Preview: Middlesbrough

Coventry City return to action ahead of a run of twelve fixtures that could either kick-start the campaign or kill it off completely. The bad news is that the games ahead are harder than the ones already faced, with eight of the Sky Blues’ upcoming opponents in the top half of the table. The good news is that eight of the games are at home – however, that may not count for much given the team’s form at the CBS Arena since last November.

This crucial phase of the season begins with what seems like a good opportunity to get that first win on the board. The Sky Blues play host to a Middlesbrough side that have picked up just one point on the road this campaign and currently sits in the relegation zone. However, Boro were one of the pre-season promotion favourites and it’s early enough in the season for that status to be part of the consideration of the size of the challenge ahead in this game.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Wilson; Doyle, McFadzean, Panzo; Dabo, Allen, Sheaf, Bidwell; Palmer; Godden, Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

News of Callum O’Hare’s return to training this week has buoyed hopes among Coventry City fans that the team will soon be back to its fullest strength, however, this game is likely to come too soon for O’Hare to be involved in any meaningful way. It is likely to be at least a week or two before the attacking midfielder will be in serious contention for first-team involvement.

One of the key decisions for Mark Robins to make could well be whether Michael Rose is brought back into the side should he be fully recovered from the injury he picked up in the Luton Town game. Given that the team has not conceded in Rose’s absence, it would seem a strange idea not to stick with what appears to be working. However, the manager does appear to like the balance that having a right-footed centre-back on the right of the back three, with Rose being the only available option for that role.

The big decision to make is who replaces Gustavo Hamer in central midfield, with the playmaker out for the next four games. While the idea of playing Todd Kane there has been floated by Mark Robins, it appears to have been a tentative suggestion taken somewhat out of context. The most obvious call would be to bring Jamie Allen into a deeper role and start Kasey Palmer – or if he’s not deemed fit enough, Martyn Waghorn – just behind the strikers, with Josh Eccles the alternative Gustavo Hamer replacement, while Liam Kelly is still short of fitness.

Finally, there may be a call to make over whether to persist with Viktor Gyokeres and Matt Godden as a strike partnership. The team’s two best goalscorers seem to have a habit of hampering one another’s games when played in tandem. The issue with breaking them up at the moment is that the shortage of midfield options makes it difficult to play the ‘box formation’ that has been a key feature at Coventry City in recent seasons. Additionally, there isn’t really another striker available – apart from maybe Martyn Waghorn – who would be an effective foil for either Gyokeres or Godden. Mark Robins may well be left to cross his fingers for the time being and hope that something eventually clicks between the duo.

Last Time We Met

Against a red-hot Middlesbrough side in the early months of Chris Wilder’s appointment last season, Coventry City put in a spirited and energetic performance at the Riverside Stadium that should have warranted at least a share of the points. While Boro looked dangerous going forward, the Sky Blues constantly had a threat on the counter, thanks to an excellent performance in attack from Viktor Gyokeres.

The key turning point of the game was Kyle McFadzean and Jordan Shipley missing excellent chances from a set-piece early in the second-half, spurring Chris Wilder into making a double substitution to bring in Martin Payero and Folarin Balogun, who soon combined to play in Andraz Sporar to score the game’s winning goal. It was another in a list of hard luck stories last year that saw Coventry City fall short in their play-off quest.

The Opposition

The Manager – Chris Wilder

After falling just short of the top six themselves last season, there was promise around Middlesbrough that a full summer for Chris Wilder to bring his own players in and work with the squad would whip the Teessiders into promotion shape this campaign. However, Wilder showed signs of frustration over the summer over the extent and pace of his projected rebuild of the squad, which has translated into a poor start to the season and rumours that he is touting himself for the vacant Bournemouth job.

Chris Wilder made himself synonymous while at Sheffield United for an attacking and intense brand of football where even his centre-backs contributed to overwhelming the opposition in possession. There have been two key issues in enacting this game-plan this season for Middlesbrough, the first is that the club struggled to recruit Wilder’s desired high-calibre strikers – with Viktor Gyokeres rumoured to be on that list – to finish moves off, with those brought in either not quite among the best in the division or having arrived late in the window. The other issue has been a lack of stability in defence to see off the counter-attacks that the attack-minded style of play risks, not aided by errors from key summer signing, Zack Steffen, in goal.

Nonetheless, the underlying data indicates that Middlesbrough are a much stronger team than their performances and results would suggest. Bad luck has probably been a bigger factor than Chris Wilder’s transfer market frustrations. Even at this point in the campaign, it would be surprising were Middlesbrough to end the season closer to the bottom three than the top six.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-5-2-): Roberts; Dijksteel, Fry, Clarke; Jones, Crooks, Howson, McGree, Giles; Muniz, Watmore.
Possible Line-Up

The key area of danger heading into this game is the pace, skill and delivery that Middlesbrough have out in wide via their wing-backs, Isaiah Jones and Ryan Giles. Jones burst on the scene last season after being converted from a winger into a right wing-back, with his incredible pace, low centre of gravity and skill on the ball capable of creating openings from nowhere on his side of the pitch. Giles showed during his time at Coventry City that he is also an incredibly quick and direct wide player with excellent delivery on the left, after leading the Championship for assists for much of last season while at Cardiff City, it is little surprise that he is one of Middlesbrough’s key creative outlets this time out.

The game-plan elsewhere in this Middlesbrough side is about getting those wing-backs into advanced areas of the pitch and loading the box for their deliveries. With Jonny Howson screening things in central midfield, the energy and intelligence on the ball of Alex Mowatt, Riley McGree and Matt Crooks pushing forward from the centre of the pitch not only creates overlaps for the wing-backs but also targets in the box for them to hit.

Of Middlesbrough’s chaotic summer recruitment drive for strikers, Fulham loanee Rodrigo Muniz looks the best of the bunch. The lanky, powerful and skilful Brazilian had to play second fiddle to Aleksandar Mitrovic last season, but has already shown in the few games he’s played for Boro that he is a very dangerous attacking figurehead at this level in his own right. Supporting Muniz, Marcus Forss and Matthew Hoppe are capable goal-poachers, Duncan Watmore is an irrepressible runner and Chuba Akpom adds extra pace to the mix.

While Middlesbrough have been a touch sloppy defensively this season, a back three of Dael Fry, Anfernee Dijksteel and Matt Clarke is not only an imposing one at Championship level but very capable on the ball. With Fry looking to enforce things in the centre, Dijksteel on the right and Clarke on the left are very mobile and technically-strong footballers who can both contribute to the attack and provide cover when the ball is lost high up the pitch. That Middlesbrough can keep players of the calibre of Darragh Lenihan and Paddy McNair in reserve speaks to their defensive strength in depth.

Where The Game Will Be Won or Lost

This is likely to be a contest between a Middlesbrough side looking to monopolise possession in order to work testing crosses into the penalty area, and a Coventry City side looking to threaten on the counter-attack. It is a game that will rest on which side makes better use of the ball, with the first goal likely to have a big impact on whether the contest opens up in Middlesbrough’s favour or allows the Sky Blues to further stretch the opposing defence on the break.

For Coventry City, the key area to target will be in getting around the back of Jonny Howson at the base of Middlesbrough’s midfield, looking to exploit space left by Anfernee Dijksteel and Matt Clarke pushing forward from the wide centre-back positions and trying to isolate and overwhelm Dael Fry as he looks to cover. As ever, that is where Viktor Gyokeres will have a key role to play in stretching the opposing defence with his physicality and mobility, while Kasey Palmer’s energy just behind could be very useful.

The major source of concern for the Sky Blues is whether the defence can hold firm in the face of what could be a bombardment from Middlesbrough. It is going to be big ask of Fankaty Dabo and Jake Bidwell to contain their opposing numbers in the wing-back areas, especially as Boro will look to overwhelm them by pushing their wide centre-backs and central midfielders into that area of the pitch. While it will be important that the midfield gets across to mitigate that, it risks leaving the team open to quick switches of the play, where Middlesbrough will have a quick and direct wing-back who can run into the space that has been opened up.

Furthermore, this is a big test of this nascent defensive resilience that Coventry City have stumbled upon with Jonathan Panzo and Callum Doyle playing either side of Kyle McFadzean. For Panzo and Doyle in particular, their ability to maintain positional discipline while standing up to a physical challenge will be under stern inspection, as they look to avoid Kyle McFadzean being left isolated in the middle of defence.

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