Middlesbrough were dropped deeper into the relegation fight with a 1-0 home loss to QPR at the Riverside Stadium. Middlesbrough born striker Jordan Hugill returned to his hometown and fired home the decisive goal with a neat finish during the first half.
Neil Warnock lined Middlesbrough up in a 4-1-3-2 shape with the ability to line up a striker pair signed for a combined fee of over 20 million pounds in Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher. Patrick Roberts and Ravel Morrison flanked George Saville in central midfield, with Harold Moukoudi in a holding role screening the back four.
As the game progressed it seemed clear that Moukoudi was drafted in to perform a defensive role that primarily consisted of marking QPR attacking central midfielder Eberechi Eze. With center backs George Friend and Dael Fry tied up marking the QPR front pair of Hugill and Bright Osayi-Samuel, it was important that Moukoudi dealt with the forward runs of Eze, and picked him up between the lines.
Another possible factor in the selection of the 6’3” Moukoudi was the physical presence he would add, particularly defending set plays behind a midfield three that included gifted ball players in Morrison and Roberts, who lacked a little in terms of the physical and aerial aspects of defending.
QPR manager Mark Warburton lined his team up in a 3-4-1-2, with an athletic back 3 composed of Osman Kakay, Geoff Cameron and Yoann Barbet. Dominic Ball and Luke Amos lined up behind Eze in central midfield.
Middlesbrough won a 4th minute corner when Roberts jinked into the penalty area and was tackled at the byline by Barbet. Roberts cut the corner back to the edge of the area where Jonny Howson had his shot blocked before Friend was whistled for a high foot in the crowd to end the attack.
QPR created a chance of their own at the other end less than a minute later, when Barbet launched a ball forward and Eze latched onto it. Eze raced in behind before beating Fry at the byline and trying an audacious backheel that bobbled to Dejan Stojanovic.
Boro seemed to be making a confident start on the ball, and a move that included a Morrison backheel won another corner when Marvin Johnson nutmegged Ball before Todd Kane recovered to knock the ball behind. With the inclusion of Morrison, it was apparent throughout the game that Boro had inserted some comfort on the ball and ability to possess in the midfield third.
In the selection of Moukoudi behind him, Boro added balance to the midfield. While Morrison did his work going forward, Moukoudi’s primary role in possession was receiving passes from the back four and looking to switch the point of attack or find Morrison or Roberts. In addition Moukoudi added some stability in terms of challenging for second balls in front of the back four, or step into the backline when the fullacks of Fry stepped forward.
When it came to pressing, the Boro front pair accounted for the QPR defenders, while Saville stepped up to deal with QPR’s deepest midfielder and tried to cut out that easy pass in the build.
Roberts aimed a low corner but it cleared everyone before QPR launched a counter that saw Osayi-Samuel race past Howson before a heavy touch sent the ball out for a goal kick.
Boro’s bright start continued in the 9th minute when Morrison beat a man before picking out Assombalonga on the edge of the area, but the striker’s show was saved comfortably by Stojanovic.
In an entertaining start, QPR won a free kick when Howson rushed into a clumsy foul on Eze by the sideline. Eze got up to take the kick, but his cross was headed away by the Boro defense.
When QPR worked the ball wide, the midfield three often shifted over as a unit, with Moukoudi in behind working to cut off balls into the center forward, and providing a double team when a winger cut in off the flank.
QPR won a 13th minute corner when Kane squared up Johnson out wide before sending in an attempted cross that Stojanovic misjudged before having to tip over the bar at the last second. Eze’s corner was knocked behind by Boro, before his second effort was diverted away at the back post by Fry.
Boro won a free kick around the halfway line that turned into a corner when Johnson’s long ball into the box was knocked behind by Hugill. The first corner was deflected behind by QPR, before Morrison worked a short corner with Johnson before hanging a back post cross over that was punched clear by Joe Lumley. The attack was recycled and Fletcher found himself in on goal only for Lumley to stay big and make the save.
Fletcher was in behind down the same channel, when Roberts cut inside before playing a through ball, only for Lumley to stay big and save at his near post again. Roberts took a deep corner that Fry headed across goal before Lumley punched clear and Boro were whistled for offside.
Middlesbrough won a 26th minute free kick when Assombalonga was fouled by Cameron chasing a ball in behind. Roberts’ free kick was headed clear before Johnson’s ball back into the area was headed over the bar by Fletcher.
Middlesbrough came again minutes later, but this time Roberts’ cross was headed back across goal by Fletcher before QPR worked it clear.
Right back Howason tried to dribble forward in the 31st minute, but was dispossessed by Osayi-Samuel, who immediately released strike partner Hugill who’s shot was blocked by a combination of Friend and Stojanovic.
Hugill was played in behind again a minute later, and this time he made Boro pay and put the Hoops 1-0 up. Boro were dispossessed again, this time with Fletcher being robbed by Ryan Manning, before he looked up and lifted a ball into the path of Hugill. Middlesbrough born striker Hugill beat Friend for pace easily before lifting a lovely one touch finish over Stojanovic.
Coupled with a recent performance against Swansea, it is a fair concern whether the pace of Friend is an element of Boro’s play that opponents now target when facing Middlesbrough.
Immediately after scoring the goal, Hugill went down in need of treatment for an apparent hamstring injury, and limped off to be replaced by Ilias Chair.
QPR won a dangerous free kick in the 38th minute, when Eze dribbled past Moukoudi before releasing Kane who was barged over on the edge of the penalty area by Johnson. Left back Johnson was booked for the challenge, before Manning’s low shot around the wall was saved by Stojanovic.
There was a chance at either end in the 45th minute, first when Fry found Roberts with a long ball out to the right flank and the winger cut inside before having his shot blocked by Cameron. QPR launched an instant counter attack that ended with Osayi-Samuel cutting the ball back to the edge of the penalty area, where Chair directed his shot straight into the arms of Stojanovic.
QPR went into halftime with a 1-0 lead, and Boro knew that they would need a comeback given as results as things stood would see them drop into the dreaded relegation zone.
Middlesbrough embarked on the first attack after the interval in the 50th minute when Assombalonga was played in behind, before cutting it back to Morrison who had his shot blocked on the edge of the penalty area.
Boro midfielder Saville received a yellow card in the early stages of the second half for cynically dragging down lively playmaker Eze in the center circle.
QPR had the better of possession in the opening stages of the second half, but it was Middlesbrough who carried the bigger threat. Howson pushed forward and crossed for Assombalonga, only for Kakay to head behind and concede a corner. Roberts took the corner, but his back post cross was headed away by the Hoops defense.
Roberts was showing his usual flair on the ball, and split two QPR players out wide before dribbling across a third defender and having his shot blocked.
Defender Kakay pushed down the right flank for QPR in the 62nd minute, but his cross flew straight into the hands of Stojanovic at the near post.
Assombalonga attempted to stretch the QPR backline when he was played in down the right channel by Saville. After being tracked step for step by Cameron, Assombalonga cut the ball back for Saville to lift a high cross into the area. Lumley fumbled the cross before Fletcher dropped a pass back to Morrison who fired his shot over the bar.
Middlesbrough manager Warnock made a triple substitution in the 66th minute as his team pushed for an equalizer. Saville, Morrison and Fletcher were all brought off in favor of Lewis Wing, Paddy McNair and Lukas Nmecha.
McNair was presented with a chance on his first touch, but lifted his shot over the bar after being teed up by Roberts.
QPR boss Warburton made a change of his own in the 70th minute, bringing on the fresh legs of Aramide Oteh in place of the impressive Eze.
Roberts was a key figure in the Boro attack throughout the game, and beat Amos with a nutmeg before driving past a defender and setting up Assombalonga, before the strikers’ powerful shot was blocked inside the penalty area.
Howson pushed on from right back again, but his shot was way off target after being set up by Nmecha in the 74th minute.
Howson was impressive going forward from right back, particularly in the second half. It does appear though that his strengths suit a central midfield role best. As in previous games, the quick wingers and forwards of QPR caused him some problems in defensive situations.
QPR won a shooting range free kick in the 76th minute, when Kane cut inside off the wing before being dragged down by Moukoudi on the edge of the penalty area. Manning stepped up to take the free kick, but drilled his shot into the wall.
Boro conceded a corner when Osayi-Samuel was played in but had his shot blocked by Fry. the first short corner stalled, before a second attempt was headed clear.
Chasing an equalizer, Warnock made his last roll of the dice with 10 minutes remaining, freshening up the attack with the introduction of Marcus Tavernier and Hayden Coulson in place of Roberts and Johnson.
Howson was a good attacking outlet for Boro in the second half, and received a wing pass out wide before swinging over a good cross that Nmecha lifted over the bar under pressure from Kakay.
Nmecha was making an impression since coming off the bench, and won his team a corner when he burst into the right channel before being tackled by Barbet. Tavernier’s first corner was headed behind by the QPR defense, before his second effort cleavered everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Middlesbrough appealed for a penalty in the 89th minute when Assombalonga took a touch past Kakay inside the penalty area before going to ground, only for the whistle to go QPR’s way and the Boro striker was booked for diving.
Boro launched a succession of high balls forward in the final stages of stoppage time, but the Hoops held firm and headed back to London with a well earned three points.
The loss dropped Middlesbrough into the bottom three ahead of a tough midweek trip to face playoff contenders Millwall.
In Roberts and Morrison, Warnock had two playmakers capable of sparking the attack, but would have likely been disappointed in this game with the lack of impact from his expensively assembled front pair of Assombalonga and Fletcher.
Friend had been moved to center back by Warnock after being exposed for pace by Swansea in Jonathan Woodgate’s last game. Friend was beaten for pace here by Hugill for QPR’s goal, in what would likely be a concern going forward.
The win kept midtable QPR well clear of the relegation fight, and their confidence would be boosted ahead of a trip to face Wigan Athletic in midweek.
Warburton wil have been disappointed with the injury of leading scorer Hugill, but Chair and Oteh would likely be looking to step up and fill the void for the remainder of the season if the injury proved long term.
32’ QPR Jordan Hugill (Ryan Manning) 0-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
#1 GK Joe Lumley (Queens Park Rangers) – Quality performance from the goalkeeper, producing a pair of big saves from Fletcher in the first half, and dealing well with a succession of crosses and set plays pumped into his area.
3: CM Patrick Roberts – Full of flair and creativity, Roberts entered the final third time and again looking to spark the Boro attack, showing the ability to both beat an opponent off the dribble and find a penetrative pass.
2: CM Ravel Morrison – Showed comfort on the ball and connected passes throughout in an impressive display for the midfielder.
1: CD Dael Fry – Made a number of important blocks and tackles, also showed good ability to find a forward pass and was Boro’s best defender on the day.
3: GK Joe Lumley – Man of the Match.
2: CM Eberichi Eze – Lively playmaker who showed good ability to play between the lines, and also drive past defenders on the dribble.
1: CD Geoff Cameron – The USA international was a physical presence in the heart of the QPR backline, matching the strength and speed of Boro’s front pair and coming up with a number of key defensive plays.