The dust has settled on Middlesbrough's victory over Reading presenting the perfect time to name the top two players from the game and a player that performed beyond expectation
The history building up to the game may well have been in Middlesbrough’s favour as the Royals haven’t beaten the North-East side since 3rd October 2015; much to the frustrations of the Reading based BBC commentary team when it became clear that the winless run against Middlesbrough was going to continue beyond this season. Yet the Teessiders were undoubted underdogs coming into this match as they sat in 8th having just halted a poor run of form while Reading, who have had their own blip in form, sat in 5th but the excellent team performance saw the side come out of the game 2-0 victors.
Middlesbrough’s first goal came from a deep free kick. McNair lined up the ball just past the halfway line and the players ability from dead-ball situations meant that a chance was likely to come. He sent the ball into the far side of the box, Dael Fry headed the ball back across the goal for an easy tap in for Ashley Fletcher.
The first goal may have been a well worked free kick that highlighted the sense of team ethic in the side, the second goal was just pure individual brilliance. Starting from another halt in play as Middlesbrough had a throw-in that eventually landed at Morsy’s feet. The Egyptian drifted into the middle of the box, looking for an opportunity to shoot but when he was drowned out by Reading shirts he played it back to the fullback who released a thunderbolt into the top corner.
Middlesbrough put in a brilliant team performance and every single player appeared to be on top of their game as such there were a number of players that would have deserved plaudits for their performance against Reading. Ashley Fletcher has now scored 2-in-2 since his return to the starting XI and once again he did a great job of leading the line. Neeskens Kebano was a touch of creative flair in attacking areas that has been sorely missed at times during the season and so the side appeared to be much more of a threat going forward. Jonny Howson did what he does best in the heart of midfield as he attempted the joint most passes in the side and the joint second most tackles. McNair was also integral to the teams distribution as joint top in pass attempts too and he was unbeaten in his 7 clearances for the side. Yet only 3 people can be given the plaudits in the new best, 2nd best, and most improved categories.
Sam Morsy put on a brilliant performance against Reading and so he has been named as the best player of the game a perspective that Neil Warnock will have agreed with as he revealed: ‘We gave Sam Morsy a clap today because he was outstanding and I didn’t think he could play that well if I am honest. He gets 6/10’s from his manager every week and he gets criticised by the fans sometimes. But I think he was outstanding today in what he did,’ in his post match reaction. Meanwhile Marc Bola deserves serious credit for his display and he took his impressive finish from outside the box may well challenge the impressive goal from Watmore last week. The most improved position goes to Dael Fry who was sorely missed during his time on the sidelines and it comes as little surprise that the defence looked so sturdy with him involved.
Best: Sam Morsy
Middlesbrough signed the former Wigan Athletic captain last summer for an undisclosed fee. Neil Warnock clearly values the player having involved him in over 2/3rds of the seasons minutes to date yet by his own admission he sees the player as a steady constant rather than a phenomenal performer, at least until his display against Reading.
The Egyptian has played 25 games so far this season managing to make four assists which is a decent return for a defensive minded midfielder and his most recent form certainly fits into his managers summary of his performances to date with the player putting in solid displays despite the team poor run of from.
The sides recent formation change has led to a slight change in situation for Sam Morsy who has adapted from a 3 man midfield into a midfield pairing, usually with Jonny Howson. This pairing has been particularly successful so far thanks to their complementary strengths as while Howson is the more technically proficient and is able to read the game in an offensive and defensive sense but, as is often the case, these abilities become refined over a career learning the game and so, now at 32 years old, Howson is not able to play an energised box-to-box role that he was once able to, instead he is selective about when he moves forward and instead uses his talents to break up opposition attacks and instigate the teams own. Sam Morsy, on the other hand, is often seen as less technically proficient but he has the energy and drive to put himself around the pitch with his pressing helping to alleviate Howson. He may not be as good at this hassling role as Saville but he pairs it with his knowledge about positioning and sitting before the defensive line when the opposition gets into the final third offering a more difficult barrier to break down in the final third. Finally, he can carry the ball away which can prove to be vital in alleviating pressure and as an added attacking threat, as was seen in the build up to Bola’s goal.
The Wolverhampton born midfielder was particularly successful in preventing the opposition from playing their usual game and the best indicator of this success comes in one of the most prolific sides in the league failing to score a single goal or create many opportunities of note. However beneath this summary of his successes was the highest number of successful tackles in the side as his pressing and defensive nouse helped the side to retrieve the ball all within his own half and within the central areas. He also showed what he was made of by getting in the way of a Reading shot.
While the midfield under Warnock is often focused on giving the opposition a hard time, it is also important that the two players at the heart of the team get the team ticking going forward and so Sam Morsy used his possession, the third most in the side, to move the ball onto the forward players as his 29 pass attempts, the 4th highest in the side, as a massive 72% of his successful passes were made in the oppositions half. The team had a poor pass success rate against Reading as 60% of the sides passes found their man but Sam Morsy was not at fault for this issue as his 86.2% success rate is far above the teams norm.
The 29 year old isn’t well known for his offensive contributions as shown by the player scoring once in 20 games, but it was in the final third of the pitch that turned a great performance into an excellent one, looking consistently dangerous in and around the box as he attempted to find his 4th assist of the season and he was successful. The goal that the former Wigan Athletic player assisted was truly phenomenal and so it will overshadow the 7 capped Egyptian International’s efforts in the build up including a good dribble across the inside of the box, frequently shaping to try and get a shot off, and a good lay up for the waiting Bola.
Middlesbrough fans have been split on Sam Morsy since his arrival but this performance may go some way to converting these concerned voices. The player may share similar traits to those already at the club but he does offer his own independent style to the role and he could prove to be key to any future plans for a more creative midfield.
2nd Best: Marc Bola
Marc Bola needs no introduction to Middlesbrough fans but if they did then his rocketing finish against Reading may well have been the best way for him to announce his entrance. At 23 years old the Greenwich born left back still has the majority of his career ahead of him and it will be looking increasingly promising as he manages (touch wood), to add an impressive Championship season to his portfolio.
Contrary to many peoples expectations, the change in formation hasn’t had an adverse effect on Bola’s form. Typically considered to be a more defensive minded fullback, particularly after a number of weak showings under more attacking instructions for Woodgate, it appeared to be pulling the player away from his best talents causing him to either put in a weak performance going forward or one going backward and while his performance against Huddersfield was not infallible it did show that the player was able to play the role.
The former Arsenal youth player has been given added offensive responsibilities since the change in formation as the wingbacks are expected to hold the width in the side to let Duncan Watmore and Neeskens Kebano function in inside roles. When the team was defending the right hand side in the first half the defender would pull in to make a 4 man back line allowing Darnell Fisher to push higher up the pitch and put pressure on the ball with Howson and Morsy supporting and the same was the case on the left hand side when Bola would push up against the attacking Reading players. In the second half, Middlesbrough changed to a 4-5-1 when out of possession with Bola sitting on the left hand-side of a back four.
He managed to keep a solid line when sitting in more defensive positions and he didn’t let his attacking responsiblities prevent him from having an effect defensively. The player won both of his two tackles and managed to put in an interception. Finally, he cleaned up when the defence was particularly under pressure with his clearance. These numbers aren’t as impressive as the ones he typically put up as a full back but the extra centre back will have picked up this flak but it was important that the defensive responsibilities didn’t prevent him from having an impact in defence.
The typical wingback is involved in the teams build up play as he will run the length of the pitch on multiple occasions during a game and that was the case with Marc Bola who attempted 26 passes against the Royals. Unfortunately his passing success rate left something to be desired as 15 of the players passes found their intended target giving him a pass success rate of just 57.7% but he was considerably more efficient when only considering short passes as 75% of these passes found their intended target showing that he had decent ball retention when not attempting to pick out a player with a long ball. Additionally, 2/3rds of these passes were in the opposition half showing how he was key in the teams build up leading and into the final third.
Marc Bola’s influence in the final third would be best recognised for the impressive strike from distance giving Middlesbrough their 2-0 lead but his influence in the final third extended further than this goal. The former Blackpool player attempted 2 crosses that asked questions of the Reading back line and he produced a key pass that helped Middlesbrough to create an opportunity. While it was often down to Watmore and Kebano to run at the oppositions defence, Bola also gave this ago with the single on the ball run that he made.
A journalists pre-match report on Middlesbrough’s warm-up plans gained interest after the game came to an end as he revealed that Bola was involved in shooting coaching rather than drills with the defenders which asks the question of whether there was a plan for the 23 year old to have a shot at goal at some point during the game. Whether this is the case or not, Marc Bola’s incredible finish may well be the epitome of the players current form, brought in from obscurity, the player has had a season to remember so far.
Most Improved: Dael Fry
There is no doubt that Dael Fry is a fan favourite. Born and raised in Middlesbrough, the player is the embodiment of the youth academies successes in creating some very talented players. He is an imposing centre back at 6ft 4in and he makes up for his limited pace with his defensive nouse, positioning, clever tackling and aerial strength. The player is now consider to be a key first team player and has been capped 131 times for the first team, playing a massive 10,904 minutes at just 23 years old. So his injury came as a massive blow for the North-East club and his return to the starting XI against Reading showed exactly why.
Some may question Dael Fry’s inclusion in this category having returned to the level of performance that Middlesbrough fans expected from him but the player was just returning from an injury and there were questions about whether he was going to be fit enough to have any involvement in the match and so expectations were relatively low for his return to the side and he blew them out of the water.
Middlesbrough has played a back 5 system already this season and there are certainly some echoes of this period in the way the side is currently deployed and one such case is the role of Dael Fry. Warnock plays the player at the heart of the bark three as the point of stability from which Dijksteel is able to shift further out wide or pressure the opposition and Paddy McNair is able to play the Libero role that he was so impressive in earlier in the season. This means that the player must be able to lead his defence and command the players around him as well as offer the aerial presence to prevent the physical attackers of the championship getting the better of the more agile framed Dijksteel and McNair.
The number 6 has to prioritise defence in this role and so the former Rotherham United loanee’s success in this area has to be the cornerstone of his praise. The player won the ball back with a tackle high up the pitch and intercepted 2 of Readings passes in central areas but the most prominent output was his clearances as he made 6 such clearances during the game which can prove to be vital in alleviating pressure and failing to do so often leads to scrappy goals for the opponent. Additionally the player got in the way of one of Reading’s shots which meant he was putting his body in the way to protect the clean sheet.
Unfortunately his passing let a lot to be admired as just 36.4% of his passes found their man and even isolating his short passes he had just a 40% success rate but the majority of these passes did occur in the condensed central area, mostly in the blended grounds between the mid- and defensive thirds and so it is likely that a lot of these passes came during a period of high turnover where the side won and lost the ball on multiple occasions. This thesis is backed by the clustering of his passes as 6 of these passes came between 14th and 26th minute, equaling a pass every two minutes on average. Still this is a valid criticism of his performance but it shouldn’t take anything away from an outstanding performance.
An outstanding performance that was capped with an assist for Ashley Fletchers goal in which he managed get to a McNair free kick before anyone else and header the ball across the box for Fletcher to pass into the back of the net.
It comes as little surprise that Middlesbrough has looked more defensively resolute in the last two games as the undoubted talent of Dijksteel and McNair needed physical and aerially dominant leader to shore up the defensive line and that is what has happened since the return of Grant Hall and Dael Fry.