Middlesbrough returned from the lengthy COVID-19 enforced break in league play and suffered a heavy 3-0 defeat at the hands of Swansea City. Two goals from Liverpool loanee Rhian Brewster, and a penalty from Adre Ayew rounded out the scoring as the Swans kept their own promotion hopes alive, while leaving Boro on the brink of the relegation zone.
Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate would be without veteran defender Daniel Ayala. After 216 appearances for the club, it appeared Ayala had played his last game and was not training over a contract dispute.
Middlesbrough lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with the aerial presence of Rudy Gestede leading the attack, young wingers Hayden Coulson and Lukas Nmecha lined up on either side. Ryan Shotton and Dael Fry paired up in central defense, hoping to adequately replace Ayala.
Swansea lined up in a similar formation with Brewster leading the attack, flanked by Ayew and FC Basel loane Aldo Kalulu. Swansea were relatively inexperienced in the heart of defense, coming into the game without Mike van der Hoorn and Joe Rodon, who had combined for 46 leagues this season to date. The replacements were Ben Wilmont and academy product Ben Cabango, both of whom were 20 years old.
The high press is a huge part of Woodgate’s plan with Middlesbrough, and it wa son display as early as the 2nd minute, when right back Jonny Howson ran past his own winger Nmecha to put pressure on Swansea left back Jake Bidwell in possession.
Middlesbrough carved out the first chance of the game in the 4th minute when a poor touch by Kalulu was seized upon by Friend, and the left back crossed for the powerful Gestede to rise over the young central defensive duo and head wide. The aerial presence of Gestede was an element of the Boro attack that did trouble the Swansea defense throughout the game.
Swansea had a chance three minutes later, and this time Friend was involved at the wrong end of the field. The fullback slipped chasing down a Brewster through ball, allowing Kalulu to race clear before chipping his attempted finish against the goalpost.
The Swans were settling into the game and created a chance that would show some of the tactical patterns that would give Middlesbrough such trouble in the opening half. Captain Matt Grimes passed to left back Bidwell, who’s high and wide position occupied Boro right back Howson man to man. This forced winger Nmecha to track Ayew man to man, Ayew got in behind to send a cross into the box and Conor Gallagher attacked the cross and headed wide, before Brewster tried to redirect and sent the ball out for a goal kick.
In the video clip below, we get an interesting take on this move through opposition eyes, with Oliver Jefferies, the Swansea City Lead Youth Development Phase Coach breaking down the buildup.
Systematically, deploying the strategy of Nmecha tracking Ayew seemed very flawed by Middlesbrough. Nmecha is a 21 year old winger who’s strength lies in the attacking department. Here, he was given a man to man defensive role against Ayew, a 30 year old Premier League veteran with 86 caps for Ghana.
(Footage owned by EFL, all clips and screenshots taken for educational purposes)
Swansea opened the scoring in the 18th minute, and it was the influential Ayew playing the role of creator. Grimes passed wide to Ayew who passed inside to Brewster and raced past Howson to receive the return pass. Ayew’s low cross was met at the near post by Brewster, who beat Boro goalkeeper Dejan Stojanovic with a one touch finish.
Here, Oliver James talks us through the goal from a Swansea perspective.
Stojanovic showed slow footwork on the goal. Typically in such a play, the goalkeeper will turn to face the forward and have squared his feet to face the shooter, from his position defending the flank attack. By the time Ayew’s cross had travelled all the way to Brewster, Stojanovic was still facing out to the left sideline, and was nutmegged with an average finish as he twisted his body late to defend the shot.
The high press implemented by Woodgate was not causing turnovers in the opposing half, as the system is designed to do. As a result of this, Boro’s full backs often found themselves isolated in 1v1 situations with faster Swansea opponents and involved in foot races that did not suit Boro matchup wise.
Another product of a high pressing system implemented by Woodgate is the 1v1 situations your defenders can find themselves in, this puts massive pressure on the midfielders and wingers to track runs step for step. With Swansea sending good numbers forward all game, the Boro fullback would press the ball, only for an overlapping fullback or an untracked midfield run to break down the defensive line.
Swansea doubled their lead just three minutes later and this time it was left back Friend who was exposed. In the initial phase, Boro center back Shotton pressed high but failed to win the ball, Gallagher picked up possession and drove forward before feeding right winger Kalulu inside the penalty area. Friend was slow to close down the ball, allowing Kalulu to find Brewster at the back post to volley home unmarked as Shotton tried to recover.
Here, Oliver talks us through the second goal through Swansea’s eyes.
Boro tried to respond quickly, and Nmecha sent a low ball across the goalmouth that Connor Roberts cleared behind to concede a corner. The corner was punched clear by Freddie Woodman, before Brewster was whistled for a foul on Adam Clayton to award Boro a wide free kick, which would be taken after the newly implemented water break.
The free kick was headed clear, but Boro came forward once again and Coulson chipped in a cross that was eventually hacked clear by Roberts.
Things went from bad to worse for Boro in the 34th minute when Jay Fulton beat Coulson off his first touch, before feeding Gallagher who was brought down by the struggling Friend. Ayew stepped up to calmly roll the ball home and give Swansea a comfortable 3-0 lead.
It was notable in the buildup, that young winger Coulson had taken a poor angle when closing down Fulton defensively, aggressively charging at the wrong shoulder, and as a result allowing Fulton to turn and face the Boro goal too easily.
Middlesbrough continued to fight, and won a corner when a Coulson dribble was cut short by Ayew. Paddy McNair sent in the cross, but Friend headed wide after winning the aerial challenge.
In Boro’s continued attempts to get a goal back before halftime, Clayton found Nmecha with a long ball forward and the winger was fouled by Bidwell. McNair swung over the free kick to Friend at the back post, but the ball was deflected behind for a corner by the Swansea defense. The resulting corner ended up at the feet of Nmecha, but his shot was crowded out by a number of defenders.
Howson started Boro’s next attack when he played forward to Nmecha, before the winger teed up Lewis Wing to fire a shot well off target. Nmecha fed Wing outside the penalty area again minutes later, and this time the midfielder squared to Howson, who’s deflected shot went out for a corner. McNair sent in the corner and Gestede out jumped Roberts to head wide.
There was a flashpoint just before halftime, when Kalulu went into a reckless challenge on Coulson with his foot at head height. Kalulu got up from treatment and was fortunate to receive only a yellow card from referee Tony Harrington.
Jonathan Woodgate’s Middlesbrough team went into the interval with a mountain to climb if they were to collect any crucial points in their relegation battle. Woodgate made two changes at the break, bringing on Djed Spence and Patrick Roberts for Clayton and Shotton.
The halftime adjustments also involved switching the shape to a 3-5-2, deploying Spence as a right wingback, with Howson now on the right hand side of a back three. Nmecha was shifted inside to play in a strike pair with Gestede. Spence immediately showed to be a defensive upgrade on the flank, doubling up on Ayew and Howson while also tracking Bidwell to good effect.
Middlesbrough carved out their first attack of note in the second half when Coulson created space against Roberts out on the left, before crossing for Gestede to head wide. Gestede provided more of a threat to Swansea when deployed in a strike pair during the second half, as his knockdowns were paired with Nmecha running in behind. This does not have to done in a front 2, but in the first half Boro’s attacking central midfielder was not close enough to Gestede when he received high, direct balls. In addition, when Gestede went up for long balls, a winger high on the offside line inside his fullback can provide a real problem for opponents. Boro did not do a good job of this in the first half, but displayed a second half improvement in the 3-5-2. In hindsight this probably should have been a bigger area of emphasis given the in-experienced center back duo that Swansea were forced to field.
In the 53rd minute Swansea boss Steve Cooper made his first substitution, replacing winger Kalulu with Jordan Garrick.
In addition to being a defensive upgrade, Spence also improved things for Boro on the attacking end and burst past Bidwell on a long dribble into the penalty area before his cross was headed clear.
Woodgate brought on his third substitute just 10 minutes into the half, replacing Coulson with Marvin Johnson at left wingback.
The influence of dynamic youngster Spence on the opening stages of the second half continued when he was fouled by Ayew to win his team a free kick out wide. Roberts took the free kick, and his ball into the box was headed away at the near post before McNair swung over a second cross that was blocked by Gallagher.
Boro’s good start to the second half continued when McNair’s shot was deflected out for a corner. McNair’s corner was half cleared, but the ball eventually found its way to Wing who shot wide from the edge of the area.
Middlesbrough won a 65th minute corner when a Johnson cross was headed behind by Wilmot. McNair worked the corner short to Spence, and an eventual cross from Roberts floated harmlessly out of play.
Woodgate continued to look for a way back into the game, and at the second half water break he subbed on leading scorer Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga for Nmecha and Gestede. Swansea boss Cooper responded five minutes later by introducing Wayne Routledge and George Byers for Brewster and Fulton as the game entered its final stretch.
After a strong start to the second half, Boro were now toiling to break down Swansea. Roberts showed his frustration when he tried to dribble through three players in a tight area, before losing control and launching into a reckless tackle. Roberts received a yellow card for the challenge on Swansea captain Grimes.
Swansea had an opportunity to add to their lead in the 78th minute, when a Stojanovic clearance was intercepted by Gallagher, who advanced on goal, but the goalkeeper was quick off his line to collect the ball and rectify the error.
Copper made his last changes for Swansea in the 81st minute, bringing on fresh legs in the form of Bersant Celina and Yan Dhanda in place of the impressive Ayew and Gallagher.
Middlesbrough pressed for a goal, and Roberts cut inside before his shot was blocked behind for an 83rd minute corner. Roberts worked a short corner routine but Johnson’s eventual shot was booted clear.
Swansea had a chance to rub salt in the wounds for Boro in the last minute, when Byers was teed up on the edge of the area before curling a shot against the goalpost.
The heavy defeat plunged Middlesbrough deep into the relegation fight, sitting outside the drop zone only on the goal differential tiebreaker.
Formation will have been a concern for Woodgate ahead of the upcoming trip to Stoke City. Both Swansea winger’s had a field day against the Boro fullbacks, and Stoke duo Tom Ince and Nick Powell would provide another difficult matchup. The theory of a back four is that you concede a player in central midfielder to spread the defensive line better and have fullbacks mark opposing wingers man to man, a theory rendered totally pointless if the fullbacks could not hold up 1v1.
Boro played better in the 3-5-2 for this game, and it was possible Woodgate would look to deploy that system at Stoke. Gestede offers more threat when deployed with a strike partner to feed off his aerial power, and Spence was one of the better players in the second half, impressing as a wingback on both the attacking and defensive ends.
Swansea will have been buoyant after an impressive performance and thoroughly dominant win. Facing a game next week against another relegation struggler in Luton Town, the Swans would be looking to ride the good form of star winger Ayew and Brewster. Ayew now led the Swans with 15 goals in all competitions, while Brewster’s brace here meant he was on a run of scoring 6 goals in his last 11 games.
18’ SWA Rhian Brewster (Andre Ayew) 0-1
21’ SWA Rhian Brewster (Aldo Kalulu) 0-2
34’ SWA Andre Ayew PK (Conor Gallagher) 0-3
MAN OF THE MATCH
#19 CF Rhian Brewster (Swansea City) – Two goals from the exciting Liverpool loanee put the result beyond doubt by half time. Brewster showed good pace and movement, finding space constantly against a poor Boro backline.
3: CF Rudy Gestede – Gestede showed good aerial presence, and on the occasions Boro did manage to get the ball into the box, won the aerial battle time and again against young center backs Wilmot and Cabango.
2: RM Djed Spence – Introduced at half time, but quickly made his presence felt and was one of Boro’s better performers on the day. Showed better ability to defend against veteran Ayew than Howson did at fullback, while simultaneously offering more to the attack than Nmecha did as a winger.
1: CM Patrick Roberts – A sign of a bad day perhaps that two players appearing in only half of the game make the top three, but Roberts added life on the attacking end after his halftime introduction.
3: CF Rhian Brewster – Man of the Match
2: LM Andre Ayew – The veteran torched Howson before setting up Brewster’s opener before converting the penalty that made the score 3-0. ALso showed clever movement, coming off the backline consistently to find space when the BOro fullback was occupied with Swansea fullback Bidwell pushing high and wide.
1: CM Conor Gallagher – The impressive central midfielder pulled strings throughout the game, sparking Swansea attacks in the space behind striker Brewster, and bursting forward to win the penalty that sealed the game.
OPPOSITION EYE’S STAR MEN (Ollie Jefferies – Swansea City Youth Lead Coach)
3: RM Spence, 2: CM Roberts, 1: CF Gestede
3: CM Gallagher (MOTM), 2 CF Brewster, 1 LM Ayew