An Opportunity Squandered
Another weekend passed by and another opportunity passed by with it.
Bournemouth had left the gate to the top six open with their goalless draw against Nottingham Forest at lunchtime, but by 3:30pm Boro had closed it on themselves.
Perhaps the ‘typical Boro’ alarm bells should have been ringing before kick-off, but the game against Derby provided a great chance for the recent rut to be stopped.
Derby, although slightly on the up, were still the lowest scorers in the division. They were still without arguably one of their most important players, and were still there for the taking.
So, that begs the question - what went wrong?
The Student Outthought The Master
Despite his limited managerial experience, Wayne Rooney stood tall and backed Warnock into a corner… checkmate.
He identified Boro’s overreliance on the man-to-man defending and utilised an effective way to exploit it, changing to a 4-4-2 and opting for long-ball to eliminate the tactic that has provided much success for Boro this season.
"Middlesbrough want you to play balls in the middle of the pitch.” he said.
“With the man to man system we felt we could get Wisdom and Clarke walking to the halfway line with the ball if we kept our midfielders away and then we can go direct with diagonal balls into Colin and Lee, then have our midfielders around it for second balls in their final third.”
Fair play. It worked.
Disappointingly though, Boro had no answer to it.
A Poor Day All Over The Pitch
The defence is makeshift, and it showed.
Marc Bola, a right-back playing centrally, a repositioned midfielder, and a new signing that had played little football in the last few months. McNair’s form has faltered with Boro’s, Dijksteel hasn’t been the same since his injury, and Fisher needs more time.
In hindsight, perhaps there were always going to be cracks in that Boro backline.
Derby’s approach meant the midfield was taken out of the game, though when they had a chance to gain some authority in the engine room, they stalled. It was poor.
Playing the tough tackling, no nonsense defensive midfielder Sam Morsy as a shadow number 10 was bizarre. He was our most advanced of that middle trio.
And the attack? It was a case of the same old problem. A real lack of urgency and quality, although goalscorer Neeskens Kebano showed some promise.
And that leads perfectly into the positive...
Play-offs Are Still Very Much Within Reach
Despite only picking up one win in six, Boro are still in the play-off picture - six points away in fact.
I said on the podcast on Sunday that a top 6 finish isn’t something we should expect, but you never know what can happen in this division.
With news that Yannick Bolasie’s injury isn’t as bad as first feared, and crucial duo Dael Fry and Marcus Tavernier will be back soon, maybe Boro can get back on track.
Bolasie poses a great threat when fully fit, and the urgency problem *should* be addressed once both he and Kebano can get into their stride. The only issue is, how long will that take?
It’s no secret that Boro have missed both Fry and Tavernier.
Fry provides solidity to the defence, an outschool ‘put your head where it hurts’ type attitude. Look at Derby’s first goal, the unorthodox corner routine, it’s hard to imagine him allowing Lee Gregory a free header from a matter of yards out.
Tav gives Boro a zip about their play - when he’s on form. He’s a good connector of the midfield and the frontline, and I didn’t realise how important he is for us until he picked up that knee injury. The sooner Boro can get his much-missed energy back, the better.
Whatever the team Warnock puts out tomorrow, the players need to stand up and be counted.
We’re still in a good position, and it’s been a fruitful season regardless of whether there’s a play-off journey at the end of it, but the team’s good work has got them this far and it would be a shame for our season to peter out now.