The Wrap: Middlesbrough – 1-2

The Sky Blues lost 2-1 to Middlesbrough in a fairly drab spectacle at St Andrew’s where neither side seemed to be at their best.

Having started brightly and taken the lead via an own goal, it was a frustrating remainder of the game from the Sky Blues who struggled to fully contain Middlesbrough’s mobile and pacey forward line and lacked the quality in attack to make the most of half-openings to move in control of the game.

Middlesbrough equalised before half-time via a poorly defended set-piece from the Sky Blues. In a second-half where Coventry City seemed to largely be on top, Middlesbrough sprung to life in the closing stages to take the lead from another poor piece of defending then see out the win comfortably.

A Lack of Quality

Some games are won or lost because of specific tactical reasons and minute details, others are simply down to one set of players is better or worse than the other. This game was a case of the latter.

There really wasn’t much in this game. There were few clear-cut chances, neither team settled into much of a rhythm in possession and all three goals probably owed more to poor defending than quality attacking play. However, the difference between the two teams was that Middlesbrough made fewer mistakes and had the wherewithal to pounce the ones that we made.

Despite taking the lead in the first-half, it never felt like we quite had a handle on this game. Middlesbrough found a lot of joy getting behind our midfield, allowing them to put their quick, skilful attacking players in one-against-one situations against our defence. While their equaliser came from a set-piece, it felt like they were steadily moving up through the gears as the first-half wore on.

Frustratingly, we seemed to manage Middlesbrough’s attacking threat much better in the second-half and looked the likelier team to score. However, there just wasn’t the quality in our decision-making and movement to turn decent breaks into good chances. In particular, there was a lack of options ahead of the ball for players in possession, which slowed down our ability to break through Middlesbrough’s defence.

With the Sky Blues tiring in the closing stages of the game, Middlesbrough brought on three quick attacking players in Marvin Johnson, Yannick Bolasie and Duncan Watmore, which was another key area of difference between the two teams. That injection of pace and energy allowed Middlesbrough to cause us problems with a few fairly hopeful punts forward which their forwards could chase and create uncertainty in our defence.

Moreover, Middlesbrough looked much more purposeful than ourselves when on the ball in advanced areas. Contrast the short corner routine between Gustavo Hamer and Fankaty Dabo late-on that led to nothing because both players were indecisive with the move for Middlesbrough’s goal, where Jonny Howson’s intent to shoot dragged two Sky Blues players out of position, which left Marvin Johnson one-on-one against a flat-footed Michael Rose, all of which meant our defence had lost track of George Saville, who then scored.

For all of the instruction and preparation Mark Robins may have put into this game, there’s only so much he can do with the set of players he has available. Just one substitution made, when it was clear we needed a little extra in attack to make the breakthrough, says a lot.

The Pitch Doesn’t Help

While this has been the case for much of the winter, it felt more apparent than it has been for a while in this game what a hindrance the St Andrew’s pitch is for any team trying to play quick, flowing football, with the ball constantly seeming to roll a little slower than normal across the turf. Perhaps that is why it felt like our players weren’t gambling on making runs forward and, simultaneously, why we looked a little hesitant to play passes and crosses in dangerous areas.

It isn’t the reason that we lost this game, because Middlesbrough also saw a few attacking moves break down due to the ball not rolling with the pace they might have been expecting, but it is something we could probably do with factoring in more to the way that we set up.

Currently, we are relying on fairly intricate, technical players in Callum O’Hare and Gustavo Hamer to supply the quality for the team going forward, along with wing-backs who have to cover a lot of distance – often with the ball at their feet – to support the attack. When we go direct, we often struggle to make things happen due to the lack of bodies getting forward.

As much of a hindrance the pitch can be, it is also a potential area of advantage between now and the end of the season. If can prevent opponents producing quality football of their own, while we may benefit from having better knowledge of how the ball is likely to run. Staying up this season will be about utilising every small margin possible that can go in our favour, this pitch could be one of them if we are smart.

Waiting For Walker

Whenever a club invests fairly big in a striker, it usually brings in a period of excitement and anticipation as fans wait to see how much of a difference that the new main man can bring. With all that expectation invested in that player, it can take a while for criticism to come in for that striker if they start slowly – with often the focus being on the service rather than the player. This game felt a turning point for Tyler Walker where the belief that he can be the striker to fire us to safety has waned and the criticism is starting to increase.

It has been a difficult season on a few levels for Tyler Walker. Signed relatively late in the transfer window, he was given time out of the team to build up fitness. Once he was fit, he picked up Covid. He then had a decent run as first-choice striker before getting injured and he’s probably been rushed back a little too quickly from that injury due to the lack of a reliable goalscorer in his stead.

Just how much of a difference a full pre-season and better support around him could make for Tyler Walker, we don’t know. What we do know is that he has struggled to get himself consistently involved in games since he’s come back. Walker has had just two shots across the past three games – none of which were on target. As much as he may be the kind of striker that requires better service than he’s getting, there is an extent to which the best strikers will create their own chances – even if they aren’t the most physically pre-possessing or quick, as Tyler Walker seems to be.

We know from Walker’s spells at his previous clubs that he will score goals in the right environment – and, perhaps, at the right level. The issue is less to do with him than the fact that the team could really do with a dangerous, prolific, centre-forward who can create danger and chances simply be being on the pitch, Walker doesn’t seem to be that kind of player. Furthermore, we don’t have someone who can step into Walker’s place and immediately improve the team – I have my doubts even a fully-fit Matt Godden could provide that.

We are currently hoping that Tyler Walker suddenly turns into the striker the team needs in a very short space of time in order to provide the firepower to keep us up.

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