One of the criticisms thrown at Garry Monk has been that, despite the abundance of talent at his disposal, he has failed to find his best 11. On Saturday I believe he did.
It should not have taken 21 league games to do so. On the opening day of the season Middlesbrough made an awkward, stuttering start to the season away at Wolves. At this point we didn’t quite realise that Wolves an outstanding team packed with Premier League calibre players, and the 1-0 defeat was disappointing.
The front 3 of Britt, Braithwaite and Fletcher seemed totally isolated from the midfield trio, and the midfield and attack were playing as two straight lines. Early in the second half Patrick Bamford came on for Fletcher. He didn’t exactly change the game, but around the 70th minute he picked up a pass from Forshaw about 30 yards out. With four defenders surrounding him he turned smartly and thread a perfect through ball to Assombalonga who found himself one-on-one with John Ruddy who saved magnificently to deny the equaliser. It was the first time a player had come between the lines and linked the midfield and attack.
After the Wolves game Bamford started in the next two home wins, before falling out of favour with Monk. That link between midfield and attack has been an issue all season, but on Saturday Bamford again provided that link. He isn’t natural no.10, and would prefer to be centre-forwad, but he is a good enough and intelligent enough to be effective in that role. Braithwaite is not a no. 10. Asking Braithwaite to come deep to collect the ball and be a creative is wasting his strengths. Braithwaite is much better using his pace coming off the shoulder, and looking to find positions to finish as he did on the stroke of half-time Saturday. When the forward line consisted of Britt with Braithwaite behind, with Traore and/or Johnson on the flanks, we were too predictable and easy to deal with.
I’ve seen it said somewhere that the reason Bamford has been so often overlooked is that managers focus what he can’t do rather than what he can do. He’s not the quickest, but his timing more than makes up for his lack of pace. He’s not the strongest but his balance has always been good, he’s tricky for defenders to deal with and he constantly keeps moves alive. His movement is excellent, constantly inter-changing with Braithwaite and Downing, who both find themselves with much more space when Bamford is in the line-up. Bamford is also one of the few players in the team capable of an individual goal of the type he scored on Saturday.
He has started 5 games in the league this season which have included 3 wins and a draw. He started in our only wins against sides in the top 12 (Sheff United and Ipswich), plus the point away at Fulham, another top 12 opponent. Simply, Boro are a better side with Bamford in the starting line-up.
The Wolves game aside he’s made a few innocuous appearances off the bench this season, but I would argue that Bamford isn’t really an impact player. Gestede is someone who is far more capable of coming on shaking things up to change the game.
In midfield, despite being a devoted Adam Clayton fan-boy, Howson and Leadbitter are my preferred pairing. They are both solid in their defensive duties, but both positive with the ball always looking to keep movement alive. Throughout the season the midfield has constantly looked stretched as they try to remain solid defensively while desperately trying to contribute to the stifled forward line, but Saturday was the most comfortable the midfield duo had looked all season. With the improved link-up play with Bamford in the lineup we always seemed to have a free man, and possession was fluid.
At the back Ayala is having a mixed season. Some awful errors have overshadowed strong performances, and his experience gives him the edge over Fry, while the rest of the back four picks itself.
It wasn’t a performance of total dominance against Ipswich, but it was the most accomplished win of the season. The quadruple threat of Britt, Braithwaite, Bamford and Downing is an absolute nightmare for defenders. I know it’s only one game, but on Saturday we actually looked like a team capable of getting out of this division, and I feel optimistic that Monk has finally found his best starting line-up.