The Neil Warnock era began at Middlesbrough with a vital 2-0 win at the Bet365 Stadium in a relegation fight against Stoke City. Leading goal scorer Ashley Fletcher opened the scoring from a Patrick Roberts free kick, and substitute Marcus Tavernier sealed the points with a second half goal.
It had been an eventful week for Middlesbrough, with manager Jonathan Woodgate being sacked in the aftermath of last week’s 3-0 home defeat to Swansea, and replaced with immediate effect by Warnock. A grizzled veteran, 71 year old Warnock has been in charge of eight different teams who have achieved promotion, a football league record.
Warnock is familiar with the north east region, having guided Scarborough to the Football Conference championship in 1987, and also familiar with Boro’s current plight, having taken over Cardiff City in the midst of a relegation struggle in 2018, and guided them to the Premier League two years later.
The first thing Warnock did in the week is bring a seemingly swift end to the months long drawn out contract situation regarding several players who have been included in the starting lineup for large parts of the season.
Rudy Gestede had started last week but had not committed to playing through the end of the season. On a leadership level, it is a fair question to ask what impact it has on the players who are committed long term to the club, when a player who is uncertain is rewarded with starts. Warnock swiftly brought an end to the situation, and subsequently Gestede’s Middlesbrough career within days of taking the reins, sending the player home from training and seeing him leave the club before this game kicked off as told to BBC Radio Tees.
It is likely no coincidence that by the time you read this the situation of not only Gestede but multiple other players have now swiftly cleared up. Jonny Howson signed a one year extension, while the quartet of George Friend, Adam Clayton, Marvin Johnson and Ryan Shotton all signed waivers to confirm they will play in the July fixtures. It is likely a result of clear vision and strong leadership that such a drawn out scenario has cleared up within the week. Such is human nature, when people realize that living in the grey area is not an option, decisions tend to be made one way or the other and the task at hand can be pursued with a clear mind.
The Middlesbrough lineup included several changes, most notably replacing both fullbacks after Boro had been exposed out wide by Swansea last week. Friend was moved inside to center back and Howson deployed in central midfield, with Djed Spence and Johnson playing at right and left back respectively.
Howson was fielded in a physically imposing midfield trio of himself, George Saville and Paddy McNair, and Fletcher was recalled to lead a three man attack flanked by Britt Assonbalonga and Roberts.
Fletcher was a welcome return to the lineup, given he was the club’s leading goal scorer with 8 league goals to date on the season, and also his 5 assists so far were good for second on the team behind Howson (6).
The moves inside by both Friend and Howson were seemingly designed to capitalize on their strengths. Friend has imposing size and aerial presence, but does appear to be losing some pace, and struggled when isolated 1v1 out wide against a quick winger in Swansea’s Aldo Kalulu last week.
Similarly, Howson had struggled on the opposite flank against Andre Ayew, but his touch tackling and ability to recycle possession in tight areas is much more suited to a role in a midfield three.
Opponents Stoke City had already experienced the ‘new manager bounce’ effect that Boro were hoping for after sacking manager Nathan Jones in October. Jones had Stoke at the foot of the table before his dismissal having won an average of 0.57 league points per game as reported by the Stoke Sentinel. Since taking charge, the more experienced Michael O’Neill had won a much improved 1.52 points per game over his 23 game spell in charge.
Stoke were without injured captain Ryan Shawcross but could still call on plenty of experience in defense. England international Jack Butland was in goal, with Tommy Smith and Dutch World Cup veteran Bruno Martins Indi at fullback. Premier League veteran James Chester was joined by former Boro loanee Danny Batth in central defense.
Lasse Sorenson and Jordan Thompson formed the base of the midfield in a 4-2-3-1, with club leading goal scorer Sam Clucas (10 league goals) lined up as an attacking central midfield player. Tyrese Campbell led the attack flanked by Nick Powell and veteran Republic of Ireland international James McLean.
In an immediate sign of the different approach and attention to detail, Boro ran a set play routine from the opening kickoff. Before the whistle blew, a group of players stancked the right flank, but Howson’s long pass intended for Fletcher was too high and went out of play.
The stark reality of Middlesbrough’s relegation fight was emphasized just 2 minutes in, when news filtered through that Josh Magennis fired Hull into a 1-0 lead at Birmingham City. This meant that even though very early in the game, Boro would drop into the relegation zone as things stood.
Stoke managed the first effort on goal in the 6th minute, when Powell picked the ball up wide left, and squared to Thompson who fired just wide from outside the area.
Structurally, Middlesbrough showed they were going to be tough to break down during the Stoke build. This was illustrated by a 9th minute passage of play when Stoke right back Smith received a pass around the halfway line. Central midfielder McNair came out to press the ball, leaving left back Johnson able to keep the back four shape and deal with any high and wide runners.
In similar scenarios against Swansea last week, the central midfielders had stayed in place, and with a winger already beaten the fullback pressed high to press their opposite number. This left large spaces out wide, and isolated Boro fullbacks in 1v1 scenarios with 50-70 yard spaces in behind them.
In the illustration below, Howson is up high pressing Swansea winger Andre Ayew, a phase of play in which he was ultimately played around leading to a Swansea goal.
By contrast, in the screenshot below Stoke fullback Smith is in possession of the ball in halfway. This time, central midfielder Saville has went out wide to press the ball, leaving a midfield pair of McNair and Howson to hold the shape. As a result, left back Johnson is in tact with the back four and ready to deal with high wide runners.
Warnock’s strategy was bolstered even further by not only giving the fullbacks less space to defend in behind but also fielding in Johnson and Spence, two more mobile fullbacks capable of covering that space in foot races.
As far as the attacking setup, Boro played a 4-3-3 that was slightly imbalanced. Last week in the first half against Swansea, center forward Gestede won flick ons when no runners were connected to him and able to capitalise.
This week, as the below average position map by WyScout illustrates, left winger Assombalonga (#9) played inside the fullback mostly and was able to connect with Fletcher (#11) throughout the game, putting more pressure on the Stoke center backs as a result. On the opposite flank Roberts (#19) mostly stayed wide and tried to isolate his fullback in 1v1 battles. When Assombalonga did go inside, left back Johnson (#21) did a good job of getting high and giving Boro a wide outlet on the left flank.
In the screenshot below with Boro set to play long, you can see Roberts out wide right, while Assombalonga has already got inside his fullback and is in position to occupy the center backs or chase behind any Fletcher flicks.
Boro won a 9th minute corner when Saville fed Assombalonga and the forward’s attempted dribble was knocked behind by Batth. McNair’s deep corner was knocked behind by Powell and Boro were awarded a second attempt. This time, an inswinger from Roberts failed to beat the first man, the ball was worked back to Roberts and his attempt to cut inside on the dribble was crowded out by Stoke who launched a counter attack.
Campbell picked up the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and embarked on a long, powerful dribble all the way into the Boro penalty area. A combination of Powell and Clucas then worked the ball wide to McLean who’s shot was blocked by Friend.
Another strong feature of Boro’s defensive shape showed when a fullback pressed the ball, as a central midfielder dropped in to keep a back four intact even with a defender high applying pressure. The weak side fullback also tucked in to give good shape with little room in the seams between defenders.
In the illustration below, right back Spence is high applying pressure and central midfielder Howson has dropped deep to cover in the back line. Left back Johnson is tucked in to give a compact back four shape capable of dealing with forward runs and crosses into the box.
The defensive shape of the Boro illustrated so far some of the advantages of not implementing the high intensity pressing scheme of the previous manager. The statistics in fact showed that Boro’s higher press had achieved part of it’s objective against Swansea.
WyScout measure ball pressure in terms of Passes allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA), with a defensive action being an attempted tackle, header, block, interception or the like. In the Swansea defeat, Boro had allowed an average of 7.9 Swansea passes per defensive action, in this game, that number rose to 11.6 Stoke passes per defensive action.
It is important to realize that by not adapting a press as high up the field, Warnock had not decided to “park the bus,” “play for a draw,” “sit back,” or any of the narratives that appear to be thrown around far too freely about any team not playing in a certain style.
Is it a good idea to press high and isolate your players in 1v1 battles if you cannot win them? Does a defensive shape that can be broken down with one quality pass forward serve any purpose? The performance against Swansea suggests the answer is a no.
In terms of mental approach, is a team “braver” if they press high, as opposed to being able to defend well in pressure situations and grind out results? No real evidence suggests this, but there does seem a very common group think and fear to be perceived as a “negative” team in the current era.
The fact is, by putting players in strong defensive positions, Boro conceded more passes in areas far from their goal, but the more dangerous, penetrative passes that could create chances for Stoke were much more difficult for Stoke to play given Boro’s tactical discipline and performance.
Boro also showed the ability to take away Stoke’s options centrally in terms of playing the ball to the feet of center forward Campbell. In the clip below, Assombalonga presses the ball while Saville and McNair mark their opposite numbers in midfield. Howson drops deep and cuts out the lane between the ball and Stoke striker Campbell, forcing Batth to play a longer, lower percentage pass and subsequently concede possession.
Boro created a good chance in the 13th minute when Howson sent a ball over the top for Fletcher behind the Stoke back four. Fletcher latched onto it before squaring for Assombalonga, only for Batth to intervene.
Boro won a 16th minute free kick out wide when Fletcher was fouled by a combination of Martins Indi and Powell. Roberts found Fletcher with the free kick, but the striker’s header was lifted over the bar.
A mazy run from Middlesbrough right back Spence saw him dribble into the Stoke half, beating several players before being fouled by Sorensen 25 yards out from goal. Assombalonga stepped up to take the free kick but curled his effort over the bar.
Stoke had a big chance in the 21st minute, when Campbell set the ball to Clucas out wide to cross, veteran winger McLean got on the end of the cross but his powerful shot was deflected behind by a good Dejan Stojanovic save.
Boro knocked the first two corners behind in what became a spell of Stoke pressure, Thompson took the third corner and Chester headed it well off target before the teams went into the water break.
When the game resumed, Stoke were quick to win another corner when Smith’s cross was blocked behind by Friend. Thompson took the corner and Chester rose to meet it at the back post, only to direct his header off target again.
Middlesbrough won an attacking set play of their own in the 29th minute when McNair was fouled out wide by Powell. Roberts whipped in a great cross from the free kick and Fletcher guided an excellent header home to put Boro 1-0 up.
Coincidentally, Woodgate’s managerial reign had also began with a headed goal from a set play by Fletcher in the same Warnock’s had here. Boro fans would be hoping that was the only similarity between the fortunes of the two managers as Boro’s relegation fight went on. In a telling sign of his experience, Warnock calmly applauded the goal before refocusing on the task at hand.
With their tails up, Boro won another free kick out wide when Saville was fouled by Sorensen. McNair’s cross was headed behind by Thompson to concede a corner as Boro pushed to add to their lead. McNair’s initial corner was cleared, before a second cross fell to Fletcher only for the striker to be flagged for offside.
Boro forced a turnover in the attacking half in the 36th minute, Fletcher picking up possession before playing in Spence, the right back squared across goal and both McNair and a sliding Assombalonga failed to get a touch and divert the ball home. Such is the way when a team has good defensive shape, Boro forced a number of Stoke errors that led to them conceding possession.
Stoke won a 39th minute corner when Powell’s cross was blocked behind by Friend, before Friend followed that up with heading away Thompson’s corner at the back post.
Stoke manager O’Neill made a first half substitution in the 41st minute, withdrawing Sorensen and replacing him with Tom Ince. Premier League fans of the 1990’s era would likely feel their age at this point, realizing the son’s of Paul Ince and former Everton striker Kevin Campbell were now on the field for the Potters.
Boro won a 45th minute corner when McNair’s cross was deflected out of play by Batth. The deep corner from Roberts was headed back across by goal, but the attack ended when Boro were whistled for the attacking foul.
Boro had one last chance to add to their lead before half time. Spence launched a long ball forward to Fletcher who muscled down the right flank. Fletcher cut the ball back to Saville who’s shot hit Assombalonga and the attack petered out.
Warnocks Middlesbrough team went into the interval with a 1-0 lead, but there was still work to do, illustrated by the fact that Stoke had 66% of possession in the opening half.
While playing a front three, Boro had pressed in unbalanced fashion, with Fletcher and Assombalonga often significantly higher up the field than Roberts. The reason for this was unclear. A possibility is Stoke’s right back being the joint team leader on the team for assists (with Powell, 4), or the belief that Assombalonga is faster and therefore more capable of recovering to support his fullbacks? The game plan could have emphasized Roberts dealing with the passing lanes behind him than Assombalonga. Either way, it was unquestionable that the defensive scheme employed by Warnock was successful in taking away the strengths of Stoke.
Stoke flew out of the gate in the second half and had a huge chance to level the game within 30 seconds of the restart. Campbell was played in down the left channel by Clucas and squared for McLean at the back post, only for Stojanovic to come up big by saving the close range shot.
Stoke’s strong start continued in the 51st minute when Ince played in the overlapping Smith, and the right back’s cross was headed against the post by McLean.
Stoke winger McLean’s influence on the game was growing and he won the Potters a corner, when his cross bounced out of play off Fletcher. The corner came to nothing after Stoke were whistled for an attacking foul.
Stoke manager O’Neill shuffled his pack in the 59th minute, bringing on Sam Vokes and Jordan Cousins for Thompson and Martins Indi. Welsh international Vokes certainly added a physical presence at striker Boro would have to deal with in the last half hour of the game.
Warnock responded two minutes later by replacing Roberts with Marcus Tavernier on the flank. Tavernier made an immediate and decisive impact on the game by doubling Boro’s lead just a minute after coming onto the field.
Howson received a bouncing ball inside his own half and drilled a smart one touch pass forward to Tavernier. The young winger cut inside 25 yards out before curling a low, left footed finish past Butland to make the score 2-0.
Stoke tried to respond immediately, and Vokes headed on a long ball that Powell fired wide of the target.
Having already showed the midas touch with his first substitution, Warnock made another in the 64th minute when he replaced McNair with Lewis Wing in central midfield.
Stoke continued to press for a way back into the game, and Ince jinked past two Boro defenders in the penalty area before squaring a ball that found its way to Powell who had his shot blocked by Dael Fry. Powell carved out a shot from the next attack a minute later but his effort was hit straight at Stojanovic.
Stoke won a 23rd minute free kick when Powell was fouled by Wing, but McLean’s attempted cross floated harmlessly out of play.
Boro substitute Wing won his team a corner when his cross was ricocheted behind off McLean. Two Boro corners were headed behind before the third effort failed to beat the first man and was cleared at the near post.
O’Neill used his final substitution window in the 79th minute, replacing striker Campbell with Lee Gregory.
Warnock made his own last alterations two minutes later and used the opportunity to shore up defensively. Shotton was introduced in place of Saville and served as a third center back to cope with any direct play to a Stoke front pair that now consisted of veteran Welsh international Vokes and Gregory.
Boro held strong in the games final stretch, and Stoke’s frustration showed through when Powell was booked for kicking out at WIng in the 88th minute. Powell’s frustration reached boiling point a minute later and he commited another petulant foul on Tavernier, receiving a second yellow card and subsequent dismissal.
Former Stoke manager Lou Macari had spoken to the Stoke Sentinel after the game and suggested that Powell had potentially been ‘targeted’ by Warnock and the Boro team deliberately. That accusation seemed slightly disingenuous given that the dismissal of Powell was a result of his game leading 9th foul committed. For perspective, Assombalonga had the next highest total with 5 fouls, and no other Stoke player had registered more than 2.
Stoke had a big chance to claw a goal back in injury time when McLean’s deep cross was cut back to Vokes, but the striker’s shot was blocked on the line by Fry. Ince had another chance as Stoke desperately pushed forward in the games final stages, but his shot was blocked by Shotton before Fry cleared it away.
Boro saw out the closing seconds without buckling to the pressure, and the final whistle blew to confirm a vital 3 points in the relegation fight.
Fellow strugglers Hull City had pegged back to a 3-3 draw at BIrmingham, which added to the good news for Boro, meaning Warnock’s team were now two points outside the relegation zone. Stoke were now leapfrogged by Boro in the standings and dragged deep into the relegation scrap as a result of this game.
Warnock will have been pleased with the performance, particularly defensively after having less than a week to prepare the players. The extra training time ahead will be vital as Boro face another fellow relegation struggler in Hull City on Thursday at the KCOM Stadium.
Stoke boss O’Neill will have been disappointed with this result, but will likely have taken some positives from a game in which his team had 68% of the possession, and outshot Boro by a count of 18 to 6.
Stoke will be looking to rebound from this defeat in a tough road trip to in-form Wigan Athletic, a game they now go into without suspended star man Powell.
MAN OF THE MATCH
#11 CF Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough) – Scorer of the opening goal, leading scorer Fletcher led the attack in impressive fashion during a game where Boro had much the lesser of possession. Fletcher was a force in the air, and able to hold up play allowing Assombalonga and Roberts to join the attack with good effect.
3: RM James McLean – Republic of Ireland international McLean was a consistent outlet and source of attacks for Stoke down the flank, and also forced several good saves from Stojanovic.
2: CF Tyrese Campbell – Campbell displayed his pace and strength with a box to box dribble during a first half counter attack. Kept the Boro backline busy all game despite being held scoreless by a strong performance from Friend and Fry.
1: CM Sam Clucas – Clucas played well in midfield as Stoke dominated the run of play. There was not a ton of open space against Boro’s well organized midfield, but Clucas managed to play to the wingers consistently and recycled possession well in tight spaces.
3: CF Ashley Fletcher – Man of the Match
2: CM George Saville – Recalled to the lineup by Warnock after being an unused substitute last week, Saville put in a tough tackling, all action performance that was key to Boro keeping Stoke in check.
1: GK Dejan Stojanovic – An impressive performance from the goalkeeper, making a string of quality saves to keep a second clean sheet in his last 3 games.