Talking tactics: Boro by numbers

There is a wealth of data available on football these days. A sport once watched by only the common man, his son and his dog has transformed into a billion pound industry.

With the increased amount of money available in the game, clubs are trying to find more ways of gaining an advantage. Many big clubs (and small ones) have invested heavily in analytics departments and aim to use them to improve their standing in the football world.

It may take some time before fans are talking about expected goals or goals per 90 minutes, but these stats can confirm what we see at the match. Striker X always misses from the right hand side or winger Y cannot cross to save his life.

For this article, I have looked at some of the numbers behind Boro’s line ups and squad to see how we compare against other teams and what might lie ahead after the current international break.

There are a number of graphics used in this article, and they are taken from experimental361 (run by Ben Mayhew) a site that features a whole host of stats and data from the EFL. It is well worth checking out to see a range of information about not only Boro, but the EFL leagues.

Squad

Firstly, we all know Boro’s squad has changed a great deal since last season, and the numbers tell us exactly that. Boro have retained only 51% of the players who contributed to the minutes played in the Premier League last season.

The graphic below shows the percentage of players who remain at the club in terms of minutes played in the previous season. An explanation of the graphic is included for clarity.

From this graphic, you can see we have lost three players (Negredo, De Roon, Valdes) who were in the top seven last season for minutes played. These players were closely followed by the exiting Barragan and Chambers. So a big change in the nine players who played the most minutes from last year.

Also clear to see is the fact that Boro are in the bottom six in terms of player retention. Alongside us, Leeds and Wolves are in the top six at present, whereas Sunderland, Barnsley and Hull all take up places in the bottom eight. From the top six teams in the squad churn list, Sheffield United and Preston currently occupy top six places in the table.

So maybe there is no real correlation between the players who stay on season to season and league performance. Another point to note is five out of the bottom six teams on the list have new managers, and three out of the bottom four were relegated from the Premier League last season.

At the top of the graphic, all of the teams bar Preston, kept their manager so it seems to make sense that a manager would keep the faith with the players he had rather than make wholesale changes. Neil Warnock’s Cardiff are seventh in the list and have kept just over 75% of their top contributors.

It might be said that the biggest difference between Wolves, Leeds and Boro is  a more settled system; Wolves with the in vogue 3-4-3 and Leeds with a 4-2-3-1. Boro have not had such a settled system, which has almost certainly contributed to performances, which have been inconsistent, but we are still hard to beat, which could be down to the quality of players at the club.

Team selection

Does Garry Monk know his best XI?

This is probably one of the main talking points before any Boro match in recent weeks. Looking a little deeper might shed some light on this point and see if Monk is as unsure as we think he is when it comes to team selection.

The most surprising stat in this image is the fact that only 4 teams have made less line up changes on average than Boro. We have made 1.5 line up changes per game; Millwall (0.8), Derby (1.2), Wolves (1.3) and Bristol City (1.4) are the only teams to have made less.

Probably quite surprising to most fans, but if we think of the Boro squad, we can have a sensible guess at who will start most games; Randolph, Christie, Fry, Gibson, Clayton, Howson, Johnson, Assombalonga. That is eight of the starting eleven. Obviously, the other three choices determine the system, which is where Monk has probably had the most problems.

Looking at Boro’s squad usage on the graphic below tells a season of two halves so far.

The darker red blocks show the players in our most used XI. These were the games against Sheffield United, Burton Albion and Nottingham Forest. Since that Forest game, which was a story of missed chances and a disjointed first half, that XI have not seen any time together at all.

That seems to be telling. What did Monk see in that game (and the Gestede injury aside) that means he doesn’t think those same XI players could take the field again?

Taking some players individually, Adam Forshaw has played a mere 12 minutes of league football since the end of the Forest first half. Forshaw has his limitations, and is by no means the answer to any of our midfield prayers, but that is a pretty damning assessment of a player by his manager.

Similarly, George Friend has fallen out of favour and has only played 14 minutes since the Preston game, but has been an ever present on the bench. Stewart Downing and Grant Leadbitter also came into the side after the Preston game and seemed to steady the ship, but haven’t really been used since.

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It seems only right to assume that Monk is still not sure of his best starting XI. An argument could be made that he should choose his system, and then play whoever fits into that way of playing, or alternatively pick who he thinks are the best players and try to find a way of playing that works.

For me, the former is always preferable to the latter as we end up with square pegs in round holes (one of the worst sayings in football!).

A move away from 4-3-3 which was used at the start of the season, coincided with the injury to Rudy Gestede, so maybe Monk thought he couldn’t continue with that system if Ashley Fletcher was the only other alternative forward. The re-emergence and suspension fueled disappearance of Adama Traore served to only muddy the waters even further, especially after a stellar display against Bolton.

Added to that the arrival of Marvin Johnson, who has arguably been one of our top 3 most consistent performers, a move to a formation that included wingers seemed to be logical and has happened for the most part.

What next?

An outlier amongst the player numbers collected so far is Martin Braithwaite. He was the second most expensive recruit this summer, with a great deal of experience aboard.

In the Augsburg friendly he looked lively and threatening, but was below par (as were the rest of the team) against Wolves in the opening game of the season. He is clearly higher up the selection pecking order than Patrick Bamford, as he went straight into the line up against Brentford, after a cameo against Norwich.

In the upcoming games, the question to be ask is how Monk chooses to use Braithwaite. The manager obviously doesn’t see Bamford as someone who can partner Assombalonga, or he would have tried to use him in that role as soon as Gestede was injured, rather than waiting until the recent Fulham game.

Interestingly, the only other start Bamford has had since the international break was in the Carabao Cup against Aston Villa and he ended up scoring twice.

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If Monk really wanted Bamford in his line up, he could have used him in a wider attacking position when Traore was suspended. He has been deployed there numerous times in the past by Aitor Karanka and Steve Agnew.

Overall, a move back to the 4-3-3 system could get the best out of the squad we have. At home, Assombalonga, Bamford and Braithwaite could lead the line, confidently changing positions as required.

In midfield, Howson (central midfielder), Clayton (deep lying playmaker) and Baker (box to box) would have clearly defined roles and offer support in different areas of the pitch. Our two attacking full backs could do exactly what they do best, and our bench would include creative wingers to change the game, as well as the options to change the front line.

Although Monk might not know his best XI or the exact system he wants to play, he obviously has some favourites and players he wants to use on a regular basis. Once he can figure out how to fill the final three or four positions we might have a chance of breaking into the top six and producing some positive performances.

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