Middlesbrough gave themselves a crucial boost in their relegation fight with a 2-1 at Reading courtesy of goals from Ashley Fletcher and Patrick Roberts either side of a Liam Moore equalizer.
Midtable Reading came into this game having already done enough to steer themselves clear of the relegation fight. Manager Mark Bowen lined his team up in a 4-1-4-1 with striker George Puscas leading the attack. Moore lined up as a holding midfield player behind the central pairing of John Swift and Andy Rinomhota.
After lining up in a 3-5-2 for the previous two games, Middlesbrough manager Neil Warnock lined his team up in a 4-2-3-1. Center back Ryan Shotton was dropped, and right back Anfernee Dijksteel called up in his place.
A winger in previous games, Roberts was moved into a central attacking midfield position in front of the pairing of Jonny Howson and George Saville. The trio offered a good balance of two athletic ball winners, with a creative playmaker in front. Leading scorer Fletcher led the attack, flanked by Djed Spence and Marcus Tavernier on the wings.
Warnock also made a change in goal, replacing Dejan Stojanovic with England Under-20 international Aynsley Pears.
Reading won a first minute corner when Boro defender George Friend tried to shield the ball out of play and was muscled off it by Puscas in the process of conceding a corner. Michael Olise’s corner failed to beat the first man and was headed behind by Fletcher. Olise sent in a second corner, only for Fletcher to clear his lines again at the near post.
Reading won another corner in the 9th minute when Tom McIntyre played a ball over the top for Swift and Howson came over to challenge. Swift took the corner himself but his cross was cleared by a combination of Spence and Friend.
Striker Puscas went into referee Andy Woolmer’s book in the 19th minute when he received a yellow card for a reckless foul on Howson.
Middlesbrough won their first corner in the 22nd minute when Spence’s driven cross was headed behind his own goal by Michael Morrison. Roberts’ corner was cleared at the near post, only for Reading to concede a shooting range free kick when Yakou Meite fouled Spence.
Tavernier curled the free kick over the crossbar, and the hydration break arrived with neither team having mustered a shot on target.
Reading won a corner when right back Gabriel Osho pushed forward and his cross from deep was deflected behind by the face of Saville. Saville was forced off for treatment following the blow, and Boro would concede from the corner before he returned to the field.
Tyler Blackett attacked the near post from the corner, and won a flicked header that Moore tapped home from close range at the back post to give the Royals a 1-0 lead.
Boro tried to respond immediately and Roberts cut into the penalty area from out wide and dropped the ball back to Saville who had his shot blocked before an offside flag ended the attack.
Middlesbrough came again in the 37th minute when Roberts played in tavernier down the left wing, and the winger’s pinpoint cross was headed back across goal and wide by Spence at the back post.
Boro attacked down the left wing again, and won a corner when Marvin Johnson’s cross was headed behind by Morrison. Roberts cut the corner back to the edge of the 18 yard area, but it cleared everyone and Reading launched a counter attack that was brought to a halt by Dijksteel.
Dijksteel was involved on the attacking end a minute later, and won his team a corner when he collected a pass from Roberts and had his cross deflected behind by Blackett. Roberts’ first corner was cleared back to him, before a back post cross found Dael Fry who headed it straight into the arms of Rafael.
Reading goalkeeper Rafael launched a counter attack with a long punt that released Olise in on goal, only for a combination of Dijksteel and Pears to clear the danger.
Reading right back Osho joined the attack again in the 42nd minute, and squared the ball to Swift who crashed a shot against the goalpost from outside the penalty area.
The game was starting to liven up as an attacking spectacle, and Boro found an equalizer in the 45th minute courtesy of Fletcher’s 11th goal of the season.
Fletcher showed good skill to bring down a long ball forward from Pears, then drove to the byline and forced over a ball that Osho sliced over his own crossbar to concede a corner.
Roberts’ corner was cleared at the front post, but the ball was worked back to him, and this time the Manchester City loanee produced a cross that was guided into the net by a deft Fletcher header.
In this game, Fletcher was playing as a lone forward in a front three, as opposed to being deployed in a striker pair the previous two games. When playing as a lone striker, it is important that a forward has the strength and skill to deal with long balls forward with his back to goal. In the buildup before this goal, Fletcher did well to collect a long clearance from Pears under pressure before winning the corner.
Many observers have commented on a fight and spirit that is starting to show itself for Boro under Warnock. The celebrations that followed this goal seemed to indicate that, with the players celebrating in unison while a passionate Saville dropped to his knees in combination of relief and joy.
With their tails up, Boro carved out one more chance before halftime, and again it was a long pass forward from Pears that played a role. Pears picked out Roberts, who drove into the penalty area before cutting back to Spence who had his shot blocked by Moore.
Goalkeeper Pears showed impressive distribution throughout the game for Boro, completing a series of long passes forward to the front three.
Boro went into halftime locked at 1-1, and will have likely been bolstered by the news the relegation rivals Hull City were down 7-0 after 45 minutes at Wigan Athletic.
Reading won a wide free kick within two minutes of the restart when Meite powered down the right wing, stripping Friend for pace before being fouled at the byline. Olise sent in a cross from the free kick but Puscas directed his header well wide.
Middlesbrough won a 50th minute corner when Johnson was played in by Saville and had his cross deflected behind by Osho. A short corner was worked to Roberts whose cross was headed away at the front post by Blackett.
Reading right back Osho was proving to be effective going forward, and did so with success again in the 53rd minute when he picked out Meite with a good cross, only for the Ivory Coast international midfielder to direct his header wide. Osho pushed forward again minutes later but this time his cross cleared everyone on the way out for a goal kick.
Boro left winger Tavernier was playing well on the attacking end, and the impressive performance of Osho was giving him a lot of work to do on the defensive end also.
The Royals were enjoying a good spell of pressure and Boro midfielder Saville was dispossessed on the edge of the penalty area by Rinomhota, before Olise fired his shot wide.
Boro gained some respite in the form of a counter attack, and Reading midfielder Rinomhota received a yellow card for hauling down a streaking Tavernier by the sideline.
Reading were soon back on the front foot, and Meite picked up possession between the Boro lines before firing his shot wide of the target.
The game was starting to heat up, and Boro carved out a 64th minute chance when Roberts played forward to Tavernier, and the winger held the ball before teeing up the overlapping Johnson who fired a shot that was held by Rafael.
Sharp play from Tavernier set up a good chance for Middlesbrough in the 67th minute. First, Tavernier worked back defensively to rob Osho of the ball with a good tackle, before driving forward past halfway and feeding Roberts. Lively playmaker Roberts turned to face goal before teeing up Fletcher who had his powerful long range shot saved by Rafael.
Reading won a 68th minute corner when Johnson dribbled into the penalty area and was tackled by Howson. Swift swung the corner to the back post when Moore met the cross only to head wide.
Reading manager Bowen made his first substitution after the second half hydration break, replacing Olise with Ayub Timbe Masika. Boro manager Warnock responded by switching Fletcher for Britt Assombalonga at center forward.
Young attacking duo Tavernier and Roberts were becoming more prominent for Boro as the game progressed, and carved out a golden chance in the 76th minute. Tavernier fed Roberts out on the right flank, and Roberts drove into the penalty area, cutting inside McIntyre before firing his shot straight at Rafael.
The move by Warnock to shift Roberts inside was paying dividends for Boro, with Roberts showing the ability to consistently receive possession behind the Reading midfield line, turn to face goal and provide the front three with quality service.
Reading made a change at center forward themselves in the 77th minute, bringing on Sam Baldock in place of Puscas.
Both sides were pushing for a winning goal, and Boro came close when Assombalonga rolled McIntyre to chase a Howson pass into the penalty area, only for his cross to be just behind Spence at the back post.
Boro netted the decisive goal in the 82nd minute, and once again the duo of Tavernier and Roberts were at the heart of things.
Saville headed a loose ball to Tavernier, and the winger bundled through a crowd of Reading defenders before feeding Spence who had switched over to the left wing. Spence played in overlapping fullback Johnson, who’s cutback went all the way to the back post, where Roberts beat Rafael with a clinical one touch finish.
Left back Johnson was putting in one of his more impressive performances of the season, containing Meite on the defensive end while also contributing a lot going forward, capped with this assist on the game winning goal.
Reading manager Bowen responded immediately to going a goal behind by bringing on Garath McLeary and Jordan Obita on, in place of Moore and Blackett.
Reading won a free kick in the Boro half in the 88th minute when Saville fouled Masika. Swift launched a high cross into the penalty area, but the ball rolled harmlessly to Pears after a game of aerial ping pong.
Boro defended strongly in the final stages to close out what will likely prove to be a crucial three points in the relegation battle as the season closes out.
Reading had already reached midtable security, so this loss will not have been a devastating blow as they prepared to face Blackburn Rovers at the weekend.
Middlesbrough on the other hand, desperately needed points from this game and Warnock will have been delighted with this away win. Accompanied by an astound 8-0 loss suffered by Hull City at Wigan Athletic, Boro were now 5 points above the drop zone with two games to play.
Boro face a tough home game at the weekend when playoff chasing Cardiff City come to the Riverside stadium.
33’ REA Liam Moore (Tyler Blackett) 1-0
45’ MID Ashley Fletcher (Patrick Roberts) 1-1
82’ MID Patrick Roberts (Marvin Johnson) 1-2
MAN OF THE MATCH
#19 CM Patrick Roberts (Middlesbrough) – Shifted into a more central role by Warnock, Roberts produced a match winning display. The Manchester City loanee fond space between the lines and completed forward passes all game, capping his display with an assist and game winning goal.
3: RD Gabriel Osho – The athletic right back got forward to good effect all game, putting in a series of crosses and also winning the corner that created Reading’s opening goal.
2: CM Liam Moore – Tasked with the difficult role of marking Roberts while deployed in a holding midfield role, Moore played well throughout and also scored Reading’s goal from a set play.
1: RM Yakou Meite – Pacy winger who gave Boro problems both driving forward out wide, and drifting central to pick up possession and attack crosses.
3: CM Patrick Roberts – Man of the Match.
2: LD Marvin Johnson – Quality display from the fullback, containing Meite to good effect while getting forward with quality throughout and assisting the game winning goal.
1: LM Marcus Tavernier – Lively display from the winger in his first start under Warnock, also given a sizable task on the defensive end, tracking the consistent runs forward from Osho.