Middlesbrough struck a crucial blow in their relegation fight, as goals from strike pair Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher secured three points at Millwall.
Millwall manager Gary Rowett lined his team up in a 3-4-3, with the aerial presence of target man Matt Smith keying the attack. Smith assisted on Millwall’s goal in the 1-1 draw at the Riverside Stadium back in August, and ranks second in the Championship for aerial duels won.
Jed Wallace and Ben Thompson lined up on either side of Smith up front for Millwall, while Shaun WIlliams and Ryan Woods partnered in central midfield.
Neil Warnock lined Middlesbrough up in a 3-5-2, pairing Fletcher and Assombalonga up front. Jonny Howson was shifted from right back into a three man central midfield alongside George Saville and Paddy McNair.
It was noteworthy that the midfield combination of Howson sitting deep behind Saville and McNair was also deployed during Warnock’s first win as Boro manager at Stoke. While they lack the silk on the ball of players such as Ravel Morrison and Patrick Roberts, they do as a trio provide strength, steel and ball winning ability in the heart of midfield.
Djed Spence returned from injury at right wingback, while Ryan Shotton was recalled to the starting lineup and slotted in alongside George Friend and Dael Fry at center back.
Millwall won the game’s first corner in the 4th minute when Thompson was played in by Jed Wallace but his cross from the byline was blocked behind by McNair. Jed Wallace’s corner failed to beat the first man and was headed clear at the near post by Fletcher.
A second Millwall corner followed minutes later when Mahlon Romeo took on Marvin Johnson out wide on the right, and had his cross blocked behind by the Boro wingback. Jed Wallace sent over a high, outswinging corner that was headed clear by Shotton before Spence drew a foul on the edge of the penalty area.
Warnock made what would be a crucial decision in fielding Assombalonga and Fletcher as a central pair in this game, and the strike partnership bared its teeth for the first time in the 10th minute. Fletcher squared up Shaun Hutchinson out wide before playing in Johnson who fizzed a dangerous ball across the front of goal just out of the reach of Assombalonga.
Millwall continued to come forward and won a third corner when Thompson drove forward from midfield and had his shot from the edge of the penalty area blocked. Williams sent over the corner and found Smith who directed his header over the bar.
Middlesbrough won a free kick 30 yards out when Assombalonga received the ball back to goal and was fouled by Jake Cooper. Johnson crossed from the free kick, but Fletcher’s header looped harmlessly into the hands of Millwall goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski.
Boro were starting to get their footing in the game and Howson played McNair in behind, before the Northern Ireland international squared for Assombalonga in front of goal, only for Hutchinson to make a decisive intervention.
Warnock inserted another attacking wrinkle for Boro during this game in the form of a long throw in. With Friend taking them from the left flank, and Shotton from the right, Boro created extra opportunities to get high balls into the Millwall 18 yard box throughout the game.
The tactic paid off by winning Boro a 20th minute corner, when Shotton aimed for Fry at the near post only for a combination of Murray Wallace and Cooper to work the ball clear. Johnson’s inswinging corner was headed away before Howson’s ball back into the area was headed clear by the Lions defense.
Middlesbrough had a huge penalty appeal in the 23rd minute, when Fletcher and Assombalonga combined before setting up Spence. The young wingback drove past Murray Wallace in the penalty area and was bundled to the ground only for referee Tim Robinson to rule no foul.
Romeo combined with Williams out wide for Millwall before sending a good cross into the area. Thompson attacked the cross at the near post but good pressure from Shotton blocked the shot behind to concede a corner. Cooper met Williams’ corner at the front post and headed it back across the goal before Millwall were whistled for a foul to end the attack.
Johnson swung over a cross for Boro in the 32nd minute that cleared everyone and found its way to Spence on the opposite flank. Spence made space for himself before whistling a dangerous ball across the face of goal that ended up going out for a goal kick.
Boro striker Assombalonga won another free kick when he received the ball 25 yards out before being hauled down by Hutchinson. Throughout the game, Assombalonga used his body well to shield the ball from defenders, recycling possession for his team and drawing a number of fouls. Assombalonga touched the free kick to McNair who’s powerful shot was saved by Bialkowski.
Another Boro free kick was awarded when Spence knocked the call past Murray Wallace before being cynically fouled. McNair swung in the free kick only for Williams to head it clear for the Lions.
Millwall forward Jed Wallace was provided with a chance in the 45th minute when he received a pass from Thompson inside the penalty area before side footing his shot straight into the arms of Dejan Stojanovic.
There was a flashpoint just before halftime when Murray Wallace ran past Spence off the ball and left the young wingback on the ground after contact with an elbow. Referee Robinson adjudged there was no foul on the play and a closely fought game went into the interval locked at 0-0.
With his performances this season so far, Spence has announced himself as a rising star. As a result, he appears to be at times singled out for some tough treatment by opposing teams. This is something he will have to come on his road to future stardom and a potential England career.
Boro were quickest out of the gate in the second half and created a chance within a minute of the restart. Fletcher strode down the left flank before playing in Johnson who cut back for McNair to blaze his shot over the bar from 12 yards out.
Millwall used the aerial presence of target man Smith to win a corner in the 56th minute. Center back Hutchinson strode forward in possession and chipped a cross into the area when Smith rose above Shotton and headed the ball into the path of teammate Jed Wallace, only for Howson to intervene and clear the ball over his own bar.
Williams hung a deep corner over to the back post where Cooper met the ball only to direct his header wide of the target.
Millwall manager Rowett shuffled his pack in the 63rd minute by making a triple substitution. Jayson Molumby, Connor Mahoney and Tom Bradshaw were introduced in place of Williams, Thompson and Alex Pearce.
Mahoney made an immediate impact and found Smith with a good cross, only for Stojanovic to deny the strikers header on goal with a spectacular one handed save. Boro used all avenues to contain the aerial threat of Smith throughout the game, using double teams to win headers, winning the knockdowns when the target man did win the headers, and now when all else failed relying on an excellent save from Stojanovic.
Mahoney was on the ball again out wide a minute later, and cut inside Howson before firing a shot from the edge of the penalty area that was blocked by Stojanovic.
The introduction of Mahoney was proving to be an impactful move by Rowett, but his third attack in quick succession would actually end in a counter attack that saw Boro break the deadlock.
Mahoney drove forward before releasing a shot that was blocked by Fry, Boro midfielder McNair was first to the loose ball and played a quick thinking one touch forward pass to Fletcher. A collision between Fletcher and Cooper on the halfway line left the Millwall defender on the ground, but no foul was called by Robinson as Fletcher drove forward into the Millwall penalty area. The ball was squared to Assombalonga who produced a calm finish to fire the visiting team into a 1-0 lead.
Millwall were soon back on the attack and Middlesbrough midfielder Saville was booked for kicking out at Romeo on the sideline. Mahoney took the free kick, but his inswinging cross was claimed comfortably by Stojanovic.
It was a good sign at the water break for Boro in terms of the mental state of each team, when Warnock engaged his players as they discussed preserving their lead, on the other hand, Rowett (hands on hips in picture below) glared down the referee as his players argued decisions.
Millwall had a chance in the 76th minute, and once again it was defender Hutchinson coming forward with the ball that created it. Hutchinson chipped a ball into the area, and Bradshaw got across the front of Shotton to set up Jed Wallace who blasted his shot wide of the goalpost. After the shot, as can be heard in the clip below, the Middlesbrough bench could be heard communicating clearly with Saville to do a better job of getting a Boro player out to press the ball as Hutchinson stepped forward.
Boro boss Warnock made his first change in the 77th minute, replacing goal scorer Assombalonga with Marcus Tavernier. The substitution also saw a change in shape from Boro, with Tavernier playing wide left and Johnson dropping into a more traditional left back role. Fletched plowed a lone furrow up front for the remainder of the game as Boro looked to close things out in a 5-4-1 shape.
One of Tavernier’s first actions in the game was to concede a free kick when he fouled Romeo out wide. Jed Wallace took the free kick but his cross was headed over the crossbar by Bradshaw.
Millwall continued to push for an equalizer and Mahoney received the ball out on the left sideline, before playing in Jed Wallace who had his cross blocked by Shotton.
Both managers made a double substitution in the 83rd minute, with Warnock trying to close out what would be a vital win, and Rowett pushing for an equalizer.
Middlesbrough replaced McNair and Spence with Adam Clayton and Anfernee Dijksteel, while Millwall brought on Billy Mitchell and Shane Ferguson for Romeo and Murray Wallace.
Boro were awarded a golden opportunity to double their lead in the 87th minute when they were awarded a penalty kick, and once again it was a swift counter attack that did the damage.
Midfielder Howson stepped in front of a Molumby pass and quickly played a ball in behind the Millwall back line. Fletcher latched onto the pass and raced in on goal before having his ankles clipped by Cooper as he steadied himself to shoot. Fletcher got up to take the spot kick himself, and dispatched a quality finish past Bialkowski to give Boro a commanding lead in the games final stages.
Cooper was booked in the aftermath of the penalty kick being awarded, for protesting against what was a clear penalty. Throughout the game, Rowett and his players hounded the referee to the point it seemed to indicate a lack of focus and mental strength on the part of Millwall.
Front pair Fletcher and Assombalonga had connected well all game to trouble the Millwall back line, and even though he was now subbed off Assombalonga showed the connection by racing onto the field to celebrate with his teammate.
There was a positive sign for Boro fans late in the game as Boro defended well from a series of Millwall balls forward and set plays. Upon his arrival at the club, Warnock publicly noted the lack of leadership in the dressing room. While such issues are fixed over the longer term, there were some positive steps in terms of Boro players stepping up to organize and communicate when defending pressure set plays, as can be heard in the clip below.
Millwall fought to get back in the game, with Jed Wallace providing two late crosses in injury time that were blocked by Shotton and Howson respectively as Boro stood strong to close out the win.
The defeat was a blow to Millwall in their race to make the playoffs, and manager Rowett spent his post match press conference angered by referee Robinson’s decision to play on after Fletcher collided with Cooper in the buildup to Boro’s opening goal.
The win was a welcome boost for Boro, giving manager Warnock a second win since his arrival ahead of a homecoming game with Bristol City at the weekend. Warnock would be heartened to see both of his strikers find the net and some confidence ahead of the crucial season runin.
68’ MID Britt Assombalonga (Ashley Fletcher) 0-1
87’ MID Ashley Fletcher PK 0-2
MAN OF THE MATCH
#11 CF Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough) – A powerful performance from the Boro front man saw him race away before setting up the opener, before winning and converting the penalty to seal the points late on for Boro.
3: RM Mahlon Romeo – A quality performance on both the attacking and defensive end for the wide midfielder. Romeo contributed to the attack well, while also defending Boro wingback Johnson going in the opposite direction.
2: F Jed Wallace – Skilled and technical playmaker who got off crosses and shots throughout the game as Millwall toiled to break down the Boro defense.
1: M Connor Mahoney – When coming on as a second half substitute, Mahoney instantly lifted the Millwall attack and provided a spark in the final third.
3: CF Ashley Fletcher – Man of the Match.
2: CM Jonny Howson – Impressive display from Howson who shielded his back four well and was a ball winning force in the Boro midfield. Capped his performance by intercepting a Millwall pass and releasing Fletcher to win the game sealing penalty late on.
1: GK Dejan Stojanovic – Anchored the Boro back line well at set play, and preserved the clean sheet with a spectacular reflex save from Smith’s second half header.