Reflecting on Johnathan Woodgate’s time as Middlesbrough Head Coach
Johnathan Woodgate was fired by Middlesbrough after their performance against Swansea, and he was quickly replaced by Neil Warnock. (Although unrelated to this article; I found it fitting that his first and last games as part of Middlesbrough’s coaching staff was played against Swansea) But the clubs hierarchy still see Woodgate as a real asset to the club and are planning on brining him back into the fold after the conclusion of the season; in a role that has yet to be unveiled.
Middlesbrough’s position on Woodgate may appear unusual to most Boro fans as the majority recognised that it was time for the ex-Real Madrid centre back to part ways with the club before it fell into the relegation trap door.
However despite the teams lowly position in the team, Woodgate had had shown some success in other areas:
An eye for scouting players
Before Woodgate returned to Middlesbrough as a first team coach; he spent a year at Liverpool as a scout between 2016-2017. From which Liverpool likely reaped rewards from his work during the summer of 2017. During which time Liverpool signed Mohammed Salah, Dominic Solanke, Andrew Robertson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Van Dijk and Naby Keita (who arrived a season after signing).
It would be naive to believe that Liverpool signing all of these players was due to Woodgate’s influence, however it indicates that a club lauded for its transfer intelligence recognised Woodgate as a person that was able to recognise footballing talent.
It would also be naive to claim that he was the main factor in signing the likes of Marc Bola, Marcus Brown and Anfernee Dijksteel was the influence of Woodgate as his main focus would have been on managing the players already at the club. However, it is more likely that he, and the youth team staff recognised Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson and Aynsley Pears as capable of making the jump to first team. All of whom have had relative success since being promoted to the first team.
This shows that Woodgate helped to blood the right young players into the first team which was one of the targets for the new Middlesbrough ideology.
Middlesbrough’s hierarchy may well have recognised Woodgate as a key component that helps to boost youth players into the first team and helps to open the pathway from the youth system. In which case keeping him involved could be key to seeing more of Boro’s youth players playing in the first team.
Training players to play different positions
A lot has been said about Woodgate’s coaching abilities from people who are well respected in the game. Particularly Tony Pulis who spoke about the need to give the young manager time earlier in the season.
There was a lot of credit for Woodgate’s preseason methodology, with a lot of on the ball training, which is a typically European practice. While methods of traditional cardio, that are typically a cornerstone of English coaching, were limited considerably.
Woodgate has also shown himself to be a skilful coach when it comes to retraining players into different positions, as George Friend, Johnathan Howson and Patrick McNair have all played in less familiar positions during the season. George Friend and Johnathan Howson both playing completely new roles at times during the season with relative success.
A failed idea
Woodgate became Middlesbrough head coach with an impressive vision:
To play attacking pressing football.
An idea that the Middlesbrough hierarchy backed as the future style of Middlesbrough Football Club. A style that would be maintained as they changed coaches and playing staff and there were indications that it could have been a success.
However, as points became hard to come by Woodgate had to adapt the big plan, by moving to a more defensively solid back three. A probably temporary move to stabilise and slowly move on from in the following season.
Middlesbrough, though, still struggled to earn enough points and ended up in a rut. This was brought to a head at Swansea, where Middlesbrough played a 4-3-3 but failed to create many chances of note, while the defence seemingly capitulated.
Despite the dire conclusion to Woodgate’s time as Head Coach, there were some signs that, with steady development of a squad tailored to the defensive style of Tony Pulis to one that fits Woodgate’s ideals, that it maybe possible to retry Woodgate’s project in the future with better success.
This development period could be overseen by Neil Warnock, as a mid-point between Pulis-ball and Woodgate’s style.
There could also be a symbiotic relationship that Middlesbrough could utilise in which they offer Woodgate a first-team coach job, maintaining some of his coaching staff and proposing that he could become head coach once more in near future. While keeping Neil Warnock as Head Coach with his staff for a season or two to ease the transition.
In this situation Neil Warnock will give Woodgate another experienced coach to learn from and Middlesbrough will still benefit from Woodgate’s youth team insight and coaching. Meanwhile Neil Warnock will be given complete freedom to work how he pleases and help to recognise talents as he did will Callum Paterson.
This transitional period will also provide Woodgate with another well-drilled and well-known option to temporarily fall upon if it should be needed when he took over again.