Middlesbrough fans had the opportunity to have a first glance at how Neil Warnock plans for his Boro team to play in a 2-0 win over Stoke City and it turned out to be a thrilling and interesting display.
Middlesbrough came out of the game against Stoke with a clean sheet. Something that Neil Warnock praised, as he spoke about his back four’s desire to protect the goal at all costs.
This shows one of the cornerstones of Neil Warnock’s plans for Middlesbrough: Defensive Security. That he was able to maintain through two components: A well structured defensive unit and pressuring the opposition in the right areas of which I will cover later in the article.
In terms of a defensive unit, Middlesbrough played a back four, which included, Djed Spence at right back, Marvin Johnson at left back, George Friend and Dael Fry at centre back. Meanwhile, the midfield trio held a line just before the defence that reduced the space between the midfield and defence while also obstructing the half spaces. This in turn, limited Stoke’s ability to play through the middle and so forcing them out wide.
These areas were one of Middlesbrough’s weaker points as they failed on multiple occasions to prevent crosses from coming into the box. This is probably something that Neil Warnock will be planning to work on.
The centre backs, on the other hand, were tasked with maintaining a good line and clearing the ball when it came in, as shown by the 14 clearances from the centre of the box during the game. Though, failing that, they aimed to get to the second ball in the box before an opposition player. Jobs which the centre backs performed admirably during the game.
However, Stoke were still capable of firing off 22 shots in total, 18 of which were from inside the box. However 5 were blocked and only 6 hit the target as the defenders were capable of harrying the attacker enough to put him off the opportunity.
It was then thanks to the heroics of Stojanovic that those shots on target did not become goals. Which awarded him with a place in the Championship team of the week, indicating why Boro had paid for the Austrian while they were tightening the purse strings.
From defence to attack
During the BBC Tees post-match phone in, one of the callers brought up an interesting point: “The midfield was ineffectual/invisible during the match which needs to be worked on.”
The caller had been expecting the midfield to play in a traditional manner, linking the defence and attack as the team moved through the thirds, however Neil Warnock allocated different roles to the midfielders that indicated the type of style that he is going to expect from his midfield during his tenure.
After opposition attacks broke down, Middlesbrough aimed to move the ball through the thirds quickly. This meant playing direct football with long balls, meaning considered passes which cut out the process of midfield build up. That explains the midfield’s apparent invisibility during the game and Middlesbrough’s low possession percentages.
These passes were often initiated by Howson, who as the deep lying playmaker, attempted 15 long passes. Meanwhile, George Friend and Marvin Johnson attempted 12 such balls between them.
These balls would often be played down either flank for the likes of Patrick Roberts, Marcus Tavernier and occasionally Britt Assombalonga to run onto, which started Middlesbrough’s attacking phase.
Meanwhile, Djed Spence was encouraged to dribble through the midfield space if the opening arose. This gave Middlesbrough a second dynamic in this stretch of play, while also offering a seriously dangerous threat as he showed his ability to take the ball past numerous players before losing the ball.
Attacking the opposition
If the passes were successful then it often left the defence isolated as Stoke’s midfield backtracked. This gave the likes of Marcus Tavernier and Patrick Roberts the opportunity to isolate Bruno Martins Indi, who as a centre back playing at full back, struggled to deal with the pace and dribbling of the Middlesbrough wingers.
Here, the wingers were given the freedom to dribble at the defence and take on their other number, despite how often Middlesbrough lost the ball, as shown by the six tackles successful tackles Stoke had in this area, as Bruno Martins Indi had been identified it as one of Stoke’s key weaknesses.
However, if Middlesbrough find this area closed off, then they were willing to pass the ball around the attacking trio and a few supporting midfielders. They rarely broke into the box during this phase, as they looked for an opening down either flank.
During this manoeuvring of the ball, Saville would move out to the left wing as an unorthodox wide midfielder and Djed Spence would come up to give them another option on the right flank, as indicated by the heat map of the game.
Ashley Fletcher, who was playing as the centre forward often moved over to the right hand side of the D, as Britt Assombalonga, who was playing as a left inside forward dropped in beside him, both of whom stayed a few yards away from the defensive line during this build up play.
When attacks down the flanks were successful, Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher would make runs into the box, making them hard to pick up by the back tracking centre backs. During these phases, McNair would also be in and around the box offering an extra man and aiming to outnumber the opposition in the threatening areas.
Pressing the Opposition
One issue with playing direct football is that there is a high possession turn over. However, Middlesbrough aimed to turn this issue into a benefit through their pressing of the ball.
In order to do this, the Middlesbrough back four moved forward when the ball was played up. Due to the lack of pace in Stoke City’s attacking options, a ball over the top of the defence would have had little success rate, forcing them to go through the midfield.
On the other hand, the more offensive players were broken into two pressing units.
On the right hand side, the most active of the two, included Patrick Roberts, McNair, Fletcher and sometimes Djed Spence (who I will use in examples).
On the left hand side was, Fletcher, Assombalonga, Saville and sometimes Marvin Johnson.
These pressing units would activate when Stoke attempted to play the ball through the midfield, particularly to players that were facing their own goal. Here McNair, usually blocked the pass to the other deep sitting midfielder and more distant centre back. Meanwhile either Howson or Djed Spence would hound the player on the ball from behind, preventing him from turning to play a ball forward. Meanwhile, the winger tightly marks the fullback also taking him out of the game. This gives the player on the ball only one of the centre backs as a passing option. That’s when the striker positions himself a short distance from the centre back in order to snatch the ball. This is how Middlesbrough stole the ball from Stoke to create one of their closest opportunities during the game.
They would also pressed Bruno Martins Indi due to his unfamiliarity with the position. In this case they would put direct pressure on him through Patrick Roberts, while Fletcher and McNair would cut off his passing options to the midfield and centre backs. However this was expected, and Stoke limited how often Martins Indi got on the ball in the defensive areas.
Middlesbrough are going to be playing Stoke City in the near future, and it will be interesting to see if and how Neil Warnock plans to adapts his tactics for yet another six pointer.