
His success in man-marking Cantwell was visible in the frustration on the English creators face, which extended into his actions as he also fouled the fullback on occasion too. Fischer managed to smother the Norwich man’s attempts to make anything with the ball with his 5 tackles, the most for Middlesbrough.
His pass success rate was also very impressive as 80% of his 15 passes found their intended target. He is even more impressive in his short passes as all but one of his passes found their man showing that he is capable of maintaining possession.
Finally, despite his lack of involvement further up the pitch he still managed to attempt 1 cross and make 1 shot.
Middlesbrough FC has a history of managing to pick up some quality cheap fullbacks with George Friend being the poster boy for the successes of James Husband, Emilio Nsue and recently Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel. Now it appears that Middlesbrough may have mined another such player in Darnell Fischer and many Middlesbrough fans will be excited to see him perform in person.