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First Team

🆚 Hot Off The Press: Middlesbrough

Phil Spencer of Give Me Sport on Boro

6 November 2020

Since a 1-0 defeat to Watford on the opening day, Middlesbrough have been one of the Championship’s form sides and sit in the play-off places at the time of speaking, after four wins in the last seven games. How satisfying has the season been so far, from a Boro perspective?

I think it's been really satisfying, to be honest. They lost the first game of the season 1-0 but it was away to Watford, so has to be put into context because, as a side coming down from the Premier League, they were obviously going to be a stronger side on paper. On the night, I think Middlesbrough did pretty well anyway considering they came away with nothing, but since then they just seem to have really kicked on. Neil Warnock has done what Neil Warnock does best: he's drilled a system into them, he's kept a consistent starting 11 and every player seems to know their role and responsibility. It's been a case of just keeping back to basics and building up from that solid foundation from back to front has really paid off. What they've found is that the lack of goals that have been conceded has meant they've only needed to score one or maybe two goals to get three points, which plays into their hands perfectly. They don't have a wealth of attacking talent, so the fact that it takes the heat off the attackers really has helped and that's been shown by the results Boro have picked up so far.

Do you think the defensive style that has become synonymous with Boro is the key to any potential success?

Absolutely. Everyone knows what the Championship is like and, to throw out some of the old cliches, it is true that everyone can beat everyone and, in terms of getting promoted, I'd say 16 of the 24 teams can realistically count themselves as contenders at the start of the season. The main thing you need to do is pick up points consistently and go from there. What they found last season under Jonathan Woodgate was that they tried to be too expansive at times and focused on playing a free-flowing, attacking style of football in the hope of seeing some entertaining games and beating teams 3-0 or 4-0. In the process, however, they were losing a lot of matches and conceding a lot of goals, which meant there was very little margin for error. This season, it's completely different. By keeping a tight defence and making sure they are either keeping a clean sheet or conceding one goal, they only really need to score one goal if they are going to get any kind of points. Even if you are drawing often, you start to pick up points, move up the table and kick on from there. I think it's a really good thing and, if they can keep it as closed up as possible - and, most importantly, be in control of matches - then they are going to be in a good place at the end of the season.

How disappointing was it that Jonathan Woodgate’s tenure as manager, particularly with his local roots, didn’t work out as planned?

It was disappointing, but it was also a strange one because I wouldn't say he was a universally popular choice to come in as manager. Boro had been linked with people like Slavisa Jokanovic, so there were big names being floated around, by Championship standards. When Woodgate was appointed, yes it was met with a positive reaction because it's always nice to see a local lad and player that you know well take over. If it works out well, it works out really well and everyone's happy but if it doesn't, it just gets a little bit awkward and then people question whether he was ready. It was his first job in management and I'm not claiming Middlesbrough are the biggest club in the world, but it's quite a big first job, when many other managers start in the lower leagues and find their feet. When it didn't work out, a lot of people described Woodgate's management was naive, both on the pitch and off it. There was a press conference where he said the table was lying after they'd lost a few games and it was at that point that people started to suggest he was out of his depth. Everyone wanted him to do well but, at the end of the day, they were skirting far too close to the relegation zone and I think they were right to bring someone else in to guide the club to safety.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye out for this Saturday?

It's hard to pick out an individual player, really. An area of the pitch, however, would be central midfield and the trio of Jonny Howson, Sam Morsy and George Saville, which has been an absolute game-changer so far. Saville has struggled to find his feet since arriving at the Riverside and he hasn't been a particularly popular player because no one has really seen what he's brought to the team. But this season, he's really found his feet as a box-to-box midfielder. Howson uses his experience, retains possession and keeps it simple, while Morsy is just an absolute monster. There's nothing really fancy about him but he gets stuck in, puts in hard tackles and bosses people about. To be honest, I've probably done him a disservice there because the pass he played last week for Britt Assombalonga's goal against Coventry was wonderful!

How is Warnock likely to set up his side at the Brentford Community Stadium?
He's tinkered with his formation slightly in the last few weeks but, typically, it has been a 5-3-2 with wing-backs. So it has been a variation on Bettinelli, Dijksteel, Fry, McNair, Spence, Howson, Morsy, Saville, Tavernier and any two of Akpom, Roberts or Assombalonga up front.

Following an 80-year wait for a league win over Boro, Brentford have won the last three meetings between the two sides. What’s your score prediction for this one?

I'm really interested in this one, to be honest. I'm really keen to see what happens because Brentford's goalscoring record is phenomenal. Ivan Toney is basically scoring goals in his sleep, which is frightening for any defender coming up against him! As I've mentioned, Middlesbrough's defence has been one of their real strengths so far this season but, in my opinion, this will be the biggest test they'll have faced so far. Boro are in a good place at the moment, so I'd say a 1-1 draw.

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