The dust has settled on Middlesbrough's win against Stoke City presenting the perfect opportunity to name the sides top two performers and one that was most improved
When two sides that are touching in the table clash it can make for an exciting affair as there is no doubting the outcome on the table for the team beneath the other should they win. There was an expectation of a heightened intensity from both sides due to their own situation as the end of the season nears and neither club are favourites for the playoff spaces they would have targeted at the end of the season. Yet the game didn’t pan out like this as an impressive defensive display was married with a clinical performance going forward to allow Middlesbrough to take all three points.
The game didn’t start particularly well as Warnock curiously chose to go with two central midfielders against a side that is most impressive in this midfield area with Joe Allen, John Obi Mikel and Nick Powell, giving the Potters dominance over the first 10 minutes. It didn’t take long for the managerial staff to recognise the mistake and thankfully they didn’t concede during the period where Stoke were clearly on top.
Neil Warnock’s decision to move Northern Ireland International Paddy McNair, into midfield was a good one as the boss was awarded with a man of the match performance from the 25 year old. Other notable performances came from Yannick Bolasie, who brought trickery to a side that has lacked a real flair player since the sale of Adama Traore. Meanwhile Marcus Bettinelli, who is frequently at the heart of Middlesbrough fans complaints put in one, if not the, most impressive performance in a Boro shirt.
Best: Paddy McNair
The biggest debate surrounding this games MOTM, is whether he performs best as a central midfielder or a centre back with the two side continuously feuding over the players preferred and superior position. However the players flexibility and capability in both roles may be more important than finding his perfect position. There is no doubting McNair’s talent but he is a player that will have fits and starts of form with him being solid but not incredible in his lesser games but he frequently becomes re-energised when he is moved into a different position, and so rotating the player between his most comfortable positions, particularly when he appears to be going through a small lull, could help to maintain his impressive level of performance.
He has been going through a slight lull in recent performances too as the player has struggled to find his previous form that came with a lathering of praise. He wasn’t, by no means, poor in these performance but the typical confident player moving into midfield has become a lot more subdued over recent performance which has seen him fade a little in recent times.
Warnock started McNair in the heart of the defence alongside Hall and Fry but he quickly recognised that this system was not working against Stoke and so he was pushed further up the pitch into a midfield pair with a primary focus on marking John Obi Mikel, off the ball and making something happen on the ball, which is what he did in the 40th minute as he found a way past Angus Gun.
A return to midfield came with a return to the top of the pass makers as he recorded the most attempts of any outfield player and at an impressive 83.3% these passes more often than not found their intended target. He added an offensive nous to the game too as he attempted more shots than any other Middlesbrough player and was able to convert one of these three attempts. It is clear that Stoke struggled to deal with the reliable midfielder as he won 5 fouls, more than any other player in the side. Finally he applied pressure on Mikel and he more than willing to do his defensive work as he came out with 1 tackle, 1 clearance and 1 interception.
It will come as no surprise to those that have read these statistics that McNair was the outfield player that saw the most of the ball. He added a drive in midfield as it is no coincidence that Middlesbrough managed to find the net 3 times during the game that saw him playing higher up the pitch.
2nd Best: Yannick Bolasie
Middlesbrough attempted to sign Bolasie in the summer but they were unable to get the deal across the line. They instead waited until late in the January transfer window in order to get their man. The winger came to the Boro after being left out in the cold at Everton so it comes as little surprise that it has taken some time for the player to show signs of him being at his best.
He has also failed to finish a match so far in his Middlesbrough career with the DR Congo International finding his number was up at various times throughout his appearances at the club. There has been some signs of his steady improvement and the match against Stoke was the next increment in a player of Bolasie’s ability returning to his best.
There was a relative fluidity about Middlesbrough’s front three as they moved from two strikers and a central attacking midfielder to a striker and two wingers at a few times during the early period before the formation change that saw Kebano and Bolasie permanently assigned to the wide roles and keeping their width.
The wiseman’s biggest contribution to the game has to be his assist, which brought about McNair’s goal but he was more involved in the game than that with a number of notable nice touches, including lifting the ball over a defenders head and back heeling it to a teammate within the final third. Yet he was unfortunately relatively subdued other than these few instances as he made just 1 key pass and 2 crosses. He was relatively involved with possession though attempting 23 passes with his 3.3% possession and his stark success rate, almost 1-in-2 successful passes, indicates that the player was attempting to create opportunities when he was on the ball. He also backtracked with relative success as he managed 1 tackle, 1 clearance, 1 blocked shot, 1 interception.
While his output wasn’t quite as impressive as he could deliver at his best, his clever foot work and manipulation of the ball meant that the player was a constant threat to Stoke City.
Most Improved: Marcus Bettinelli
The current loanee goalkeeper has come in for quite a bit of stick over the season as many consider the player to be a step down from the players that had previously been at the club whether it is Darren Randolph or Victor Valdes. I have also provided my own constructive criticism on the goalkeeper as there were glimpses that he could perform better than he had so far this season and that really came to the fore against Stoke.
Bettinelli managed to keep a clean sheet and he played a key role in keeping the opposition out as he made a number of impressive reflex saves that indicate that such instances are his preferred scenarios and as such a deep line may suit the goalkeeper from now until the end of the season. He deserves to have praise lauded on him for his performance but I just hope that he can keep it up coming into the game against Preston to really show what he is all about.