Middlesbrough ensured safety from relegation and ended their season on a high note with a last gasp winning goal from striker Britt Assombalonga. Jacob Murphy had opened the scoring for Sheffield Wednesday, before Paddy McNair equalized for Boro before halftime.
Boro went into this game knowing they were not mathematically safe from relegation, but also that results in three separate games elsewhere would have to go against them to end the day in the bottom three. If Boro lost here, wins by Charlton Athletic at Leeds United, and Luton Town over Blackburn Rovers would be required along with Birmingham City gaining at least a draw against Derby County to send the Teessiders down into League One.
Manager Neil Warnock made a change at goalkeeper after the 3-1 home defeat against Cardiff City, recalling Dejan Stojanovic in place of Aynsley Pears. McNair started in place of the suspended Jonny Howson, while Assombalonga was recalled to pair with Ashley Fletcher in a 3-5-2 shape.
Wednesday came into this game with safety already attained, and outside of the playoff race having won only one of their previous six games.
Wednesday manager Garry Monk was more familiar with his opponent, having managed Middlesbrough in 2017 and been responsible for the signings of Boro’s strike pair Fletcher and Assombalonga, along with left wingback Marvin Johnson.
Monk made six changes for the Owls after a wild 5-3 defeat at Fulham last time out, drafting Liam Palmer into his defense in place of Julian Borner in a 3-5-2 shape. Murphy, Kieran Lee and Liam Shaw earned starts in midfield, while Monk also started a new forward pairing of Connor Wickham and Atdhe Nuhiu.
Wednesday won a 3rd minute corner when wingback Kadeem Harris raced down the left flank and had his cross blocked by Djed Spence. The corner was taken short to Barry Bannan who’s deep cross was headed back across goal before being claimed by Stojanovic.
Middlesbrough won an attacking set play of their own two minutes later when Assombalonga was dragged to the ground by Palmer when shielding the ball out by the sideline. McNair took the free kick but his overhit cross sailed out for a goal kick.
Assombalonga was on the attack again soon after, and tried to dribble through a crowd in the penalty area before being tackled. The loose ball fell to McNair on the edge of the area, and the Northern Ireland international midfielder blasted a shot against the goalpost.
The game was starting in lively fashion and the home team took the lead with a sweeping move in the 10th minute.
Central midfielder Bannan won the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and sprayed an excellent pass wide left to Harris. Left wingback Harris cut inside before teeing up Murphy who took a touch and fired home a deflected finish from the edge of the penalty area.
It was turning into quite a week against Middlesbrough for the Murphy family, as Jacob’s twin brother Josh had scored a brace at Middlesbrough for Cardiff City the previous weekend. This goal marked a hat-trick in 53 minutes of gametime for the siblings.
Middlesbrough tried to hit back immediately, but a low cross from Spence was blocked by Palmer and Wednesday launched a counter-attack that resulted in Murphy being fouled by Johnson within shooting range.
Bannan stepped up to take the free kick and his effort was deflected off the wall and behind for a corner. Bannan took the corner in a set play routine that involved Wednesday crowding goalkeeper Stojanovic with four bodies, but the Boro keeper claimed the cross without issue.
The open nature of the game continued and Marcus Tavernier sent in a driven cross that was spilled by Joe Wildsmith. Boro striker Fletcher got to the rebound first but fired his shot straight at the Owls goalkeeper.
Despite being 1-0 down here, Boro were entering a scenario where relegation was massively against the odds. Within the first 15 minutes of action the trio of Birmingham City, Luton and Charlton all found themselves 1-0 down in their own respective games.
Assombalonga battled for the ball on the edge of the penalty area and the ball fell for George Saville who created space before firing a shot that was saved by Wildsmith.
The Owls went down the other end immediately and Harris carried the ball from halfway before firing a shot that was saved by Stojanovic.
Middlesbrough equalized in the 22nd minute by capitalizing on an error from the otherwise impressive Bannan. Scotland international Bannan played a pass backwards onto his own half that was seized upon by Fletcher, who drove forward before playing a pass wide left. Tavernier received the pass before cutting the ball back to McNair who slotted it home.
The movement of Assombalonga played a big part in the goal, making a run that both opened the lane for Fletcher to pass to Tavernier, then occupying the back post defender high so McNair was unaccounted for.
Wednesday defender Palmer switched the point of attack with an excellent long, driven pass out to Murphy on the right, the winger took the ball on his chest and beat Johnson before being denied by a good 1v1 stop from Stojanovic. George Friend’s clearance only reached as far as Bannan, and Wednesday came again only for the deflected shot from Harris to be comfortably saved by Stojanovic.
Murphy was soon involved again, this time Dominic Iorfa stepping out of the back in possession before finding the winger. Murphy aimed a cross to Wickham but Anfernee Dijksteel did well to cut in front of the big target man and clear the danger. The attack was recycled and Harris latched onto a Friend clearance on the edge of the area but fired his shot wide.
Lee played a pass forward to Murphy in the 34th minute, and the winger won a corner when his cross was deflected behind by Johnson. Wednesday’s first two corners were knocked behind by Friend and Fletcher respectively, before a short corner resulted in Bannan hitting a cross that cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Murphy continued to be a thorn in Boro’s side, and received a long pass from Bannan before skipping past Fry and chipping a cross over into the area. Shaw hooked the ball back across goal to Wickham, but Friend intervened and poked the ball away from the striker.
Bannan fired a long range shot on the next attack, and his driven effort was parried behind for a corner by Stojanovic. Tom Lees met Bannan’s corner, but his header on goal deflected off Shaw and out for a goal kick.
The two teams went into halftime locked at 1-1, and Boro will have been heartened by news of results elsewhere at the interval. Charlton had now fallen behind 2-0 at Leeds while Birmingham still trailed 1-0 against Derby. It would take a comeback from both of those teams to put Boro in danger regardless of the result here. Luton had given themselves a lifeline by coming back to lead 2-2 against Blackburn Rovers courtesy of two own goals.
Boro carved out the first chance of the second half when McNair raced down the right flank and pulled the ball back to the penalty spot, where Fletcher had his shot blocked by Iorfa. Tavernier’s corner failed to beat the first man and was headed away by Wickham at the near post.
Middlesbrough won a 48th minute free kick when Assombalonga was fouled on the edge of the penalty area by Bannan. Assombalonga stepped up to take the free kick himself, but lifted his shot high over the crossbar.
Wednesday’s first shot on goal after the interval came from an unsurprising source, when Nuhiu dropped a pass to Murphy and the winger hit a deflected long range shot that was saved by Stojanovic.
On top of his excellent opening goal, Murphy was a threat to Boro throughout the game, found in wide positions time and again, he showed great ability to beat defenders and provide service into the box.
Dijksteel stepped out of defense in possession for Middlesbrough and fed Fletcher before the striker’s shot was deflected behind for a corner by Iorfa. Another poor Boro corner was headed clear at the near post by Wickham.
Events elsewhere all but ended the drama of Boro’s fight against relegation when Tyler Roberts fired Leeds into a 3-0 lead over Charlton. This meant a 4-goal comeback from Charlton would now be needed along with some other results to go against them for Boro to drop into the bottom three come the end of play, even if they were to go on and lose this game.
Wednesday boss Monk made the first substitution of the game in the 53rd minute, withdrawing central midfielder Shaw and replacing him with Australia international Massimo Luongo.
Owls winger Harris carried the ball down the wing and found space against Spence before sending over a cross that was headed clear by Dael Fry. Murphy collected Fry’s clearance before firing a shot that was blocked by Saville.
Boro wingback Spence had his hands full with a quality opponent for this game in the form of Harris, and produced an overall good defensive display throughout the game.
Harris was soon on the attack again and dropped a pass back to Bannan, who’s deep cross was headed behind by Fry. Bannan’s corner was met at the back post by Lees and headed back to Wickham, who lifted a looping shot that bounced off the top of the crossbar and over.
The wings were a key part of the Wednesday attack, and Harris came again minutes later, cutting inside Spence before firing his shot over the bar.
Johnson took a 68th minute throw in for Boro, and released Assombalonga down the left wing, and the striker was bundled over by Palmer. Johnson crossed in the free kick but the result was yet another clearance from Wickham.
Wednesday worked the ball wide to Murphy again and the winger won a tussle with Johnson for possession before racing to the byline and whipping in a cross that was cleared by Friend.
In the 73rd minute, striker Nuhiu was subbed off and replaced by Josh Windass. The name Windass will have been familiar to many Middlesbrough fans, as his father Dean played 41 games for Boro in the club’s Premier League seasons between 2000 and 2003.
Boro went close to taking the lead in the 76th minute when Johnson dispossessed Palmer and drove a hard, low cross to the near post that Assombalonga diverted just wide of the target.
Iorfa launched a long ball forward in the 77th minute, and Wickham showed his strength to brush off Dijksteel, before his shot was blocked behind for a corner by a combination of Fry and Dijksteel.
The play was an example of the physical strength of Wickham, who held the ball up well throughout and produced a number of headed clearances from Middlesbrough set plays.
Lees failed to make contact with Bannan’s corner after a near post run and Spence dribbled clear, attempting to launch a counter attack before being muscled off the ball by Palmer. Defender Palmer immediately launched an attack for his team with a long ball forward to Bannan, who crossed the ball over only for Windass to foul Stojanovic and end the attack.
With the Middlesbrough wingbacks doing a lot of attacking and subsequently adopting a high position, the long, diagonal pass into the corner for wingers to chase was an effective form of attack for the Owls.
Boro manager Warnock made a change in the 79th minute, bringing on Lewis Wing in place of Tavernier. It was notable that this was Warnock’s only substitution of the game. With no legs to be rested for upcoming games, the use of only one substitute was a telling indicator of Warnock’s belief in the depth, or lack of, at his disposal within the current squad.
Wednesday boss Monk also did not use his full allowance of five substitutes, making his third and final change in the 80th minute by bringing on former Boro player Adam Reach for Lee.
Substitute Luongo won Wednesday a free kick when he was fouled by Saville in the 82nd minute. Bannan crossed in the free kick and Dijksteel headed it behind for a corner. Murphy;s corner was cleared by McNair, but Iorfa recycled the attack and cut the ball back to Murphy who side-footed a shot inches wide.
Wednesday won another corner when Harris had his cross blocked behind by Spence. Murphy’s corner was met by Lees at the back post, but the defenders header was directed over the bar from 2 yards out.
Boro wingback Johnson seized upon a stray Luongo pass inside his own half, and carried the ball for 50 yards before firing a shot well wide as the game entered stoppage time.
The Owls had multiple chances to take a lead during the second half, but were made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal when Boro snatched a game winning goal at the death courtesy of a 92nd minute strike from Assombalonga.
(chance creation map as created by www.modernfootballanalysis.com)
Johnson played a long ball forward to lead Fletcher down the left wing, and Fletcher crossed to striker partner Assombalonga who turned Bannan with an excellent piece of skill before firing a hard shot that Wildsmith will have been disappointed to spill into the net behind him.
Wednesday pushed for a last gasp equalizer but Dijksteel blocked a shot after Harris had beat several defenders, and Fry hacked clear a Reach cross at the death.
Wednesday will have been disappointed to end their season with defeat and a poor run of form that saw them win just 2 of their final 12 games. Offseason additions would be needed to balance out a team with good wingers and forwards, but work to do at the back having conceded 66 goals on the season, more than relegated Charlton.
The decision to fire Jonathan Woodgate and replace him with veteran Warnock had paid dividends for chairman Steve Gibson as the objective of avoiding relegation was now officially avoided.
A big summer now lays ahead for Boro, with the departures of multiple veterans leaving a young team behind that Warnock has publicly stated lacks leadership in the dressing room. It will be interesting to see who is added over the summer, with defenders possessing pace an obvious glaring need.
It also remains to be seen whether any proven starters will depart the club for financial reasons over the summer, with names like Assombalonga, Fletcher and Spence all capable of bringing in a sizable transfer fee.
Striker Assombalonga reached a notable personal landmark in this game, tying Mark Viduka’s record of most goals for Boro since the turn of the century with his 42nd goal since being signed by Monk in 2017.
(game xG chart as created by www.modernfootballanalysis.com
As far as statistical analysis of the game goes, the xG (Expected Goals) map above created by the Modern Football Analysis website shows that Middlesbrough had the higher expected goals return despite Wednesday accumulating a 63-37% advantage in possession, an 18-10 advantage in shots and a 10-2 edge in corner kicks.
The advantage of xG is it adds context to some of the more traditional statistics used to measure a Football match. A team with 63% of the ball did not necessarily dominate the run of play. Was the possession in their own half or more dangerous areas? Did they break lines and subsequently create more attacking opportunities, or were the majority of passes lateral keeping 10 defenders between the ball and goal? These two scenarios are not the same, so possession alone is never a measure of superiority in isolation.
As for the 18-10 advantage in shots, where were the shots from? A shot from 25 yards out is not equal to a shot inside the penalty area or a 1v1 situation when the defensive line is breached. Is it a shot under no pressure, or has the attacker been forced onto his weaker foot by a defender in close proximity?
Was it a big chance? What was the angle of the shot? Was it a shot or a header? Set piece or open play? All such factors are taken into context with xG making it more reflective of the game’s flow than some measures.
This showed through in this game. Wednesday certainly had the upper hand for long spells, but a lot of those attacks ended with crosses from Murphy and Harris that were dealt with well by the central defensive trio of Friend, Fry and Dijksteel. Certainly, a strike pairing of physical target men like Wickham and Nuniu is more suited to Boro’s current personnel than strikers with pace that will break us down and result in a much higher xG from more dangerous shots and chances.
For example in Jonathan Woodgate’s last game as manager, Swansea City fielded an extremely mobile front three who consistently penetrated Boro and created chance after chance in a 3-0 win. This statistical model shows that this was not just a case of Swansea finishing chances, as the game saw them register a 2.52xG, as opposed to the 1.18xG number carved out by Wednesday in this game despite an excellent performance from both wingers.
Even Wednesday’s goal was a fantastic finish from outside the penalty area, whereas both Boro goals were scored by players inside the penalty area from central positions in front of goal.
The attack map below offers a little more illustration of where the chances came from during the game. As it shows, Boro had a higher concentration of shots inside the penalty area from more dangerous positions.
(attack map created by www.modernfootballanalysis.com)
10’ SHE Jacob Murphy (Kadeem Harris) 1-0
22’ MID Paddy McNair (Marcus Tavernier) 1-1
90+2’ MID Britt Assombalonga (Ashley Fletcher) 1-2
MAN OF THE MATCH
#9 CF Britt Assombalonga (Middlesbrough) – A last gasp winner capped a performance full of pace and power from the striker who was a thorn in the side of the home defense all game.
3: RM Jacob Murphy – Scored Wednesday’s goal and was a consistent source of crosses into the box, beating defenders off the dribble and also showing the ability to cut inside all game in an impressive display.
2: LM Kadeem Harris – Gave Boro’s talented wingback Spence a real tough afternoon, an old school winger able to dribble and cross well, assisted on Murphy’s goal.
1: CM Barry Bannan – Saw most of the ball for Wednesday and picked over possession well, also playing many longer, driven passes behind the Boro wingbacks. Was involved in a negative sense for both Boro goals.
3: CF Britt Assombalonga – Man of the Match.
2: CF Ashley Fletcher – Another impressive display from Fletcher who has proven a real handful for opposing defenders of late, assisted on the game winner by driving down the left flank before crossing to Assombalonga.
1: LM Marvin Johnson – Johnson played well with a tough defensive assignment in the form of Murphy, also got forward consistently on the attacking end, and played the ball forward to FLetcher in the buildup for the game winner.
SHE: Wildsmith, Palmer, Lees, Iorfa, Harris, Lee (Reach), Bannan, Shaw (Luongo), Murphy, Wickham, Nuhiu (Windass).
MID: Stojanovic, Friend, Fry, Dijksteel, Johnson, Saville, McNair, Tavernier (Wing), Spence, Fletcher, Assombalonga.
HIGHLIGHTS (from Sheffield Wednesday YouTube channel)