Preview: Middlesbrough

A point was required on the final day and a point is what Coventry City got. It sets up two further games between the Sky Blues and Middlesbrough, with the reward a shot at Premier League football in a one-off game at Wembley. This is play-off football.

Coventry City enter this tie as the underdogs, but not complete outsiders. While Middlesbrough were able to secure a top six finish with games left over to rest and rotate, if the Sky Blues repeat the results they achieved against their opponents in the regular season, they will make the Play-Off Final. It feels a well-poised tie, especially given the clash of styles allowing both teams to play their preferred game.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-5-2): Wilson; McNally, McFadzean, Doyle; Norton-Cuffy, Eccles, Kelly, Hamer, Bidwell; Godden, Gyokeres.

In sticking with an unchanged starting XI on Monday, Mark Robins sprung something of a surprise, with Jamie Allen having been widely expected to start in Matt Godden’s place. With Ben Sheaf making an ahead of schedule return to the bench in that game, the manager has some genuine options over these next two games.

With it likely to be vital that Coventry City take a lead to Teesside next week, it would be surprising if Mark Robins didn’t stick with two strikers up top for this game. Instead, the area to keep an eye on is who starts in midfield, where Jamie Allen and Ben Sheaf could add more dynamic options for the manager, if they are deemed fit enough to start.

As well as Liam Kelly has played recently, if Coventry City want to take the game to Middlesbrough to any extent, his lack of pace at the base of the midfield is a concern. The captain picked up a relatively early yellow card for a pretty clumsy foul on Chuba Akpom on Monday and spent the rest of the game walking a tight-rope, which may have partially been why the team was so reticent to push forward for much of the second-half. If Ben Sheaf is fit, it would be ideal for him to take Kelly’s place, but that seems unlikely to be the case, which should allow Kelly a well-earned swansong at the CBS Arena.

Elsewhere, there may be a temptation to change things up at wing-back, given the options available to Mark Robins. While it still seems like the manager has settled on Jake Bidwell and Brooke Norton-Cuffy as his preferred duo, the latter suffered a couple of lapses against Ryan Giles on Monday, which may open the door for Fankaty Dabo to take his place at right wing-back.

Last Time We Met

A fast start against Middlesbrough set Coventry City up on Monday for the point they needed to secure a top six finish. The Sky Blues set out to catch Boro cold to disrupt any groove they had hoped to build in possession, epitomised early on when Gustavo Hamer intercepted a Ryan Giles pass, exchanged passes with Viktor Gyokeres and forced an excellent save from the home goalkeeper.

That trend continued, with Josh Eccles cutting off a Middlesbrough attack and sauntering to the edge of the box to see another chance saved, before the pressure told and Gustavo Hamer fired home from the edge of the penalty area. From then on, Middlesbrough settled down in possession but struggled to create chances, until the Sky Blues switched off at a corner-kick on the stroke of half-time to allow for a nerve-jangling equaliser.

The second-half saw Middlesbrough move up a gear or two, but Coventry City largely held them well at bay, albeit at the cost of a threat on the counter-attack. As results elsewhere confirmed the Sky Blues’ play-off place, the away side notably calmed down and had a couple of late chances to claim the win that they couldn’t quite take.

The Opposition

The Manager – Michael Carrick

After finishing the regular season winless in three games, this recent run represents Michael Carrick’s toughest period as a manger. The former Manchester United coach swept Middlesbrough up the league very quickly by instituting a fast-paced, possession style of football that the players happily bought into, however, this recent run of fixtures has seen opponents stymie Boro’s ability to create chances and has exposed a level of defensive brittleness at the other end. However, those results could also be attributed to a lack of intensity that comes with a team knowing its end of season fate.

This first leg of the play-off semi-final is going to be a huge acid test for what Michael Carrick has been able to achieve at Middlesbrough and what he might be capable of going forward. The combination of that slowdown in recent form, Boro’s results on the road being much less impressive than at home, and, of course, the magnitude of this game are going to test just how solid the foundations of Carrick’s Middlesbrough side are and, if there are signs of any difficulty, whether the manager sticks to his guns or is willing or able to change things up. So far, Plan A has been more than good enough for Carrick.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Steffen; Smith, McNair, Lenihan, Giles; Hackney, Mowatt; Forss, Akpom, McGree; Archer

The team that Middlesbrough selected for the final day of the league season was much closer to their full-strength team than they had utilised in the couple of games beforehand. The return of Ryan Giles at left-back was a big boost for them, although there was no sign of the influential defensive midfield presence of Jonny Howson, while key creative cog, Aaron Ramsey, looks to be out for the rest of the season.

Middlesbrough are likely to look to play their typical brand of fast, passing football, with Chuba Akpom the key figure in the team in committing defenders, playing quick passes and getting into the box from his withdrawn striker position. The other important figure looks to be Hayden Hackney in central midfield, with his eye for a pass capable of getting Coventry City’s defence on the turn and Middlesbrough’s attacking players in space around the penalty area.

With Riley McGree likely to be another key creative presence for the team on their left side, the one position that Michael Carrick may change things up in is on the right side of their attack. The pacey Isaiah Jones was pretty well-marshalled by Callum Doyle on Monday, which may see the physical Marcus Forss take his place, which would also give Boro another body in the box to attack Ryan Giles’ crosses.

At the back, Middlesbrough are likely to be encouraged at how well Darragh Lenihan dealt with Viktor Gyokeres – in sharp contrast to Paddy McNair – and will try to find ways to set their best defender against Coventry City’s best striker. In addition, they will be reasonably happy with continuing to utilise goalkeeper, Zach Steffen’s, ability to pass under pressure as a means to lure the Sky Blues up the pitch and generate the fast breaks that they can be so dangerous with.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

This should be a good match-up between a possession-heavy Middlesbrough side who will play open enough football to encourage a counter-attack-focused Coventry City to hit them on the break, who will in turn allow their opponents the time on the ball they will be happy with. The crux of this tie will come down to who can make best use of their strengths, while minimising opportunities for their opponents to do what they do best – which I know isn’t exactly insightful.

From a Coventry City perspective, the main source of opportunity will be in getting Viktor Gyokeres and Gustavo Hamer running at a pretty open Middlesbrough defence on the break. Boro love to get their full-backs very high up the pitch, without Jonny Howson’s ability to plug the gaps, that leaves a lot of space for opponents to exploit if they can catch them in transition. In particular, Paddy McNair in Middlesbrough’s back-line looked completely unable to handle Gyokeres’ pace, strength and skill, making him someone the Sky Blues should be targeting as often as possible in this game.

At the other end, Coventry City are going to have to be careful when and where they apply pressure to Middlesbrough on the ball. While a high-pressing approach early on was effective last Monday, the risk is that if the Sky Blues don’t win the ball in those situations, it leaves Liam Kelly with a lot of ground to cover to prevent the likes of Akpom, Archer and McGree to run unhindered at the defence. On the other hand, sitting too far back allows Boro the time on the ball to pick the passes to play through a set defence, with Hayden Hackney and Riley McGree’s predilection for reverse balls a dangerous prospect.

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