With the weekends action closing in, we reflect on the two game-defining moments from last week.
Middlesbrough has had a mixed bag of performances this week. A win against Nottingham Forest indicated that the side may have turned a corner before a defeat against Blackpool cast the sides early league performances in doubt once more. Some fans are hugely disappointed with Neil Warnock’s leadership so far this season and some have even called for his tenure to come to an end. No one can deny that are issues that need to be fixed sooner rather than later (one of which will be addressed in closer detail in this article); but this introduction is a word of caution for those fans who feeling like pulling the trigger on Neil Warnock’s time in charge. It may be difficult with the current trend of form but there are positive signs. These signs indicate that the side may soon have a solid foundation to build their promotion on but such a drastic change in personnel and in tactical style can take time to bear fruit. Neil Warnock is an experienced and intelligent coach who has been in this situation before. He knows how to get out of this league and it may not appear likely at this moment in time but he could very well do it once more this season. This isn’t a call to blindly follow the manager for the rest of the season but to temper the current foray of emotions. Let’s see where we are in a couple of months before making a judgement on the managers performance this season.
One Marvellous Moment:
Andraz Sporar scores
Middlesbrough’s early form had plateaued in recent weeks as the club failed to get a win in their last four fixtures. Their away form hasn’t faired well either so far this season as the side failed to mark up three points away from home coming into the game against Nottingham Forest. This meant that there was a large portion of fans with a pessimistic outlook that was only worsened by Nottingham Forest’s own struggles as it aligned with the ‘typical Boro’ issues that have plagued the side in recent seasons. While Middlesbrough’s ultimate victory was not a ‘giant killing’ surprise it did help to rationalise the recent growing pessimism.
Nottingham Forest’s start to the season has been nothing short of abysmal and that was only furthered with the defeat to Middlesbrough leaving them at the bottom of the table with just a single point to show for their efforts. The latest defeat, against Middlesbrough, made Chris Hughton’s position untenable and the club parted ways with the experienced manager the following morning. The relieving of Hughton’s duties at Nottingham Forest started with another beginning: Sporar’s goalscoring account.
Three primary figures brought this goal to life: Anfernee Dijksteel, Marcus Tavernier and Andraz Sporar. It is primarily through these gazes that this marvellous moment will be analysed. However, the team as a unit and the tactics that Neil Warnock deployed also played a key role in creating the goal and so these will also be covered in this section.
Middlesbrough highlighted that Nottingham Forest’s propensity to play the ball out from the back was a potential weakness that they could exploit. While this was most prominent in Middlesbrough’s second goal (Horvath’s bad touch left the goal open for Onel Hernandez to tap in); it will come as no surprise that it also played a role in the first goal.
On this occasion, Horvath distributes the ball to McKenna who receives the ball without any pressure. The Middlesbrough players are set up in a flat 3-man screen as they mark their respective individuals.
Matt Crooks elects to impose pressure on McKenna limiting the simple pass that is favoured in this situation to the left 1/3 of the pitch.
Lewis Grabban recognises that McKenna is in a difficult position and opts to come short for the ball. Jonny Howson, who is man-marking Grabban, follows closely behind forcing the forward into a backward pass into Middlesbrough’s pressing zone.
All of the short options are now tightly man-marked forcing McKenna to play a long ball to one of the forwards. This pass is relatively high risk but he has been left with few other options due to Middlesbrough’s man-marking high-press.
Zinkernagel receives the ball under pressure. Dijksteel stifles the winger preventing him from turning and running at the defence, one of Zinkernagel’s strengths, and forcing him into a physical battle with the right back. Meanwhile, Howson, Léa-Siliki and Tavernier are now in front of their respective men closing off any simple passes back into the midfield.
These midfielders then close down the winger while remaining in the right position to intercept any passes back into the midfield. In trying to get back to his strengths, Zinkernagel attempts to shake off Dijksteel and run the width of the pitch. However, this opens up the opportunity for Tavernier to close down as Lowe is no longer an option to Zinkernagel, having turned away from the flank. Additionally, the Nottingham Forest winger’s body is no longer a barrier between Dijksteel and the ball allowing him to steal the ball from the winger.
Marcus Tavernier picks up the loose ball and runs at the midfield. Nottingham Forest is not set in its defensive shape following the quick turnover and so Grabban is forced to try and stop the attack at source or dampen the tempo of the move so that the rest of his side can settle into their defensive formation.
A moment of brilliant individual technique from Marcus Tavernier allows him to skip past the striker opening up the midfield and causing the defence to look vulnerable. Matt Crooks is an option on the flank. Onel Hernandez is making a direct run at his centre back. Andraz Sporar realises that a clear cut opportunity could arise from this situation and he kicks into gear. The Slovenian International makes an arched run from his deep position, after offering himself as the short option, between the left centre back and the central centre back. This is an intelligent run for three key reasons: 1) Marcus Tavernier can play a relatively simple threaded pass into that space from his position. 2) Scott McKenna is caught between two minds - following Sporar’s run or marking Matt Crooks - opening up a large space for the striker to make his foray into. 3) If he manages to break through the defence but his shot is saved by Horvath then from this angle it is most likely to be parried away from goal and potentially into the path of Onel Hernandez.
Now Sporar has made his run and Tavernier has sent the pass in his direction; from here Sporar keeps it simple. He watches the ball and paces his run so he can collect it as and how he wants it. This may sound very simple, and in theory, it is, but with centre backs, goalkeepers and fans all looming over this moment it is easy to get carried away or complacent.
Once the ball is at his feet, Sporar dispatches it with a powerful shot that rippled the back of the net and sent the Middlesbrough fans into ruptures.
One Horrible Highlight:
There was a growing positivity among Middlesbrough fans following their win against Nottingham Forest with some believing that another 3 points against Blackpool would be enough to turn their poor run around and begin a charge for the top 6. The game started strongly. Marcus Tavernier found the net in the early stages of the game and it put Middlesbrough in an advantageous position for the remainder of the game. But it wouldn't last. Blackpool would first fight to get onto level pegging and then provide the crushing blow that meant Middlesbrough would finish the game empty handed. It was the leveller, scored by Ekpitela, that would prove to be the turning point in this match.
Blackpool’s leveller came from a free-kick born out of a referees mistake. When watching and rewatching the highlight it is difficult to see what part of the tackle was interpreted as a foul by the man in the middle but that decision remains out of Boro’s hands. This wasn’t the only mistake leading up to the goal though with Middlesbrough making some errors in the build-up to the goal. Issues with the sides line of engagement (where on the pitch the side proactively attempts to regain possession) and the defensive line (where the defence sits when out of possession) reared its head once more. Fixing this issue is Neil Warnock’s top priority in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, there were a few minor individual mistakes that ultimately lead to the whole which was conceding the equaliser.
This phase of play begins with Middlesbrough attempting to instigate a counterattack.
The pass is played into the short run of Matt Crooks adding momentum to a move that gains more emphasis with his pass to James Léa-Siliki just beyond the halfway line.
The Cameroon international receives the ball but he is put under pressure by an incoming Blackpool defender. Sporar makes an intelligent run across the back of the centre back and into the space between the centre back and fullback.
While under serious pressure, Léa-Siliki attempts to find Sporar’s run. The pass is a little flat and unimaginative due to the reduced time on the ball which made it easy for the centre back to move into its path and intercept the ball.
Possession is turned over. Pay attention to how Middlesbrough's players are spread out. The wingers, who were holding the width, are now out of the game or would have to backtrack quickly to get involved. The striker, Sporar, is behind the centre back on the ball and so he is also now out of the game. However, it is the midfield that is of greater interest. Léa-Siliki and Matt Crooks have pushed forwards to try and affect things going forward but it has now opened up a considerable gap between themselves and sitting midfielder Jonny Howson. The defensive line is currently out of shot.
At this point Middlesbrough have two options: 1) Backtrack, get into shape and he hard to break down or 2) Deploy a high press to force a turnover in the oppositions half which could provide a great goalscoring opportunity. The midfield chooses the latter but the relatively deep defensive line and position of Jonny Howson mean that the press is disjointed.
Matt Crooks’ attempt to tackle the ball fails. So, he and Léa-Siliki (who can be seen marking the easy passing option higher up the pitch) are essentially out of the game from this point forward. Blackpool has just passed the halfway line and they have already taken half of Middlesbrough’s team out of the game (leaving just the back 4 and Howson to protect the goal). Marcus Tavernier, one of the sides more tactically astute players, quickly recognises that the team is about to be overrun in the central space. The Middlesbrough academy graduate moves from right back into a central midfielder role alongside Howson (the inverted wingback style role). This essentially puts Middlesbrough into a 3-2 formation behind the ball. This structure is relatively solid, but Warnock’s side is still at a numerical disadvantage. Jonny Howson and Marcus Tavernier have to engage with the opposition early to give the rest of the team time to get back into position.
Marcus Tavernier closes the ball down and intelligently pressures the player into moving away from the space that he vacated to become an extra midfielder. This is particularly important as the remaining defenders have yet to cover this space providing a considerable opening that Blackpool could have otherwise attacked.
Due to how the situation developed Marcus Tavernier was forced into tackling the Blackpool player. It was at this point that the foul was called much to the disgust of Neil Warnock.
Neil Warnock’s side then lines up into the defensive set-up for deep central set pieces. The structure of this defensive set-up is very impressive and Warnock and his backroom staff deserve serious praise for drilling the system into the squad. Middlesbrough is set up in two banks of defensive players. The deepest, a flat back five, is quintessentially the back four augmented by Jonny Howson, the deep-lying midfielder. The deepest line is set just inside the box with each player no more than a football boot deeper than any other player in the line. These players are all equally spaced too so that there are no obvious gaps for runners to exploit when the free kick’s taken. Ahead of them are the two other central midfielders, who are in position to run into the box alongside late runners. The wingers are positioned to prevent easy progressive passes down the flanks that would provide the opposition with a more advantageous position to cross from.
Unfortunately, this system is disrupted by Martin Keogh. The centre back moves onto a sideways pass from the free-kick which provides the player with forward momentum and the space in which to utilise this momentum.
Matt Crooks and Isiah Jones recognise the danger and work in unison to try and block Keogh’s ball into the box. However, they are unable to cover the angle in time and Keogh provides an impressive lofted pass into the box.
Ekpitela takes control of the ball in the box under heavy pressure from Dael Fry. The English centre back aims to stifle the player as much as possible by challenging the player in a physical battle. Dael Fry realises that the best way to deal with the situation is to 1)keep the player with his back to goal and 2) force him out wide to reduce the angle towards goal. This provided Ekpitela with the opportunity to turn around the outside of the centre back and into a position where he can release a shot, albeit from an acute angle.
Then Ekpitela is in on goal. However, the angle is unfavourable for the striker and so it is impressive that he can find the back of the net in that situation. Likewise, it is disappointing that Joe Lumley wasn’t able to stifle the shot as the acute angle meant he was favourite in this situation.