On June 9th, when Garry Monk was made manager of Middlesbrough Football Club there was a real air of positivity and hope for change. After watching dour football last season, and organised but incredibly effective football for the two season before that, I think the fans had hope for change too.
The first glimpse of that change was during the final friendly game against Augsburg. In spite of conceded a ridiculously early goal, the play looked different. There was Clayton was dropping deep in between the two central defenders; the full backs playing as wingers, never mind wing backs; and a flexible, mobile front three swapping positions at will. This was in stark difference to the structured team shape of the Karanka era. It made me think more about our tactics and what the team would look like this season.
As yet, we haven’t set the word alight with our performances and we would have loved 5 wins out of the first 5 games and be top for the first international break. But that honour falls to seasoned veteran Neil Warnock and his budget buys at Cardiff. Although we aren’t flying high at the top, there are some positive signs despite a somewhat indifferent start.
Last season, Garry Monk was wedded to the 4-2-3-1 at Leeds after using it in 38 out of 46 matches. After 3 years of that formation at Boro, I’m not sure if fans would have been happy to watch a determined striker plough a lone furrow up front all over again. If that was the case, we probably felt that we had players who would fit into that system nicely. Indeed, in the early pre season games this system was used and it would seem sensible to use that in the season, if all of the pre season work was built around this formation. However, the game against Augsburg was a surprise to everyone and this would be the system that Monk would use in the first goal of the season at Wolves.
In terms of selection, an unlucky Patrick Bamford was left out of the side, with pacy new signing Ashley Fletcher preferred up top alongside Britt Assombalonga. Wolves themselves had had a facelift over the summer, with a number of notable additions, not least the highly rated FC Porto youngster Ruben Neves and ex-FCP manager Nuno Espirito Santo. They lined up in a 3-4-3 formation and really stifled Boro’s attacking flow. In fairness, a draw would probably have been the right result, had it not been for Daniel Ayala’s mistake for the home team’s winner.
One of the issues in the Wolves game was the positional play of the forwards and midfielders. The front three were often far too close together, almost in a line, which did not create any angles for link up play and in no way stretched the central defenders across the pitch. This is especially important in a team that does not play with natural wide midfielders. In choosing the 4-1-2-1-2 formation, the idea is that each section of the pitch features players in triangles. The image below shows the lack of shape that was often present in the newly formed front three.
The pass map below also shows the average positions for players in the game, this also shows the lack of shape up front.
If we compare this to the pass map from the home wins against Sheffield United and Burton, the differences are quite clear. In the Sheffield United game, the forwards operated in the triangle/diamond setup, to encourage better link up play and allow Bamford to play in between the lines. Although the forwards were positioned more effectively, they were still not able to make deep connections with the rest of the team.
In the Burton game, Boro were much more dominant. The forwards were much more involved, which is shown with the darker passing lines. The arrows also show the movement for certain players. In this game the movement from Gestede and Assombalonga was excellent, and we created a number of chances.
There are also strong passing connections between all areas of the pitch, especially between Jonny Howson and the players around him. Howson has come in for a lot of criticism this season for not really fulfilling his promise and hefty fee (at this level), but when used effectively (in a more forward thinking role) he can make a positive impact on the team.
The forwards linked up well in a number of scenarios during both games, as you can see in the images below.
It is clear that some minor adjustments were made for these two games, and this seems to be the way Monk wants to play. Since those two wins, Boro have played Nottingham Forest away and Scunthorpe in the Carabao Cup. Putting aside the relatively straightforward League Cup win, if we look at the Forest game, it was clear that the system he set out was not working as effectively.
The issue in that game, seemed to be the links between the three sections of the pitch, as well as Patrick Bamford’s role (to the right of the midfield three). Taking the midfield first, Clayton, Howson and Forshaw, on average, occupied the same space as you can see by the pass map below. Similarly, Bamford ended up playing too deep and not making any meaningful connections between Assombalonga and Gestede.
Comparing this to Forest’s pass map for the same game, their play was much more structured.
Vaughan and Bouchalakis didn’t have to deal with a roaming Patrick Bamford, so they were able to dictate the play in the centre of midfield. They linked well with the four main attacking players, especially Ben Osborn who was instrumental in brining players into the game. The Forest midfielders also put a lot of pressure on our midfield three throughout the game as you can see below.
Despite the negatives, in this game, Assombalonga had some some big chances (Opta definition – a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range) that he missed and on another day would have scored. Hopefully, there won’t be many days like that this season. Most of these chances came from a breakdown in play or from flick ons and often occurred in quick succession.
Another element of the game that seemed positive at the outset, but may not be a positive move going forward; multiple player and formation changes within the game. After a limp first half, Monk knew he had to make changes and this came in the form of Adama Traore for Adam Forshaw, 4 minutes into the second half. There was obviously an issue with the lack of penetration being offered by the midfield three, and I’m not sure why Monk waited four minutes if he was determined to make a change. Preparing the players at half time for a formation change (which may well have happened) and then making the substitution before the second half resumes would seem to be a more effective move.
Just after the hour mark, Lewis Baker was introduced for Patrick Bamford and spent most of his time on the left hand side, an area Bamford had not really occupied all game. Ashley Fletcher was the final attacking change to make a front three, replacing Adam Clayton. Although Monk tried to change the game with these substitutions, Forest’s second goal actually came minutes after the third substitution. A team adjusting to another change and then conceding a goal; we’ve seen that one before.
Watching the build up to the goal, there are a number of players chasing (not pressing) the ball and way out of position. Christie appears on the halfway line, with no cover in behind, which left acres of space for Kieran Dowell to put a ball into the box. Lewis Baker didn’t really attempt to block the cross, but maybe he can be forgiven because seconds earlier he was over in the left central midfield position. Adama Traore, never the most defensive minded at the best of times, had charged infield to get the ball, but remained on the halfway line as the Forest attack progressed.
Maintaining a consistent system, while tweaking elements within a game is what managers get paid for. In the Forest game, I felt like we didn’t actually function well in our 4-3-3, but maybe personnel changes within that system would have been more effective. If Assombalonga had scored those chances, then we probably wouldn’t even be talking about the changes, just pleased that we had the points. As it stands, we didn’t get the win and we didn’t improve our performance in the next league game.
So, the Preston game. The match we’d rather forget. A total curveball of a team sheet meant that Boro had totally changed their whole system, that you could argue had worked well, despite those two away results.
Rewatching the early portion of the game, it’s not really clear what we are trying to achieve. There is no real link in any of the phases of play. Preston had a lot more of the ball than us, and we were often chasing after their players and the ball rather than forming a defensive block. It was too easy to play the ball in triangles around and through the midfield. Don’t get me wrong, Preston worked hard, were very diligent and waited for our poor shape and performance to give them opportunities.
Another element was how the change in system actually nullified our best performers this season; Christie, Clayton and Gestede. Playing what looked like a 3-5-2, but was more like a 4-4-2, meant that Christie couldn’t simply charge forward and join in with the play as he often has this season. In the early part of the game, Baker was often in the space Christie would normally occupy. If you look at the image below, you can see the average positions after the first 25 minutes of the game.
For me this looks a lot more like a 4-4-2, especially considering how high Fabio is up the pitch. The huge gap in the centre of the defence shows that Fry and Gibson were playing as if they were in a back four, waiting for Clayton to drop deep in between them, which he did, although sparingly. I’m not sure why this change has happened, maybe Monk thought that his 4-3-3, which had underperformed at Forest, was not suitable for this game. From the evidence we have had in the other home games, the system can work well with the right personnel. Swapping Bamford for Fabio, and playing Baker instead of Forshaw was probably what most fans would have expected for a match against a solid, defensive orientated team. As the manager, Monk will make the decisions and we have to look at the fact we haven’t conceded a goal at home this season.
In conclusion, I think that we have the makings of a strong side. Some of our attacking play at times has been excellent and we have continued to make chances (apart from the Preston game). Within the squad, we have attacking strength in depth that we have not had for a number of years. I anticipate more additions before the transfer window closes, and this might dictate another change in shape or system. Personally, I have enjoyed watching us play an attack minded 4-3-3 formation, and after overcoming a few teething problems, I think we can get out of the division at the first time of asking.