Preview: Middlesbrough

Hit by injuries and some rotten luck in front of goal, finding a way to win against Stoke City on Tuesday night feels a significant moment in Coventry City’s league campaign. The Sky Blues are now four points off the play-offs with two games in hand, perhaps more significantly, there is a sense of growing confidence in the camp.

An away trip to Middlesbrough is a testing one under most circumstances, against a side that is resurgent under a new manager and has recruited aggressively in the January transfer market feels a particularly stern inspection of Coventry City’s resurgent top six hopes. Any kind of positive result in this game would make the play-offs feel that bit more attainable, setting the Sky Blues up for an exciting, and congested, month of February.

Expected Line-Up

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

Forced to play an academy midfielder at right wing-back and with Callum O’Hare on the bench, Tuesday night’s starting XI and bench felt especially threadbare. Just how much stronger Mark Robins’ hand for this game remains to be seen, but there is positive news that Ian Maatsen and Todd Kane have returned to training this week and may be in contention for involvement here.

It is the wing-back positions that look to be the most intriguing area of team selection news for this game. Josh Eccles put in an admirable shift in an unfamiliar role (albeit, having played there twice last season) but eventually limped off with a knock of an unclear level of seriousness. If Todd Kane is available, the status of that injury may not matter, if not, it leaves Julien Dacosta in line for a surprise start. On the left side, there is a possibility that Jordan Shipley could revert to that position if Callum O’Hare takes his place in attacking midfield, although the pragmatic decision would be to play a more natural defender in there, in Jake Bidwell, against the threat of Middlesbrough’s pacey right wing-back, Isaiah Jones.

The other possible area of interest is in attack, where a useful cameo from Martyn Waghorn on Tuesday night raises the possibility of going back to two up top. That is probably unlikely given Waghorn’s recent return from injury and that the team has played pretty well lately with Viktor Gyokeres leading the line ahead of two attacking midfield players, but it is almost inevitable that there will be a switch to that system at some point over the 90 minutes here.

Last Time We Met

There wasn’t a great deal between Coventry City and Middlesbrough when they met earlier in the season, with the Sky Blues’ momentum probably the difference in the end. With few chances at either end for much of the game, an excellent triple save from Simon Moore snuffed out Middlesbrough’s best chances early in the second-half. From that point onwards, there was a sense of inevitability about Coventry City’s eventual win.

With 20 minutes left, Viktor Gyokeres burst clean through on goal, the Swede, at peak confidence, rounded the keeper and just about managed to squeeze a finish past two despairing Middlesbrough defenders on the goal-line. The win was eventually rounded off in stoppage time by Martyn Waghorn, who was sent through on goal by Gyokeres, for his first, and thus far only, Coventry City goal.

The Opposition

The Manager – Chris Wilder

Off the back of revolutionising Sheffield United from League One also-rans into Premier League apple-cart-upsetters, it is perhaps a surprise that Chris Wilder’s next job has come at Middlesbrough, rather than a top-flight outfit. A man who was once linked with the Coventry City job prior to Mark Robins’ first spell at the club, Wilder has quickly energised Middlesbrough, who are chasing down the play-offs with purpose.

Left with a set of players that aren’t all that different in profile to his Sheffield United side, Middlesbrough already look quite a similar team to that Blades outfit. With centre-backs that can carry the ball into midfield, midfielders who look to make aggressive runs to overwhelm the opposition and a proficiency from set-pieces, it is little surprise that Chris Wilder has looked on track to replicate at the Riverside Stadium what he produced at Bramall Lane.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-5-2): Lumley; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair; Jones, Crooks, Howson, Tavernier, Taylor; Balogun, Sporar.
Possible Line-Up

Middlesbrough are currently a side where the set-up takes precedence over individuals, but there are a handful of important players that have really made the team tick under Chris Wilder. Most notably, the slippery, pacey winger, Isaiah Jones, has been something of a revelation at right wing-back – making the decision to loan out, Djed Spence, who has been one of the best in the position in the Championship this season at Nottingham Forest, less painful – and could really pin Coventry City back if he’s on form.

Additionally, the aggressive runs of Matt Crooks and Marcus Tavernier from nominal central midfield positions allows Middlesbrough to really overwhelm teams who aren’t prepared for it. Crooks is a tall and physically pre-possessing central midfielder who makes dangerous runs into the penalty area but can also distribute the ball from a deeper position when required. Tavernier is more naturally a winger, but is technically adroit enough to play in a central role, with those instincts of driving at opponents with the ball especially dangerous in that area of the pitch – much like Chris Willock of Queens Park Rangers.

In defence, Paddy McNair remains a key cog at Middlesbrough, having excelled over the past two seasons under Neil Warnock’s management. Equally as comfortable in central defence as he is in central midfield, that physicality and ability on the ball has made him incredibly useful as an overlapping centre-back in Chris Wilder’s system. On the other side of the back three, the quick Anfernee Dijksteel has also slotted in nicely to Wilder-ball.

While finishing is probably the missing ingredient at Chris Wilder’s Middlesbrough, he has some very useful options in attack, a few of whom could really catch fire in front of goal. Andraz Sporar has looked a real presence up front since arriving on loan from Sporting this summer, with excellent movement and technique, it is a surprise that he has only six league goals to his name in 22 appearances. To address that, the pacey Aaron Connolly and highly-rated Arsenal youngster, Folarin Balogun, have been added to the attacking options on loan deals. That is on top of the promising youngster, Josh Coburn, and the prodigiously hard-working, Duncan Watmore.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Middlesbrough will look to attack this game with intensity and it’s up to Coventry City to attempt to match, or exceed, that. Recent performances have shown that the Sky Blues can stifle some of the better teams in this division with their energetic approach, but doing so in an away game and having played in mid-week may prove to be a challenge of a different order.

With the wide centre-backs stepping into midfield, the central midfielders pushing into high and wide areas and the wing-backs taking up advanced positions, defending wide areas is going to be crucial. Coventry City’s narrow 3-4-2-1 system could make it difficult to get players out to match-up to Middlesbrough and stop the crosses into the box, with the key to this game likely to be defending crosses, as well as pull-backs, appropriately.

Middlesbrough’s desire to control and overwhelm in this game is going to serve to make Viktor Gyokeres an especially important player for Coventry City. The Swede’s ability to act as a pressure valve for balls out of defence could be very useful here, and he may be able to take advantage of Middlesbrough’s desire to commit players forward as they look to overload in forward areas. Gyokeres could really put the frighteners on Middlesbrough if he can go on a few early runs that demonstrate his explosiveness when playing on the shoulder of opposing defenders.

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