Middlesbrough moved to the brink of the playoff places and extended their unbeaten run to seven games with a 2-0 home win over struggling Coventry City. Captain Britt Assombalonga broke the deadlock in the 81st minute after being released with a quality through ball from Sam Morsy. Djed Spence sealed the win with an injury time strike after being played in behind by substitute Marcus Browne.
DEFENSIVE STRENGTH GROWS
Neil Warnock switched to a more familiar 3-5-2 shape in this game, after experimenting with a back four during the 1-1 draw at Cardiff City last time out. The defensive base of Dael Fry, Anfernee Dijksteel and Paddy McNair were solid throughout as Boro registered their 3rd clean sheet in 4 games. The ability to play in two different formations and rely on a solid defensive core will be a key strength over the course of a long and grueling league campaign.
FRONT PAIR ROTATION
The front line players used by Warnock have rotated of late, with Chuba Akpom pairing with Patrick Roberts in the 1-0 win at Bristol City, while Akpom played as a solitary striker at Cardiff. For this game, Roberts was recalled to the starting lineup along with captain Assombalonga as the front pair.
Roberts produced a quality performance, picking up the ball in dangerous areas and showing the ability to beat players off the dribble, while Assombalonga stayed more high and central in a traditional target man role.
CAPTAIN’S GOAL DROUGHT ENDED
There was relief in the celebrations of Boro’s opening goal as they were made to wait until the 81st minute by a stubborn Coventry defense, but even more relief for Assombalonga. Despite some good performances, the striker had failed to score in 7 games so far this season, including a 4-3 win over a lower division opponent in the EFL Cup. Both the captain himself and manager Warnock will be hoping this sparks a run of scoring form to fuel Boro’s early season playoff push.
SERVICE FROM WIDE AREAS
Marcus Tavernier and goal scorer Spence played in the wingback positions for Boro and had good games overall. Spence scored the game sealing goal in injury time, while Tavernier made a key block at the far post to keep the game locked at 0-0 in the second half.
With that said, to be a consistent attacking force in this shape Boro will be looking to provide crosses into the penalty area from wide areas on a consistent basis, something that will only further add to any uptick in form from Assombalonga. In this game, Boro failed to provide a consistent threat in that department, with both Boro goals coming late on through a more central route. Time and again, the wingback duo of Spence and Tavernier as well as numerous other players found themselves in position to cross and either failed to get the ball into the penalty area or supplied a poor end product.
LACK OF PLAYMAKER IN CENTRAL MIDFIELD
Boro boss Warnock has hit on an effective three man central midfield with Jonny Howson, George Saville and Morsy. This lacks a true ‘number 10’ type player who can float behind opposition lines and link the attack. This is a possible reason for Akpom being benched in favor of Roberts as Boro search for their best attacking formula.
Morsy did produce an excellent defense splitting pass for Assombalonga’s goal here, but it will be interesting to see how things play out as Warnock looks to hit on his most dangerous attacking combination.
THE OPPOSITION – COVENTRY CITY
SHAPE PINNED BACK
Coventry manager Mark Robins fielded his team in a 3-4-3 shape with playmaker Gustavo Hemer paired with Ben Sheaf in central midfield. Boro had the upper hand for long spells which pinned back wide midfielders Ryan Giles and Sam McCallum into fullback type positions, turning the shape into more of a back five.
The extra numbers played a role in holding Boro scoreless for the first 80 minutes of the game, but meant Coventry had little counter attacking outlets and registered a measly xG of 0.09 in contrast to Boro’s 1.62 rating.
Netherlands Under-20 international Hamer battled gamely in midfield, working hard against the Boro engine room on the defensive end while proving to be Coventry’s biggest source of inspiration on the ball.
FAILED ATTEMPTS TO BUILD FROM THE BACK
Robins sent out his team with a clear intent to build out of the back and keep the ball, Boro’s shape proved tough to break down and meant minimal service finding its way to center forward Matt Godden throughout the game.
From goal kicks in particular, it appeared Boro had scouted Coventry well and set up to cut off all options playing out. As a result, goalkeeper Marko Marosi was forced to send long balls forward that the Boro back three won in the air more times than not.
The win extends Boro’s unbeaten streak to seven games and liftens them to 7th place, and with a strong defensive core in place Warnock will be confident of a top 6 push if he can hit on the right combination in the attack. Next up this weekend is Nottingham Forest, a home fixture that Boro will be looking to win and extend their unbeaten form.
Coventry have now failed to win in their last six games and fall to one point above the drop zone. The Sky Blues looked toothless in attack here and have a tough home fixture against league leaders Reading looming this Friday night.
81’ MID Britt Assombalonga (Sam Morsy) 1-0
90+4’ MID Djed Spence (Marcus Browne) 2-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
#16 CM Jonny Howson (Middlesbrough) – Instrumental performance from Howson in the heart of the engine room, covered ground defensively and kept possession ticking over as Boro showed patience before eventually breaking the deadlock.
3: CM Jonny Howson – Man of the Match
2: CD Dael Fry – Dominated the aerial battle and kept striker Godden in check as Coventry were held to a 0.09 xG rating.
1: CF Patrick Roberts – Lively performance from Roberts who showed good movement and flair on the ball to accompany more central target man Assombalonga.
3: CM Gustavo Hamer – Impressive performance against a strong Boro midfield as Hamer fought defensively and connected passes going forward during a tough game for his team.
2: LF Jordan Shipley – Showed quality on the ball and had Coventry’s biggest scoring chance when he was denied at the back post by a Tavernier block.
1: CF Matthew Godden – Maximized the limited service he did get and will likely be a key figure if Coventry are to break out of their poor run of form.
MID: Bettinelli, McNair, Fry, Dijksteel, Tavernier (Coulson), Morsy, Saville, Howson, Spence, Roberts (Browne), Assombalonga.
COV: Marosi, Hyam, McFadzean, Ostigard, Giles (Dabo), Sheaf, Hamer, McCallum, Shipley (Walker), Allen (O’Hare), Godden.
Full highlights of the game can be found on the official club website here.