Bristol City kept their playoff hopes alive with a convincing 3-1 win over relegation threatened Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. A brace from Nahki Wells either side of a Jamie Paterson goal completed the scoring for the Robins, while Boro hit back with a late consolation strike from Britt Assombalonga.
Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock fielded an unchanged lineup for the first time since arrival at the club, pairing Assombalonga with Ashley Fletcher up front in a 3-5-2 shape. Jonny Howson, George Saville and Paddy McNair formed a trio in the heart of midfield for Boro, who were looking to build on their 2-0 win at Millwall in midweek as they struggled against the threat of relegation.
Bristol City were coming into this game less than a week after firing manager Lee Johnson on the back of a nine game winless run that had seen them drop to the fringes of the playoff race. Dean Holden had taken over the role on an interim basis and was looking to follow up a 2-1 win over Hull City in his debut game with another result here.
Holden lined up the Robins in a 3-5-2 shape, and a familiar face to Boro fans lined up at the back in the shape of former loanee Tomas Kalas, who was a veteran of Middlesbrough’s 2015/2016 promotion campaign.
Striker Wels was joined up front by Senegal international striker Famara Diedhiou, a name that gave former Middlesbrough player Chris Kamara some trouble in terms of pronunciation in his role at Sky Sports!
It was a high energy start to the game from both teams, and Middlesbrough won a 4th minute free kick when Saville joined the attack and was fed by Assombalonga before being barged off the ball by Nathan Baker. Saville touched the free kick to Howson who fired his shot wide.
In what could have been a product of playing at home, or simply more time on the training ground Boro did appear to adopt some spells of trying to press higher up the field into their first half game plan. Central midfielder Saville stepped out to press the Bristol defenders at times, and the wongback’s engaged the ball high up the field.
The positive start did not last long for the home team as Bristol City took a 1-0 lead in the 6th minute from a slick passing move that was started and finished by Wells.
Paterson made a run forward from central midfield, blowing past Paddy McNair before being played in by Wells and cutting the ball back from the byline. Andreas Weimann gathered the cutback and dropped a pass back to the edge of the area, where Wells clipped a lovely finish in off the goalpost.
A run forward from central midfield being untracked by Middlesbrough had played a part in this goal, and it was an issue that saw the Boro back three left in tough situations throughout the game.
With their tails up, Bristol came forward again two minutes later when Korey Smith chipped a good pass in behind to lead right wingback Jack Hunt, who’s ball across goal was knocked behind to concede a corner by Ryan Shotton. Paterson sent over a poor corner that was eventually cleared by a sliding challenge from Marvin Johnson.
In what was becoming a rocky opening period for Middlesbrough, Stristol striker Diedhiou picked the ball up out wide and cut inside two defenders before his shot from the edge of the penalty area was deflected behind by Dejan Stojanovic. In a side note, for any readers wondering about the pronunciation, see below.
Paterson cut the corner back for Jay Dasilva to cross from deep before the looping ball into the area was cleared by McNair.
Boro broke up the pressure with a counter attack in the 14th minute when Howson intercepted a Paterson pass and strode forward before his attempted pass to Assombalonga was just behind the striker.
Middlesbrough won a chance to send in a long throw in the 19th minute when Djed Spence was challenged by Dasilva before Baker stepped over to clear the ball out of play. Bristol cleared the initial throw into the penalty area, before Saville won the loose ball and played in Johnson who had his cross deflected behind by Baker.
Johnson’s corner was punched back in his direction by Daniel Bentley, before a second cross was tipped behind by the Robins goalkeeper. McNair’s corner failed to beat the first man, but Boro recycled the attack and Saville squared to Dael Fry who blazed a good chance over the bar from 8 yards out.
Boro won a corner when Johnson sent another cross into the box that was deflected behind at the back post by Dasilva.
Johnson’s first corner was headed behind at the near post by Wells, before his second attempt was headed back in the direction it came to concede a throw in.
Shotton sent in the long throw and Saville had his header tipped onto the crossbar by Bentley, before Diedhiou sliced a clearance over his own crossbar. Boro’s spell of pressure ended when they were whistled for an attacking foul from the subsequent corner.
In Boro’s previous games using the long throw, Shotton had taken the right sided throw ins, and George Friend had come forward to take them from the left. It appeared in this game that Shotton has won the role of designated long throw taker, as it appeared any throw in from either side 35 yards and closer was launched into the Bristol penalty area by the center back.
With Bristol showcasing more pace going forward and quality on the ball, the long throw in and corners were proving to be BOro’s primary source of attacking threat in the opening half.
Boro won another long throw in the 31st minute that was converted into a corner when Hunt headed it behind at the near post. A short corner was worked to McNair before his cross was cleared by the Robins.
An error by Boro was almost punished by Bristol when Shotton drilled an attempted clearance into teammate Saville. Paterson seized on the loose ball and played Hunt in behind, only for the right wing back to advance on goal and have his shot saved by Stojanovic.
The game was becoming an end to end affair when Howson led Fletcher into the corner with a long, raking pass and the striker picked out a streaking McNair who won a corner when his attempted cutback was turned behind by Kalas.
Johnson’s corner found Friend at the back post, but the defenders header was deflected behind by Diedhiou. McNair took the next corner but his inswinging effort was too high and cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Bristol City won a free kick in the 35th minute when powerful striker Diedhiou was dragged down by Shotton 30 yards out. Paterson chipped the free kick into the back post area where Kalas directed his header over the crossbar.
In the 41st minute, Diedhiou proved his worth at the defensive end of the field, being first to two Shotton long throw ins as the Robins cleared the danger each time.
Middlesbrough had a penalty appeal when Johnson’s cross from the left flank was deflected behind, seemingly off the arm of Paterson. Referee Darren England ruled no foul and awarded a corner that McNair curled harmlessly into the arms of Bentley.
The decision to award no penalty would become an important one in the context of the game, as Bentley would then launch a sweeping counter attack that saw Bristol double their lead before half time.
Bentley was quick to roll the ball out to Hunt, who played a quick pass forward to Weimann. Austrian international midfielder Weimann drove forward before playing a pass wide left. Paterson picked up the pass and squared up Spence, before creating space and blasting a good finish across Stojanovic and into the far corner of the goal.
The goal was another example of Bristol’s ability to provide slic, penetrative attacking play that included the capacity to slice through Boro while going from one end of the field to the other.
Bristol almost added to their lead in first half injury time when Wells drove forward before playing a pass wide right. Hunt collected the pass before swinging in a back post cross where Diedhiou’s header was denied by a good Stojanovic save.
Two Paterson corners were cleared behind by Boro, before Bristol were whistled for an attacking foul on the third attempt to bring the half to a close.
Bristol caretaker boss Holden would go into the interval pleased with both his teams performance and the resulting two goal lead. Boro were creating chances from set plays, but were second best in the run of play and showing vulnerability on the defensive end.
Manager Warnock would have some work to do if his team were to turn things around and produce a second half comeback. Warnock made his first substitution during the interval, replacing center midfielder Saville with Lewis Wing.
The game was delayed within minutes of the restart when Fletcher and Bristol defender Filip Benkovic clashed heads while challenging for a high ball out on the sideline. The pair were both left down in need of significant treatment before eventually returning to the game.
Boro probed for a goal to get them back in the game, and Howson found Fletcher before the striker played a pass out wide to the right. Spence picked up possession but directed a poor cross straight into the hands of Bentley.
Boro were struggling to deal with the pace out wide of Bristol, and the high starting position of the wing backs in the 3-5-2 system appeared to be an area Bristol had great success exploiting.
That pattern continued after the restart when the Robins won a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. Paterson took a restart quickly near halfway and drove a long pass in behind Boro’s left wingback Johnson for the impressive Hunt. Johnson was booked for hauling down Hunt after being stripped for pace.
Paterson crossed in the free kick, only for Kalas to miss a glaring chance by heading wide from 5 yards out.
Bristol won a 58th minute corner, courtesy of some quick thinking at a throw in. Diedhiou took a throw in quickly and led Johnson in behind, only for Shotton to save Boro with a last ditch sliding tackle. The corner was swung over into the crowded goal mouth, but headed clear by McNair.
Middlesbrough were creaking under the pressure, and forward runs from Bristol CIty central midfielders were troubling the home team defensively. Smith slipped the attention of Wing and was found by PAterson before playing in Wells. The striker’s low cross was cleared by Shotton, but fell to Hunt who dragged his shot wide.
Struggling to get a foothold in the game, Boro manager Warnock changed the shape of his team and made a double substitution in the 66th minute. Shotton and Fletcher were withdrawn and replaced by attacking players in Patrick Roberts and Marcus Tavernier.
The removal of Shotton saw Boro shift into a 4-3-3 shape with Johnson and Spence dropping back into more traditional fullback roles in a flat back four. This move was likely spurred by the inability of Boro to deal with runs forward in wide areas from the Bristol wingback pair of Hunt and Dasilva.
After the switch, Spence and Johnson were provided some more cushion by their new deeper role, and made it much tougher for the Bristol wide dup to get in behind.
On the attacking end, striker Assombalonga now spearheaded the attack flanked by Roberts and Tavernier.
Middlesbrough won an attacking free kick as they tried to claw their way back into the game when Howson was fouled by the hard working Wells. Midfielder Howson was a bright spot in an overall disappointing performance for Boro, consistently winning the ball in the midfield third for his team and looking to launch attacks.
Johnson’s free kick was cleared by a combination of Smith and Dasilva, but the attack was recycled and Roberrts was played in down the right flank before his attempted cross was overhit and floated out of play.
In a sign of Warnock’s tactical shift making an impact, Roberts was in behind again soon afterwards. With Assombalonga occupying the center back on his side, the high starting position of Roberts saw him easily beat Dasilva in behind, only to have his shot blocked by a sliding Baker.
Middlesbrough made another change in the 77th minute, removing McNair and shifting Tavernier into central midfield while introducing Hayden Coulson as a left winger.
Bristol all but ended the game as a contest when Wells made the score 3-0 in the 79th minute. Weimann seized on a loose Friend header in central midfield before dribbling forward and playing a through ball behind Fry. Bermuda international striker Wells latched onto the pass and rolled a casual finish past Stojanovic to leave Boro in a deep hole.
In what had become a concerning theme for Boro with opponents in recent games, the pace of Wells was a factor that Boro had struggled to come to terms with throughout the game.
Boro responded immediately and dragged the score back to 3-1 when Wing fed Assombalonga inside the penalty area, and the striker took a touch across the front of Benkovic before rolling a finish into the bottom corner.
Both managers made changes immediately after the Boro goal, with Warnock introducing Adam Clayton into central midfield in place of Howson. Bristol manager Holden replaced strike pair Wells and Diedhiou with Callum O’Dowda and Marley Watkins.
Bristol were forced into another change in the 87th minute when influential midfielder Paterson was forced off with an injury and replaced by Adam Nagy. Zak Vyner was also subbed on in place of the impressive Hunt.
Livewire Boro winger Roberts created a chance in stoppage time when he flashed his skill to beat four defenders before the ball rolled out for a goal kick. The frustration of Roberts boiled over and he lashed out at the goalpost before stomping back towards the halfway line.
In that brief passage of play, Roberts had displayed how he could both help and hurt his team for the vital games ahead in the relegation fight. An ability to beat defenders with ease that could make decisive plays for his team, but also a lack of end product and petulant reaction during a time that is going to need clear heads and execution under pressure for Boro.
Boro sent plenty of bodies forward but could not make a dent in a strong Bristol defensive line as the final seconds ticked off the clock, and the Robins closed out an impressive win.
Middlesbrough boss Warnock pointed to his team’s lack of consistency in the post match press conference, and it is a fair concern he raises. The same 11, playing the same system had faced two playoff contenders within a week, and produced both a 2-0 win and 3-1 defeat.
Boro are now running out of games, and head into a key midweek game at Reading only two points above the relegation zone and only three games left in the season.
His team had looked a little more comfortable in a 4-3-3 shape during this game, and Warnock would now have formation and personnel decisions to make ahead of the battle to gain points at Reading.
By guiding Bristol to two wins in his first two games, interim Bristol boss Holden had dragged his team back into the playoff race. The Robins were now within three points of the top six ahead of a midweek home game against relegation threatened Stoke City.
6’ BRI Nahki Wells (Andreas Weimann) 0-1
42’ BRI Jamie Paterson (Andreas Weimann) 0-2
79’ BRI Nahki Wells (Andreas Weimann) 0-3
82’ MID Britt Assombalonga (Lewis Wing) 1-3
MAN OF THE MATCH
#21 CF Nahki Wells (Bristol City) – Wells scored two good goals, and stretched Boro all game with his pace. Also made a number of set play clearances on the defensive end.
3: CM Jonny Howson – Consistently fought for and won ball in the midfield third, while launching a number of attacks with long passes or driving forward.
2: CM George Saville – Saville made forward runs to support the strike pair and create overloads, denied a first half goal by an excellent reflex save from Bentley.
1: CM Paddy McNair – Made a number of aerial clearances on the defensive ends, and picked his spots to go forward as BOro toiled to break down Bristol.
3: CF Nahki Wells – Man of the Match.
2: CM Andreas Weimann – The quality playmaker possessed well throughout and capped his performance with a hat trick of assists.
1: CM Jamie Paterson – His run in behind was a key part of buildup for Bristol’s opener, and Paterson scored an excellent second as he produced a dominant display in the Bristol engine room.