Opposition Scouting Report: Middlesbrough

An analytical piece on our next opponent Middlesbrough’s last match against Millwall, which ended 1-1 at The Riverside.

Here’s how they lined up:

Unsurprisingly Jonathan Woodgate opted for the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation, the same formation they’ve used practically all season, with Ashley Fletcher drifting centrally, and George Saville and Paddy McNair providing the legs in midfield with the task to get forward and beyond Britt Assombalonga when they could.

FIRST HALF

The first half was a real struggle for Boro, they failed to really control the game but there were signs of how Woodgate wants them to play.

One of the themes of the first half, and the game, was the willingness of Saville and especially McNair to burst forward and support Assombalonga with runs beyond him. This worked especially well when either Assombalonga or Fletcher dropped deep to receive the ball on the turn, and were able to feed it through to the ongoing central midfielders.

Here’s an example below (click to enlarge):

Here we can see Assombalonga receiving the ball on the turn during a break-away, looking up and seeing McNair running beyond him. McNair was sent through and was able to get a shot away, however with a more precise pass he could have been clean through one-on-one with a real opportunity to score. If Welsh skipper Ashley Williams is fit enough to start this match, then Middlesbrough might have problems exploiting space through the middle against a back five (I assume City would only play a back five if Williams starts).

Another example:

In this instance, when left-back Marc Bola gives the ball to Assombalonga (who’s dropped deep) the other CM George Saville is the furthest man forward and is occupying the CBs. A clever dummy from Britt sends the ball to Fletcher who plays a through ball to Saville and the midfielder arguably should’ve won a free-kick on the edge of the box after being brought down.

This tactic does however come with limitations. Many times in the first half, Middlesbrough really struggled to build attacks from the back due to the advanced positions McNair and Saville were taking up, who found it hard to make themselves available for a short, vertical pass against Millwall’s compact midfield. When Ryan Shotton or Dani Ayala had the ball, many times the only passing options they had were to give it to Adam Clayton (who then often gave it back) or pass sideways along the back four. This eventually resulted in long, hopeful balls up to Assombalonga and Fletcher which were gobbled up by Alex Pearce and Jake Cooper. Consequently, Boro struggled to control the game or create any real chances in the first half, going in at half-time with just 2 shots on goal.

Here’s SofaScore’s AttackMomentum graph for the first half. Middlesbrough (in Green) failed to sustain any pressure against the away side. Millwall were dangerous, especially from set pieces and knockdowns by big Matt Smith.

Another theme of the first half was Ashley Fletcher drifting in to the half-spaces from the right-hand-side to turn and either run at the defence or play a through ball. Without the intelligent Adam Nagy in midfield, it will most likely be down to youngster Han-Noah Massengo to plug the gaps to stop any passes reaching the dangerous Fletcher in front of City’s defence.

SECOND HALF

Woodgate made a substitution at half-time, bringing on winger Marvin Johnson for the ineffective Marcus Browne. This instantly gave Boro a new lease of life as, at the start of the second half, Johnson and Bola combined well down the left and looked threatening, putting multiple crosses into the box for Assombalonga and Fletcher. Millwall dealt with the crosses, but this was a big improvement from the first half.

Johnson then swapped wings to the right-hand-side and was an out-ball where he would either cut back onto his left foot to whip a ball in, or take on Millwall’s left-back. Finally Boro had an extra option to pass to.

Another significant change made at half-time was to give Bola more license to get forward down the left-hand-side. Boro were too slow and predictable in the first half but this really changed in the second with Bola and Johnson providing the width on both flanks. Crucially, this helped spread out Millwall’s midfield, giving McNair and Saville more space through the middle. Here’s Marc Bola’s touch maps for both halves:

Bola played much higher and much wider in the second half, and was regularly an option for a switch of play.

If he plays that high against City on Saturday, Weimann and Afobe need to look to exploit the space he vacates on the counter-attack.

Another key change for Boro at half-time was Jonny Howson playing much narrower as an inverted full-back. The right-back picked up more central positions with winger Johnson on his outside, and played almost alongside Adam Clayton which massively helped Boro retain possession and sustain pressure on Millwall.

Howson’s change to an inverted full-back hugely helped Middlesbrough keep the ball and build attacks. Boro’s possession % went from 47% in the first half, to 71% in the second.
In the second half, Middlesbrough were able to pile the pressure on Millwall due to Bola and Johnson playing high and wide, and Howson playing more centrally to offer another passing option.

THE GOAL

Paddy McNair’s goal shows off Middlesbrough’s style brilliantly in this match.

First of all, Marc Bola drove forward with the ball down the left, then he found Ashley Fletcher in the half-space who turned and played a ball through for the onrushing Paddy McNair to finish past Bialkowski.

It will most likely be down to Massengo and Brownhill to stop the ball getting through to Fletcher in the half-space so he can turn, and also to stay with the midfield runner (either McNair or Saville, or Saturday’s substitute Lewis Wing) so they can’t receive a pass which takes them through on goal. No ball watching!

MILLWALL’S GOAL

Millwall equalised via a corner where striker Matt Smith won a knockdown (as he always does) at the back post which Bradshaw converted with his first touch after being subbed on.

Are defending set-pieces a cause for concern for Woodgate? Boro have already conceded 3 times from them so far this season – only Wigan have conceded more.

Defensive Shape

Boro defend in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Clayton patrolling in front of the back four, filling gaps and putting his foot in when required (he made 4 successful tackles, the most on the pitch). Also, Fletcher and Browne aren’t the quickest at getting back into a defensive shape so this could be exploited on the counter, however McNair and Saville have unbelievable stamina which allows them to cover out wide when needed.

To summarise, what should we expect?

  • Boro’s two central midfielders to bomb forward and beyond Britt Assombalonga
  • Marcus Browne to be dropped for Marvin Johnson, Middlesbrough’s answer to Niclas Eliasson
  • Ashley Fletcher to occupy the half-spaces, looking to either turn and run at the defence or play a through ball for the oncoming CMs or Assombalonga
  • Marc Bola to play high and wide down the left, leaving space behind
  • Howson to act as an extra midfielder, playing very narrow
  • Boro to be potentially weak at defending set-pieces

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