Everything you need to know about Middlesbrough's upcoming opponent Wycombe Wanderers
The General consensus was that Wycombe Wanderers were down and out of the Championship and with each passing round of fixtures fans expected the ‘R’ to appear beside their name in the league table. Yet Gareth Ainsworth’s side has managed to hang in the league up until the very last and, while it is a massive, insurmountable challenge, it is still mathematically possible for them to save themselves this season. The Wycombe manager reflected on this situation admitting that there is little to no chance that they will stay in the league but stating that he was proud at how his side has performed, particularly against some of the bigger clubs in the league. Even if there is no chance that they can stay in the league, Wycombe Wanderers will be wanting to bow out with a good performance against Middlesbrough.
On the other hand, Middlesbrough have secured a mid-table place but with a hefty injury list so the clubs youngsters will be hoping to get a run out on the final game of the season. While some players, Kokolo, Robinson and Hackney, have been on the cusp of the first team but have yet to have been given an opportunity and so they will be itching to grace the Riverside pitch on Saturday. They may well put this excitable energy into their performances which may be key if Middlesbrough want to finish the season on a high.
Marvin Johnson hasn’t put a foot wrong this season and he sits high on Middlesbrough’s goal contribution return but his future remains unknown and, should he want to stay at the club next season, then he will see the upcoming game as the final opportunity to stake his claim to a long term contract.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
Season So Far:
It is no secret that Wycombe Wanderers prop up the bottom of the table and the club expected to be in this situation this season too, as the Wanderers, who didn’t expect to find themselves playing in the Championship this season, planned for the eventual relegation to use their time in Englands second division to help place themselves in a better position for the following season and, beyond that, a return to the Championship as a side more suited to the survival challenge.
Despite the clubs resignation about their relegation this season, Wycombe Wanderers have put in a good account of themselves. The side looked down and out by January but they managed to wrangle some form in the second half of the season, particularly in recent weeks, to sit level on points with the other two sides in the relegation places.
Unfortunately, their offensive and defensive struggles led to an insurmountable goal difference which has all but confirmed their place as a relegated side, as it would take a massive 11 goals against Middlesbrough if they were to have the slightest chance of survival. The Wanderers have the joint third worst goal scoring record in the league too as the former League 1 forwards have struggled to bridge the gap between the two divisions, despite their best efforts, and Ikpeazu’s 6 goals.
On the other hand, the Chairboys have struggled defensively as they have conceded 69 goals so far this season, the joint worst record in the league with Huddersfield Town. So it comes as little surprise that they have ended up where they are.
Form: L D W L W
The Chairboys shocked the rest of the Championship as they appeared to be building up to a great escape, and they weren’t far from succeeding in this aim as they now sit only 3 points behind Derby County, the only side that is in danger of being sucked in on the last day of the season even though it now appears impossible. This has been possible thanks to a recent upturn in form that has seen the side average 1.4 points per game, a sharp increase on their seasons average of 0.88 points per game. While there is no doubt that this type of form would be unsustainable with the Chairboys current squad, it would have put them just beneath Middlesbrough in the table. This highlights that it is a particularly dangerous time to play the Wanderers.
This impressive run of form included a draw against playoff contenders Swansea City (2-2), a win against Bristol City (2-1) and a win against Bournemouth (1-0) while the defeats came against Luton Town and Cardiff City respectively. Of the games that Wycombe Wanderers gained points, Swansea, Bristol and Bournemouth, the Chairboys managed two major upsets which disrupted the playoff picture as they managed a draw and a win against Swansea and Bournemouth. These surprise late successes will have shocked many Championship fans as the Wanderers may have consigned themselves to relegation but they quickly became giant killers and, in turn, had an undeniable impact on the final stages of the playoff battle. Meanwhile their defeats against Cardiff City and Luton Town indicate that they are a side that struggles against mid-table sides which Middlesbrough should take as a positive. While these two sides in particular, hold certain similarities with the Boro as Cardiff still have a side predominantly moulded in the image of Neil Warnock, and Luton Town deploy a man-marking system, which although not like Middlesbrough’s, does indicate that Wycombe struggle against such a system.
It should come no surprise that this recent upturn in form has coincided with an upturn in goalscoring as the Chairboys have netted 7 goals across this period, almost 20% of their goal return from the whole season. This indicates that the Wanderers have found a prolific touch in recent matches and Middlesbrough’s defence will have to be at the top of its game if they want to keep a clean sheet. On a more positive note, there has been next to no improvement on the defensive front with the side conceding an average of 1.6 goals per game in the last 5 matches in comparison to the seasons average of 1.53. This highlights that there will be opportunities for Middlesbrough and the stats indicate that they may leave the game with an extra two goals to their tally. In fact, Wycombe Wanderers have had just a single clean sheet in the last 5 matches, highlighting that the goalscoring odds are in Boro's favour.
It is an upturn in attacking form that has brought about the clubs recent success and so Middlesbrough will have to be at their best defensively if they wish to come out of the game with all three points. Meanwhile the Chairboys remain defensively fragile and so Warnock’s men will fancy their chances to score against Wycombe Wanderers.
Top Goalscorer: Uche Ikpeazu (6)
Most Assists: Joe Jacobson (6)
Most Yellow Cards: Joe Jacobson (7)
Most Red Cards: Alex Pattison, Josh Knight, Ryan Tafazolli, Darius Charles (1)
One To Watch: Joe Jacobson
The ageing fullback has been something of an unlikely hero for Wycombe Wanderers as he has delivered the most assists (6) and he has topped the sides goal contribution charts with his 4 goals, putting him on 10 goal contributions this season. This is an impressive return considering his age (34) and his position as a left back which is not one of the forward roles that these players usually crop up in. His return of 10 goal contributions may look insignificant, especially in comparison to some of the other high performers in the league this season, but he has been directly involved in some 28% of his sides goals which highlights how integral he has been to the side this season.
Born and raised in Cardiff, Joseph Mark Jacobson started his career at Cardiff City, but he would struggle to break into the first team in the 2 and a half years that he spent at the club on a pro-contract. Instead he was loaned out away from the club with Accrington Stanley taking him to the Crown Ground for half a season.
This short term loan to Accrington Stanley in 2006, saw the player make 6 appearances averaging 84 minutes per appearance. He also contributed a goal and 2 assists during his time on loan. Despite this relatively strong return Accrington Stanley weren’t particularly impressed and instead it was Bristol Rovers who signed the player on a free in February 2007, just a month after his return to Cardiff from Accrington Stanley.
He would go on to be a useful first team player at Bristol Rovers as he played 5,363 minutes across 82 appearances. Despite his average 65 minutes per appearance, the left back didn’t find the same goalscoring from that was seen on his short term loan deal with Accrington Stanley. Nonetheless, it is clear that Bristol Rovers valued his input over the next two years before he moved on another free to Oldham Athletic.
He joined Oldham Athletic on a short term contract, and so he had to fight for an extension at the club that he ultimately didn't receive. The Welsh fullback was given ample opportunity to prove his worth at the club as he averaged 82 minutes per appearance across 16 matches but he failed to convince and so another free transfer was on the cards.
He would then return to Accrington Stanley for the remainder of the season. The former loan club appeared to value the player as he became an integral part of the sides push for promotion from League Two. He would go on to average 88 minutes per appearance across 28 matches, including the sides two games in the playoffs as they failed to make the cut. He was clearly well liked at Crown Ground on his second arrival but their failure to get promoted meant that they couldn’t complete with the League One sides that were vying for his signature.
His next transfer, to Shrewsbury Town, led to the end of his nomadic start in professional football as he was set to spend the next 3 years at the Shrews. He would go on to play 10,078 minutes for the blues across an impressive 119 appearances. There was also something of a return to attacking form from the Welshman as he provided 7 goals and 8 assists. He was certainly well liked at Shrewsbury Town and spent the majority of his Shews’ career as one of the sides key players. It was his good form at while at New Meadow that lead to interest from Wycombe Wanderers.
The Chairboys signed the player six years ago on a free transfer and he hasn’t looked back since. The now 34 year old has made an impressive 304 appearances for Wycombe Wanderers so far expanding across 26,379 minutes of entertainment. While he became an integral player for Wycombe Wanderers, he also began to show an impressive turn in attacking form as he has supplied 38 goals and 45 assists during his time at Adams Park, in this he has averaged a goal contribution every 317 minutes, an impressive return for a fullback.
There has been no signs of the player letting up either has he has averaged a goal contribution every 311 minutes, a small almost inconsiderable, improvement on his Wycombe career average, but he has had to deal with a step up quality this season as the side was promoted to the Championship and the unfortunate physical decline that can come with a player at his age. His ability to deal with these issues and step out onto the pitch to perform as consistently well as he has this season should be heavily praised.
Hot Prospects: Josh Knight
It is now two Leicester City youngsters in two weeks for the Riverside Observer’s Hot Prospect profile. However, this weeks selection is a centre back who is unlikely to make it into the Leicester City first team but could still have a very strong career ahead of him.
As a general rule of thumb, most players that break into the first team from the youth academy typically have at least a flurry of appearances for the first team before they reach 24 years old as this is usually the last opportunity for a player to break into the first team before he is moved on from the club on a more permanent basis. Josh Knight, at 23 years old, has made just one, nine minute, appearance for his parent club and so the summer presents his final opportunity to break into the first team. This is looking like an unlikely prospect as Caglar Söyüncü, Wesley Fofana and Jonny Evans have all established themselves in the team while Daniel Amartey looks to be the fourth option for these two positions with the 26 year old making 12 appearances so far this season. So, while Josh Knight may not be playing for his future at Leicester City (his contract expires this summer too), he is fighting to earn a place in his next team and he has certainly staked a claim to start his career away from Leicester City as a bottom-half Championship player.
Born and raised in Leicester, Joshua Michael Knight was promoted to the Foxes under 18s in 2014, where he would develop for two years before establishing himself as an Under-23 player. He would go on to play 4,833 minutes across 57 games for the youth side averaging 84 minutes per appearance, establishing himself as one of the sides better players in the centre back role. His performances at youth level would catch the eye of Peterborough United.
He would impress during his first short-term stint with the Posh, despite playing in just 8 games for the side, averaging 60 minutes per appearance; but with his involvement the Posh went on an impressive run of form averaging 2.13 points across these 8 games. So it comes as little surprise that he was brought back to the Cambridgeshire side for the following season.
While he would not become a vital player for the Posh he was given more first team minutes during his second loan at the club as he graced the field 26 times in all competitions (24 in the league) as he was involved in 1,704 minutes of entertainment. He also became an attacking threat for the side in blue as he added 3 goals and 4 assists to his game. This return of a goal contribution every 228 minutes has to be considered as impressive.
He then returned to Leicester City before Wycombe Wanderers signed a deal to bring him to the Chairboys for their season in the Championship. He has established himself at Wycombe Wanderers this season and he has been more involved with the Chairboys this season than he has been with any side prior, and so his 3,240 minutes of game time across 37 appearances will be considered as vital experience and it has given him ample opportunity to prove that he can do it at this level. Unfortunately, he has failed to reignite the attacking form that was seen at Peterborough United, as goalscoring centre backs are highly valued in the Championship (he has scored 1 goal and supplied 1 assist at Wycombe Wanderers) but he has been a stable and confident presence at the heart of the Wycombe defence and certainly hasn’t done his future prospects any damage during his time at Adams Park.
While Wycombe Wanderers have generally struggled across the pitch this season, there has been a few notable performances and that is the case for Josh Knight. He will be a worthy watch as he has the ability to establish himself as a really good centre back at this level and beyond. He may one day establish himself in the lower echelons of the Premier League but there is still some way to go before that forecast could come to fruition.
Manager: Gareth Ainsworth
A cult figure in the Championship, Gareth Ainsworth has become as famous for his atypical touchline attire and appearance as the impressive work he has done for Wycombe Wanderers. His rockstar lifestyle with his long hair, orange mustang and leather jacket, has become the topic of conversation in a number of Ainsworth's interviews. The most profound of which came in an interview with the guardian (see below for full article) where he revealed that someone said he would get a ‘big job’ if he tidied up his appearance, he dismissed the idea stating ‘This is me’. His desire to remain faithful to who he is, is very commendable and his refusal to deviate from this to further his career is even more so, but it is what he has done for Wycombe Wanderers on the football pitch that deserves the most praise.
History: Playing Career
The current Wycombe Wanderers manager had something of a journey man playing career that spanned across some 12 clubs. This period of his career, between 1991 and 2020 saw the former midfielder play 558 games scoring an impressive 110 goals.
Despite the nomadic nature of his playing career he did settle for an extended period at QPR and Wycombe Wanderers, the side he now manages. He played 9,122 minutes across 147 appearances for the former of these sides chipping in with 21 goals and 6 assists. While he played 7,155 minutes for Wycombe Wanderers across 118 games, averaging 60 minutes per appearance and adding 17 goals and 20 assists to his tally over this period.
Interestingly, he turned to management before joining Wycombe Wanderers as he took charge of QPR during two periods as the caretaker manager. Nonetheless, it is clear that Ainsworth as settled in Wycombe and enjoys the small scale environment that he currently works in as he revealed that he enjoys his part-time role doing DIY around the training ground.
History: Managerial Career
His first saree into management came due to the dismissal of Iain Dowie at Queens Park Rangers. The Northern Ireland manager spent just 6 months in charge of the hoops. This was something of a surprise dismissal as he still has the record for the highest win percentage of any QPR manager with 53.3%. However, an indifferent start to the season led to his sacking and Gareth Ainsworth was promoted to temporary caretaker manager while the club found a replacement. During this short period of control, Ainsworth led the side to two victories, a draw and four defeats across seven games. Paulo Sousa then took over, but Ainsworth would then get another chance at the caretaker role when the Portuguese was discharged. He failed to improve on his previous form as caretaker manager with the side managing just one win and one draw in five games.
He continued his playing career throughout both of these stints as manager and he would continue to do so when he joined Wycombe Wanderers. However, in 2012, he would be appointed manager of the Chairboys and he hasn’t looked back since. He has stood on the touchline 411 times during his managerial career at Wycombe and he has averaged 1.42 points per match, an impressive return considering the extended period he has spent at the club. This is especially impressive when aligned with the fact that he has managed the club in 3 different divisions. He first took over the side while they were in League Two, and a large period of his time in charge of the club was spent in this league. However he would go on to get them promoted to League One, where he established the side, and then again to the Championship, albeit as a surprise package. It was his tutelage that allowed a club to find it's way into the English second division with one of the smallest budgets of any promoted side to grace the Championship and he will have already set his sights on a instant return to the Championship next season.
For the majority of his time at Wycombe Wanderers, Gareth Ainsworth has opted to play a 4-3-3. The formation heavily associated with Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, has served the Wycombe manager well but he has also revealed that he isn’t married to that formation wholly as he discussed the changing of tactics at half time during a segment called ‘Grill The Gaffer’ but he does prefer a formation that maximises the width, as a former winger himself. Interestingly, the clubs recent upturn in form has been thanks to a tactical switch as he has opted for a 3-5-2 and a 5-4-1 formation. Unlike what you would expect from this formation, it has not brought Wycombe more defensive security as it instead frees up while the wide areas as they are still key to the side as they provide the mobility to get forward and create opportunities for teammates. Meanwhile it supports his ideas about overloads, as previously the three in midfield would give him an extra man to dominate the central zones, allowing him to implement his preferred attacking style, playing three centre backs both allows the wingbacks to push forward as wide threats and give his defenders a numerical dominance over the oppositions forwards.
This is most likely a temporary change as Ainsworth has built and recruited his side to fit a 4-3-3 mould and he will believe that he can return to the Championship while deploying his favoured formation.
Gareth Ainsworth is a likeable manager who has done a brilliant job during his time at Wycombe Wanderers and he has shown all the attributes needed to succeed at a higher level. However, he is enjoying the small scale environment that comes with managing the Chairboys and on a level he has a serious desire to see the club achieve great things. This fits into his rock and roll philosophy too as they are as small club taking it ‘to the man’ of the more established sides in the EFL. This David and Goliath story is an interesting watch and the clubs time in the Championship, especially the late upturn in form, may have brought more admiring eyes Wycombe Wanderers way.
In all likelihood, this match will be a high scoring game as Wycombe Wanderers have consistently entertained with on the pitch drama and goals. So it is just a question of whether Middlesbrough can ride that curve and come out on top of the Chairboys.
https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/feb/21/gareth-ainsworth-wycombe-wanderers-league-two (the unique model at Wycombe Wanderers)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iX-tuf6bsqU (Grill The Gaffer: Gareth Ainsworth)