Preview: Middlesbrough

A point at the weekend after going behind, without playing particularly well and without our two best creative players has to be seen as a positive even if there was a sense of an opportunity to win being missed. There is still a lot of work to do but this team just about remains on track for survival.

This upcoming game against a play-off chasing Middlesbrough side is a chance to reduce the pressure on ourselves ahead of a crucial four-game run against fellow relegation contenders. As a minimum, we probably need to pick up 5-7 points from this upcoming run of five games. With this the most difficult fixture in that run, anything we can get here will increase our margin for error in later games.

Possible Line-Up (3-5-2): Wilson; Rose, McFadzean, Hyam; Dabo, James, Kelly, Shipley, McCalum; Walker, Biamou.
Possible Line-Up

Expected Line-Up

It was a surprise to see two key players in Gustavo Hamer and Callum O’Hare rotated out of the side at the weekend, even though both had been long overdue a rest. Whether they are immediately restored to the side or kept in storage ahead of Saturday’s key clash with Derby County is likely to be Mark Robins’ biggest selection decision.

Although it undoubtedly enhances our ability to score goals to have both Hamer and O’Hare on the pitch, we saw when they came on against Blackburn Rovers how much it affected the defensive shape of our midfield. Against a Middlesbrough side that are powerful in the middle of the park, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if Mark Robins stuck with a midfield trio – rather than a two with an attacking midfielder ahead of them – which would, at the very least, mean O’Hare would miss out on the starting line-up.

Given that we saw at the weekend Mark Robins’ concerns over fitness levels, another area for change in this game could be in attack, where both Maxime Biamou and Tyler Walker have played through fitness issues. Without the quality in reserve to take both out the side at the same time, Robins may be more of a mind to keep Walker in the best possible shape for the Derby County game, which could hand a chance for Viktor Gyokeres – although, it feels I’ve written that in my last five previews and it hasn’t come to fruition.

Finally, the suspension of Leo Ostigard looks set to hand a recall for Michael Rose on the right side of the back three.

Last Time We Met

If it wasn’t our worst performance of the season when we last faced Middlesbrough, it was certainly our most pathetic. Having conceded a lot of goals away from home early in the season, the team set out at the Riverside with the clear intention of trying to keep a clean sheet. What little attacking ambition we had was further hampered by dreadful performances from Jordan Shipley and Jamie Allen in support of Matt Godden, to effectively make it a game of attack versus defence.

Somehow, it nearly worked. The team made it to the 80th minute, before a quick piece of thinking from Middlesbrough’s Sam Morsy to win the ball and send through Britt Assombalonga to finish confidently. Middlesbrough then pounced on a rare Sky Blues attacking foray to make it 2-0 in second-half stoppage time.

The Opposition

The Manager – Neil Warnock

The veteran has once again proved at Middlesbrough that he is an expert in this division, turning a side that looked on course for relegation last season into play-off contenders with relatively little investment or new signings. Warnock has made Middlesbrough look like a team with a clear sense of purpose to how they go about things, they aren’t the most free-flowing side in the division but they can completely overpower opponents with their energy and intensity when at their best.

Warnock has brought a sense of clarity to Middlesbrough which has enabled a number of underperforming players to reach their best levels. There is a clear understanding of roles, even as Warnock has switched between formations in search of his most effective line-up. They are perhaps one or two reliable attacking players away from making the jump into the top six, but their relentlessness means that they will continue to put everything into every game until the season is over.

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Bettinelli; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair; Fisher, Howson, Morsy, Bola; Kebano; Akpom, Watmore.
Possible Line-Up

Who To Look Out For

If there is one player that epitomises Middlesbrough’s turnaround under Neil Warnock this season, it is the versatile Paddy McNair. Having had a pretty inconsistent career, Warnock has not only brought more reliable performances from the Northern Ireland international but he has been vital in allowing the manager to seamlessly switch between a back three and four system, with McNair capable of playing in both midfield and defence. In addition, the winger/full-back Marvin Johnson is another versatile operator that has made Middlesbrough such a flexible side tactically this season.

In addition, the sturdy, competitive presences of Jonny Howson, George Saville and Sam Morsy in Middlesbrough’s midfield have provided the platform for the rest of the team to play at their best levels. From defenders Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel, to forwards Marcus Tavernier and Duncan Watmore, Warnock seems to have been able to get performances out of players at Middlesbrough that very few other managers would be capable of – Watmore, the team’s top-scorer after two goals in his past two seasons at League One level, particularly owes a lot to Warnock.

With that solid core, pace has been an essential part of Neil Warnock’s attacking blue-print at Middlesbrough. In Marvin Johnson, Marcus Tavernier, Yannick Bolasie, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Neeskens Kebano, Britt Assombalonga, Ashley Fletcher and Chuba Akpom, Middlesbrough have one of the quicker forward lines in the division, with the ability to rotate to keep players fresh. It means that any team that looks to press forward against this team takes the risk of being caught quickly on the counter – as we saw in the fixture between these two sides earlier in the season.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Mark Robins faces a big decision in whether we look to enact a positive game-plan against Middlesbrough and risk getting picked off on the counter-attack or asks the team to sit a little deeper to limit the opposition’s attacking threat. As we saw in the last meeting between the two sides, while sitting deep can limit Middlesbrough’s threat, we do not have the pace and quality of our own on the counter to reliably enact a game-plan that relies on sitting deep.

As such, the key to this game from a Coventry City perspective is being able to balance being positive with avoiding leaving space in behind. Being purposeful in possession will be important in reducing Middlesbrough’s opportunities to turn the ball over in dangerous areas and quickly get in behind. The quality that our wing-backs supply going forward will be important in that regard, as will our strike duo’s ability to compete and give us a foothold in attack.

This is likely to be a performance that will be focused on avoiding mistakes rather than looking to dominate and play through an opponent.

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