Updated: Dec 10, 2020
This series highlights three of Middlesbrough’s performers from the last game indicating which of those players deserves praise. Points at a player that could be on an upward trajectory and one that will be hoping for a better performance next time out.
Middlesbrough FC is on the cusp of entering an inconsistent period in their season, after losing 3-2 to Huddersfield Town, then winning against Swansea City before losing once more to Stoke City. The game against Swansea has been referred to as Boro’s worst performance of the season this far and it is hard to disagree with this view. Middlesbrough will be hoping for a return to positive form against Preston in mid-week and will be hoping for a better performance all round.
Best: Dael Fry
The former under 21 England International has been one of Middlesbrough’s strongest performers this season, turning the mediocre performances of last season into a hazy memory. The nature of the way he plays means that he sometimes doesn’t get the attention that he deserves, remaining defensively solid without any fuss or drama. However, in a match that Middlesbrough looked out of sorts, Fry continued in his usual ilk making him stand out above the rest.
Dael Fry is simply a very good defender. Unlike his usual partner, McNair, he focuses on the defensive side of his game over everything else. This doesn’t mean that he won’t get involved when the team is in possession though, as he is comfortable in passing the ball short distances but it isn’t a focus of his game. Having a solid and defence focused centre back alongside a more possession driven centre back such as McNair creates a great balance that has helped Middlesbrough to have one of the best defensive records in the league this season. Unfortunately, the Stoke City game can be marked as an off day, where Middlesbrough players struggled with the question presented by the opposite number.
Fry’s single tackle is indicative of Boro’s lax performance in defence as a whole, with him struggling when an attacker was attempting to run past the 6ft 4 centre back. It is no secret that Fry lacks a little in pace, a fault that he makes up for in defending the box, bur nonetheless means he sometimes struggles when playing a higher line. In the situations Fry needs cover from fullbacks or a more pacy McNair to help deal with the threat. However, he still managed to make a total of 8 clearances, the most in the Boro team, with 5 of the 8 clearances coming in and around the box, showing how good he is in that zone. He also made a total of 2 interceptions, the most in the team, that proved important as Stole City’s fast breaking strikers were the biggest threat and eliminating balls to them was a good strategy to defend against those types of attacks.
Finally, despite Fry’s focus on defending, he was also heavily included in distribution. He made 27 successful passes from 47 attempted, giving him a 58% pass success rate which shows that distribution isn’t the strongest facet in his game. The nature of the match against Stoke, lent into Boro possession in defensive areas; Fry, who made the 3rd most attempted passes in the team against the Potters, is a symptom of this. So far this season, Middlesbrough have rarely had the majority of possession and in those few instances it was against inferior teams, that wasn’t the case against Stoke City and it showed.
The Middlesbrough youth academy graduate’s consistency meant that he stood out in a game where almost everyone struggled to live up to the expectation placed on them from their recent form.
Worst: Djed Spence
Djed Spence was a revelation for Middlesbrough last year under Johnathan Woodgate, and it resulted in lots of Boro fans, rightly, singing his praises and as with most players who begin to perform at Championship level, he garnered reports of Premier League interest. Despite the speculation, Spence remained at the club but comments about his future have continued to murmur in the background since.
Djed Spence, was outstanding last season, however he has yet to hit the same heights this year. His performances, while still good, haven’t seen the return of her marauding runs or direct drives at the opposition line and as such his attacking threat has been subdued. Defensively, he has done well for the most part and has been a key component to the very solid defence in a number of his appearances.
There has been a lot of fluctuation in Spence’s role depending on the formation that Warnock uses. Resulting in him playing right back, wing back and winger during different games this season to varying levels of success, in the match against Stoke, he played as a right back in a 4-3-3 formation.
Spence was relatively uninvolved defensively, making only 1 tackle and 3 interceptions, but this may be more due to the nature of the match, with Spence spending more time in the attacking areas of the pitch, where he may have an impact on overturning the scoreline. He made 21 passes, during the match, with more occurring in the opposition half than his own, which indicates that that was the case and his 72% pass accuracy, while impressive on first glance, placed him 7th in the team, as Stoke played a low block. His below 50% duel success rate, shows that he didn’t have the beating of his opponent as he has done before.
He did make 3 out of 5 successful dribbles but they failed to lead to anything or result in any serious threat to the Stoke defence. He also made 2 cross attempts which failed too, resulting in a relatively ineffectual attacking display from the young flanker, even though he did produce 1 key pass.
Djed Spence is a very good player, but he is inconsistent in his performances. This isn’t new, Woodgate also complained about inconsistencies in his game and Warnock mirrored this sentiment in recent interviews stating that he could either become a Premier League player or a National League player, depending on how he applied his talents.
I don’t believe it is that cut and dry however, Djed Spence is a niche player. He performs at his best in a certain role, right wing back, here he has the complete freedom of the wide areas while simultaneously being positioned so that he can see attacks unfolding ahead of him. Arriving later than everyone else into the middle third or gaining the ball in early transition, Spence’s pace can offer a serious threat to the opposition. Even when his role includes a few caveats, as it did against Swansea, having more space down this flank, and not sharing it with another player proves to be the formula to get the best out of the player. A feeling shared by BBC Tees’ expert summariser Neil Maddison who spoke on how impressed he was on his performance during the match against Swansea in comparison to Stoke.
While you cannot mould a team around a single player, finding a way of giving Djed the freedom down the right flank may be a beneficial move, particularly in making Middlesbrough more of an offensive threat. If there is any interest in my view on possible ways to overcome this issue than it may feature in an upcoming article.
Most Improved: Marcus Bettinelli
Marcus Bettinelli signed on loan from Fulham in the summer transfer window, in an attempt to fill Warnock’s desire for an experienced and commanding presence between the posts. The signing was a strange one, with the 28 year old’s contract with the London based team running out at the end of the year, signalling that Fulham weren’t bothered about losing the player without a transfer fee. Perhaps that was a sign, as Pears was shifted on from the club, Bettinelli was introduced to the first team and has yet to prove himself as worthy of the role.
This may sound like an unusual statement for any outsiders reading this and considering Middlesbrough’s defensive form, but that form has come from the solidity of the players before him and his commanding presence over his goalkeeping talents. The performance of the players ahead of him cannot be understated here either, as for a long period this season Middlesbrough went through whole games without conceding a single shot on target. Unfortunately when they did it had a decent chance of resulting in a goal, the blame for some of these attempts can be laid at the feet of the new goalkeeper. Further than this, it may have been excusable had he not been dropped from the Fulham team for Rodak mid-way through last season indicating that this is a trending fall rather than the struggles of lacking inclusion through saves, the adaptation to a new team or the change of playing style.
Even in the game against Stoke City, there is some credible blame that could be levied at the 28 year old for his positioning and inability to prevent a central header from going in, whether it was due to a lacking confidence or something more concerning is unknown.
However, due to the nature of Middlesbrough’s performance against Stoke that wasn’t, unlike so many times this season, his only inclusion in the game as he made some very impressive and notable saves in the second half which ultimately gave Middlesbrough a chance for a come back, one which wasn’t taken up by the outfield players. These saves were, perhaps, more indicative of his abilities as a goalkeeper and the reason why he was signed by Warnock.
If this is the case then this maybe the start of Bettinelli find his feet at the club. If he can cut out the painful mistakes so far this season, then he could prove that he deserves the opportunity of a permanent contract at the club come the end of the season.