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What will Chris Wilder's Boro look like?

Chris Wilder’s arrival in Middlesbrough has left many questions unanswered: How will Wilder’s Middlesbrough play? Will Boro play with overlapping centre backs? Does this change turn Middlesbrough into promotion candidates this season? In this article, we attempt to find out the answers to these questions.

(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)

By association, Chris Wilder has been brought into the heavily debated firing of Neil Warnock. The prequel to Wilders’ hiring indicated that there may have been a fractious environment behind the scenes with Neil Warnock implying that he had split opinion among the decision makers at the seasons kick off. This is typical of a club in transition as often the idealised version of phasing out one preferred system for another doesn’t go as planned with some people showing resistance to both sides of the transition (incomers are resistant to those advocating for the traditional system while those with a traditional point of view are reluctant to hand over control to a different style of club management). However, through Chris Wilder’s hiring, it appears as though the whole club has subscribed to the new long term plan which is promising for the club moving forward. Unfortunately, Neil Warnock was the victim that was sacrificed in this transition which has led to much debate about whether he was adequately supported in the summer transfer window.

Regardless of the precursor’s complaints, the hiring of Chris Wilder has to be considered a real coup for the club. The 54 year old has joined the club following a highly successful stint at Sheffield United (relegation excluded) and yet he still has something to prove. Sheffield United presented a unique environment that helped the manager succeed but there are questions about his ability to repeat that success elsewhere (hence his careful decision regarding his next club). His decision to take over at Middlesbrough indicates that he believes that they are a good match and that he can bring the success that Steve Gibson is expecting from bringing such a high-profile manager into the club.

Chris Wilder’s arrival during the international break provides a great opportunity for the coach to learn about his new side but it has also caused this temporal chasm in which the fans are suspended with excitement and curiosity. This article will try to provide some insight into the possibilities of a Wilder Middlesbrough.

Club Culture

Often neglected for the more suave area of his management, the instilling of a culture within the club is arguably Wilder’s biggest strength. When he was at Sheffield United, he managed to instil an ‘us vs them’ mentality, whether it was between the squad and club ownership or the opposition on the pitch in the premier league. Wilder’s ability to instil a fighting spirit and sense of collectivism helped him to cultivate an underdog culture that proved to be vital in the sides success.

There is no doubt that Wilder will attempt to instil a similar mentality at the Riverside. The club culture has been largely neglected in recent seasons with the club feeling separated from its surroundings and from its history. On the pitch Middlesbrough has attempted to follow numerous philosophies in recent seasons from the low-block long ball style of Tony Pulis to the high-press of Johnathan Woodgate. The appointment of head of football Kieran Scott, has gone someway towards stabilising the club under one philosophy while appointing Chris Wilder is another step in that direction. Chris Wilder has already spoken about changing this issue. He referenced the spirit of ’86 as the foundations to create new history at the club pointing to the incredible belief of the coaches and players to earn promotion despite the entanglement of the highly concerning off-field situation. How does this work in practice?

A sense of unity within the squad and a focus on building a side that may represent the best of Boro’s history in type. Meanwhile, there should be a strong foundation of young Middlesbrough academy products in and around the squad which should help to rebuild the fans connection with the club. Ultimately, Middlesbrough should regain a sense of identity and the fans should build a stronger bond with the club through that identity.

Style of Play

This is arguably the most important factor for Middlesbrough fans as this will set the precedent for the style of football that will be played in the Riverside for the foreseeable future. Middlesbrough has gone through a number of different footballing philosophies over recent seasons from Tony Pulis’ traditional English style to Woodgate’s high-press and Neil Warnock’s physical but balanced style of football. It is apparent that Middlesbrough need to settle on a tactical identity as the club has arguably suffered over this lack of identity over everything else. Steve Gibson has invested considerable money on certain players to build a squad that suits a particular manager’s style only for these players to become surplus to requirements or less effective under the next manager. The arrival of a director of football Kieran Scott means that the side should settle into tactical identity and, from that point, investment in the playing staff is more likely to become a success at the club and they should be considered valuable to the club over a longer period equalling a better value for money.

Kieran Scott’s first managerial appointment, Chris Wilder, tells us a lot about the clubs plans for its tactical identity moving forward.

The former Sheffield United manager has managed to find a hybrid between traditional physical, hardworking and honest performances and a tactical identity that makes for an entertaining watch. While many fans and pundits laud over his revolutionary overlapping centre backs (see below for details on this) but he has shown a great deal of fluidity in picking formations and the minutia of his tactical setups largely depends on the personal available. To put it simply, he subscribes to the idea of finding a system that suits the squad rather than the putting the squad into his preferred system. However, there are certain non-negotiable’s that Wilder will employ at Middlesbrough:

1) Gegenpress:

The current ‘in-vogue’ tactical feature popularised by German managers such as Jurgen Klopp, gegenpress is a highly structured and intense way to press the opposition in which they press the ball in packs. While different managers, and teams, will deploy different pressing triggers, these are usually found in the centre backs, fullbacks or defensive midfielders. These teams will often press after losing the ball as well, aiming to hit the opposition on transition while they still maintain a numerical advantage.

These sides need to be very physically fit with Jurgen Klopp often opting to use incoming players sparingly until they manage to learn the fine details of the press. It will be interesting to see the extent of Wilder’s press following his arrival as while two weeks does give him ample time on the training ground it is not enough time to coach an extensive pressing system.

While fitness may be an issue (not anything against the fitness of the Boro squad but most of these sides are in the upmost bracket for fitness), it is arguably worth it as such a defensive style can bear considerable fruit in a league where solidity is prioritised in centre backs over the ability to pass the ball.

2) Structured Attack:

It is possible to categorise managers into two groups when discussing their attacking philosophy: 1) free form 2) structured. Neither of these styles are superior to the other with Guardiola opting for a free form style in the final third; trusting the talent in his squad to manage to create and score opportunities. On the other hand, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are heavily structured in their attacks to the point where you can predict what they will attempt to do each game. However, Klopp’s side is so talented and so well drilled that it is very difficult to stop them anyway. Chris Wilder lands in the secondary group.

A lot of work on the training ground and in team meetings will go towards the movement and structure of the side moving into the final third and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Middlesbrough has struggled in the final third for some time and the lack of structure in the set up and movement has been a key factor in the sides limited success in comparison to the respective talent that has been at the clubs disposal. In bringing more structure to this side of the game, Middlesbrough could maximise their attacking talents and become considerably more dangerous in the final third. This doesn’t mean that the sides play will become boring or formulaic either as, unless you pay attention to it, this structure goes under the radar, and ultimately, following the formula doesn’t guarantee goals and so the excitement should remain regardless.

3) Structured Defence:

Middlesbrough has a strong history with structured defences. Aitor Karanka deployed a heavily structured back-6 block (the back four and the defensive midfielders) in winning promotion while Tony Pulis’ defensive structure was key in the club maintaining promotion candidate status despite the weakened squad following some difficult transfer windows.

While, as discussed previously, the high-press that Wilder will most likely play at Middlesbrough is heavily structured so will the rest of his defensive set up. This authoritarian control over the sides behaviour in defensive situations should help the side prepare for every eventuality in order to limit how many goals the side concedes.

The biggest concern with this side of his managerial style is whether, when paired with the high-press and structured attack, it is too many details for the players to remember in a match situation ultimately causing more harm than good.

4) High work-rate:

Chris Wilder is traditional in his managerial style as much in his expectations of his players as any other feature of his management. He will demand that every player gives 110% on the pitch regardless of their role in the side and, should they fail to give it everything, they shall find themselves out of the team. Wilder is not afraid to clash with players if he believes it is best for the side. Alternatively, he should find great satisfaction in managing Matt Crooks so expect the pair to complement each other.

Overlapping Centre backs

A lot has been made of Chris Wilder’s overlapping centre back tactics as a unique role for centre backs to perform. Centre backs are usually the base from which the defensive structure is built, making them some of the less mobile positions in a team but Wilder revolutionised this by making them one of the most active roles in his side.

In Wilder’s overlapping centre back role, the defender is essentially expected to make runs from central positions to the wide areas. These centre backs will often become the primary thrust going forward using their movement to disrupt the defence and cause overloads in the attacking third. However, most prominently, these centre backs have an expectation to be creative players, that is players who can deliver a good cross or an defence splitting pass.

Since, the centre back occupies the wider areas in this system, it is usually accompanied with inverted wingbacks. These players move concurrently and opposite the overlapping centre backs so that they end up in central areas after starting on the flank. This helps to give the side a numerical supremacy in the centre of the pitch to allow the side to dictate the ball when in possession. These players can either tuck in deep or high up the pitch depending on where they seem best suited and where the midfield appears to be at its weakest.

This variation in movement (from in to out and from out to in) sounds like an exciting way to play football; however there is some limitations to this way of playing as it makes the side vulnerable to counter-attacks in transition and it can leave only one centre back in their traditional role making the team over exposed at times (typically, there would be two centre backs at the heart of the defence - only one would advance on the side that the attack is focused down). Additionally, this tactic takes a particular set of skills which is limited in most centre back options. Chris Wilder only thought about utilising this tactic after recognising the on-the-ball talent of some of his centre backs at Sheffield United that he wanted to make the most of. While most other clubs do not have the type of player needed to make the most of this system. But do Middlesbrough?

They certainly have one option: Paddy McNair. The Northern-Ireland international is arguably the archetype for this role. He is solid in defence, he is a good dribbler, has shown he is capable at crossing the ball through his deadball deliveries and he has an understanding of the game which is integral for anyone wanting to play this role. On the other side, Anfernee Dijksteel, is the most likely candidate, he has shown that he is capable from centre back, he is relatively proactive in going forward and he is able to deliver a good cross. The primary concern with the dutchman would be whether he has the tactical wherewithal to be able to make the most of the role and his time of the sidelines means that adapting to a new role on Wilder’s arrival may be too much for the talented defender to manage. All the same, Dijksteel and McNair could prove to be an impressive pairing as overlapping centre backs.

Will Wilder play overlapping centre backs? It is hard to know. The role is a complex one though so do not be surprised if it doesn’t come into fruition in the first couple of weeks. Indeed it will not be surprising if he waits until he gets an already established overlapping centre back into the club before deploying this tactic (note: Chris Masham’s link with the club recently).


Middlesbrough has been promoting half season tickets as the “Wilder cards”. It is understandable why they would pun on wild card as that is what the new manager represents. A considerable change mid-season to a well-respected and intelligent manager. The question of whether Wilder will lead Boro into play-off contention this season is still unknown and he will need to get a few games under his belt before any predictions can be made.

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