Preview: Middlesbrough

After a good start to the season prior to the first international break, the next few games are set to test just how stable the foundation upon this campaign has been built are. This upcoming week sees the Sky Blues with back-to-back home games against two likely play-off candidates in Middlesbrough and Cardiff City, before a trip away to proverbial ‘tough place to go’ Millwall.

While results aren’t necessarily important right now, replicating the kind of controlled, attractive performances from the opening weeks of the campaign against some good teams would demonstrate that this is a Coventry City side that can compete with the very best. The challenge this week will be how that technical style matches up against aggressive, physical teams.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Moore; Hyam, McFadzean, Clarke-Salter; Dabo, Hamer, Sheaf, Maatsen; O'Hare; Waghorn, Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

Mark Robins appears to have settled on a 3-4-1-2 system at this stage of the season, and it’s unlikely that anything will have happened over the international break to have changed that.

The most interesting area of the team selection for this game is likely to be in the back three, where the manager has yet to name the same line-up in consecutive games due to injuries and a lack of fitness. Dominic Hyam, Kyle McFadzean and Jake Clarke-Salter appear to be the preferred trio for the time being, but it is possible that any one of those three could drop out in favour of Michael Rose, if the manager is so inclined.

The addition of Todd Kane on transfer deadline day is unlikely to change Mark Robins’ team selection right now, with Fankaty Dabo and Ian Maatsen in such good form in the wing-back roles. Similarly, the availability of Liam Kelly shouldn’t affect the starting XI for this game after Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf have started the season so well.

A week or two to build fitness could see either Tyler Walker or Matt Godden stake a claim for a starting place, however, now may not quite be the time after Martyn Waghorn’s best showing in a Coventry City shirt last time out against Queens Park Rangers and with Viktor Gyokeres the team’s best target-man.

Last Time We Met

With the Sky Blues desperate for wins in a bid for survival last March, an early own goal after a Sam McCallum long throw looked to be the shot in the arm the team needed. However, Middlesbrough gradually took control of the game at St Andrew’s and, crucially, scored an equaliser before half-time from a set-piece.

The second-half looked to be fizzling out into a draw, before Middlesbrough livened the game up with quality from the bench. Substitute, George Saville, took advantage of a couple of lapses in concentration at the back from the Sky Blues late-on to secure a 2-1 victory for Boro.

The Opposition

The Manager – Neil Warnock

A man forever in his ‘last job’, Neil Warnock continues to prove himself to be a canny operator at Championship level. Warnock has avoided the dinosaur status of some of his peers due to good motivational skills and an attack-minded mentality that hands freedom to a set of quick, physical forward players.

Having taken a Middlesbrough side that initially looked quite weak last season into the fringes of the play-offs, Warnock is aiming to go one better. While it hasn’t been an amazing start for the Teessiders, some late transfer activity has strengthened the squad and will provide Warnock with the strength in depth to be able to change things up both over the course of the campaign and within games.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Lumley; Dijksteel, Hall, Fry, Bola; Howson, McNair; Tavernier, Crooks, Jones; Ikpeazu.
Possible Line-Up

Neil Warnock is a big fan of quick, physical attacking players, which means that Middlesbrough can wear opponents down over the first hour of the game and then take advantage of that with fresh legs from the bench later on. Former Wycombe Wanderers forward, Uche Ikpeazu sets the tone for the team up front with his pace, skill and physical presence, which is supplemented by wingers Marcus Tavernier and Isaiah Jones.

The additions of winger, Onel Hernandez, and striker, Andraz Sporar, to Warnock’s attacking options provide the manager with a greater ability to change things from the bench than the opening weeks of the campaign. Former Sunderland forward, Duncan Watmore, is another relentless attacking player in Middlesbrough’s arsenal. Additionally, the summer signing of Argentinian playmaker, Martin Payero, offers another way in which Boro can change the game, even if Payero has yet to get going on Teesside.

The work that Middlesbrough’s defence and midfield do will be essential in how they can get the attacking players into the game. The nous of Sam Morsy in central midfield was a surprising loss late in the transfer window, replaced by Cameroonian, James Lea Sliki. With Paddy McNair and Matt Crooks also on the books, Neil Warnock may feel that he has enough physical aggression in central midfield to make up for the departure of Morsy.

At the back, Anfernee Dijksteel, Dael Fry and Grant Hall are a trio that have been improved immensely under the management of Warnock, whether as part of a back three or four. Additionally, left-back, Marc Bola, is another success story under Middlesbrough’s current manager.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

The Sky Blues have looked at their weakest this season on the counter-attack, which is exactly where Middlesbrough are likely to view as their greatest area of strength. It is likely to make the midfield battle especially important as there is a danger that, if Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf get overrun by Middlesbrough’s physical operators, it leaves the back three with very little protection against Boro’s quick, physical forwards.

This is going to be a test of both the discipline and mettle of this Coventry City side as they look to strike the right balance between attempting to impose themselves on Middlesbrough and avoiding leaving too many opportunities on the counter-attack. There is the quality in this Sky Blues team to control this game with possession, but it needs to be purposeful as any loose play could well be punished.

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