A good friend of mine rightly notified me that Sheffield Wednesday beat Middlesbrough 4-1 in the reverse fixture, so when Sheffield scored the first goal, I felt a growing concern that it was a changing of tides, that Sheffield was going to grip the game and drum Middlesbrough once more.
This didn’t turn out to be the case, however, as Middlesbrough managed to finish two well made chances to ensure that they would remain in the championship regardless of results elsewhere. Then eyes quickly turned to the off the pitch questions that have been bubbling under the surface of Boro’s relegation concerns; including Neil Warnock’s future and the expiring contracts of a number of Boro’s squad members.
For now, though, let’s focus on the game that sealed Middlesbrough’s place in the league.
Formation and set up:
The team sheet before the game seemed to indicate that Middlesbrough were going to play a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, with Fletcher and Assombalonga both being named in the starting line up.
It turned out to be neither in this case as Middlesbrough set up in a 3-5-1-1. The back three consisting of Dijksteel, Fry and Friend with Spence and Johnson playing as wing backs. This limited Johnson’s defensive chores while also providing width with Spence on the attack which posed a serious threat to Sheffield at times during the game. McNair and Saville were tasked with box-to-box roles in midfield. McNair played his role particularly well, making late runs in and around the box, leading to his goal and hitting the post. Meanwhile Tavernier was given personal instructions that will be delved into later.
Fletcher then played as a second striker, with his ability to link up play, behind Assombalonga who had an admirable performance up front.
One of the key components for Boro was always going to be how successful Middlesbrough would be in subduing Bannan. The talented midfielder has been key to Sheffield’s creative build up play and is often included in both a deep lying playmaker role and creating chances in the final third. He is their key player. In the game against Middlesbrough, for instance, he had 93 touches, which was 30 more than any other player on the pitch. In those touches, he created one key opportunity that Middlesbrough was able to deal with and a few shots, a comparatively quiet day for the Scotsman.
The task of subduing him came down to Tavernier, young midfielder was ordered to be Bannan’s shadow whenever the team didn’t have the ball and it worked brilliantly in the first half. He would be given the freedom to collect passes, however he was mostly limited to recycling the ball as Tavernier would prevent him from turning and looking forwards. Meanwhile in the final third, Tavernier continued to follow him, preventing him from finding the space that he needs to perform. However, this was exhausting work and Tavernier started to wain towards the end of the game and he was taken off but that doesn’t take anything away from Tavernier’s performance as he deserves considerable praise of both containing him as well as offering his abilities going forward at times.
A Friend for life:
Middlesbrough’s captain has had a difficult season, with a stint of injuries that have plagued him, preventing him from playing a part in the majority of the season. That was made worse by the realisation that, if he is to continue playing at this level, he would need to reinvent himself and become competent at centre back.
Though in the final game of the season, BBC Tees’ Neil Maddison awarded the 32 year old the man of the match award, and his performance matched the accolade that was further backed by his stats.
Friend committed 4 tackles during the match, more than any other Boro player, and he managed 2 interceptions, only beaten by Johnson’s 3. He also removed the ball from danger more frequently than any other Boro player with 8 clearances and didn’t commit a single foul in the process.
Meanwhile he was also Middlesbrough’s best distributer and a key component in Middlesbrough’s more direct style of football. He made 25 passes with 68% pass accuracy, from which he played 8 long balls with a 62.5% success rate, which is impressive considering the increased chance of failure with longer passes (He was only beaten on passes and long passes by Stojanovic).
He showed himself to be an admirable adversary for Sheffield Wednesday as he finished, what could be his last game at the club with a bang.
Dijksteel playing at centre back:
Although he has yet to show himself to be completely competent at this level, Dijksteel certainly helped his case in this match. Moving the dutchman to centre back seemed at first to be an odd decision but he gave Middlesbrough a solid display.
Meanwhile playing two original fullbacks at left centre back and right centre back respectively helped to double up against Harris and Murphy who were Sheffield Wednesday’s next biggest threats after Bannan. This helped to prevent balls from coming into the box, for Nuhui and Wickham as target men, to get their heads on. This in turn forced them to individual creativity and long shots from outside the box, indicated by the fact that 50% of Sheffield Wednesday’s shots came from outside the box.