Preview: Middlesbrough

If we had needed an additional reminder of how difficult the Championship is, Saturday’s brutal 4-0 defeat to Blackburn Rovers provided just that. A red card and a converted penalty after 15 minutes meant that the majority of the match was about damage limitation, nonetheless, it was hard not to feel that there was an insurmountable gulf in quality between the two teams.

As significant as that defeat feels, Mark Robins and the players need to put it out of mind as quickly as possible and move on to this upcoming game against Middlesbrough. We’re starting to get into a situation where we need to win games and if we don’t start to do so during these four fixtures ahead of the next international break, some fundamental changes to our style are going to be required, which risks the team losing its identity. While it’s early in the season, now is the time to step up.

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Marosi; Ostigard, McFadzean, Hyam; McCallum, Hamer, Kelly, Giles; Allen, O'Hare; Godden.
Possible Line-Up

Expected Line-Up

We could be set for a huge boost to the team selection for this game, with Gustavo Hamer, Tyler Walker, Fankaty Dabo and Jordan Shipley all potentially available for selection. Along with Will Bapaga, Wesley Jobello and Marcel Hilssner building fitness with the under-23s, the problem soon won’t be a shortage of options, it will be figuring out which combination can pick up results in this division.

At the time of writing, it is unclear just who will be fit enough to be involved in this game. Gustavo Hamer seems the likeliest, Tyler Walker and Fankaty Dabo may be short on fitness even if they are available, while it is not known how long Jordan Shipley’s concussion will keep him out for.

Even if they were all back, Gustavo Hamer and Fankaty Dabo are the only ones who would be guaranteed to start – although, Jordan Shipley would be a strong possibility too. Hamer’s return would be a massive boost as he will go a long way to addressing the dearth of creativity we’ve seen in his absence. His temperament is likely to be tested here against a combative Middlesbrough side, but he’s clearly the kind of risk worth taking. With Sam McCallum covering at right wing-back, there is less of a need to rush Fankaty Dabo back.

Michael Rose’s sending-off at the weekend means Leo Ostigard returns to the starting line-up. In a less obvious way than Hamer, Ostigard’s hot-headedness has been an issue. The Norwegian clearly has a lot to offer but has been guilty at times of being a little rash both with and without the ball and could benefit from a little more composure in his game. This will be a test for Ostigard but an opportunity to nail down a starting spot after a spell out of the side.

Last Time We Met

Alex. Tchuimeni. Nimely. Remember the name!

There are few more memorable and deceptive debuts for the club over the past decade than Alex Nimely’s against his former club, Middlesbrough. Brought in to provide some attacking inspiration following Lukas Jutkiewicz’s departure to our opponents, Nimely made a telling contribution against the Teessiders, scoring once and creating a further two to secure a desperately-needed victory for Andy Thorn’s 24th-place Sky Blues.

The following 16 appearances for the Manchester City loanee were much less inspiring but it proved to be an important enough stint at the club for the player to later offer to play for Coventry City for free – while he was contracted to our league rivals at the time, Port Vale. The man who turned down that offer was none other than Tony Mowbray, who was not only Middlesbrough’s manager during the last league meeting between the two clubs but had taken the player on loan earlier that same season and been unimpressed.

The Opposition

The Manager – Neil Warnock

Just when he thinks he’s out, he gets pulled back in!

The man eternally on his final job, Neil Warnock is now in the hot-seat at Middlesbrough. An excellent man-manager with a no-frills approach that means that players tend to know exactly what is expected of them, Warnock’s ability to reliably get results means that he’s managed to stay in the game past the age of 70.

Warnock’s appointment at Middlesbrough embodied a sense of directionless at the club following relegation from the Premier League in 2017. With parachute payment money gone, the club had attempted to move towards a team built on youth from their academy, only for the inexperienced Jonathan Woodgate to lead the side to the verge of relegation. Warnock got the couple of results required to keep them up last season and has been handed a longer stay in order to get the most out of the relatively limited resources Middlesbrough currently have.

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Bettinelli; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair; Tavernier, Morsy, Saville, Johnson; Roberts; Assombalonga, Akpom.
Possible Line-Up

Who To Look Out For

Neil Warnock’s approach at Middlesbrough has been to build a solid defensive unit in the belief that they have the pace and individual quality to kill teams off at the other end.

Starting from the back, Warnock has flitted between a four and three-man defence. This has been aided by the versatility of right-sided defender, Anfernee Dijksteel, who can cover at both right-back and centre-back adeptly. While the defensive line possibly lacks a leader, players such as Dael Fry, Grant Hall and Paddy McNair have plenty of experience at this level and are under instruction to keep things as simple as possible in possession.

With further defensive protection in midfield from the experienced Jonny Howson and the enforcer Sam Morsy, George Saville plays an important role in this Middlesbrough side in making runs into the penalty area to link defence and attack. Through Patrick Roberts, Marcus Tavernier and Marvin Johnson, Middlesbrough have considerable pace in wide areas that provides the team with the ability to quickly catch opponents on the transition.

Up front, Britt Assombalonga is a reliable striker at Championship level with the right service, although perhaps not quite as prolific as the transfer fees spent on him over the years would suggest. Nonetheless, he adds to the team’s counter-attacking threat alongside fellow forwards Ashley Fletcher and former Sky Blue loanee Chuba Akpom, who are threatening players at this level at their very best but have yet to find consistency. Having all three as options means that Neil Warnock can rotate and avoid relying on one striker who may potentially drop in and out of form.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

This game, along with the three to come, are going to provide a sterner inspection of our ability to compete physically in the Championship, as well as how capable we are of breaking down teams willing to cede possession to us. It may feel like we are more competitive in these games to come compared to some of the more difficult fixtures we’ve faced but we face the same question marks as to whether we have a cutting edge in attack and are capable of making opponents work for the goals they score.

While this Middlesbrough side may not look to hoard the ball, they are likely to attempt to press us high up the pitch due to the number of mobile forwards that they have. The worry is that against a more physically prepossessing team, our forward line will have an even harder task than before of bringing the team into play when we need to go longer to relieve pressure.

Having Gustavo Hamer back in the team should be a help in our ability to play around the press as he is someone who is fairly comfortable receiving the ball under pressure. If we can keep the game tight, his delivery from set-pieces could decide the game in our favour but it feels a big if given the way we’ve defended recently.

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