|Watford 1 v 0 Middlesbrough|
Friday, 11th September 2020 Kick-off 19:45
Middlesbrough talking points vs Watford
Saturday, 12th Sep 2020 08:00 by Phil Spencer
Middlesbrough’s Championship season got under way on Friday evening as they faced Watford at Vicarage Road.
Despite dealing with 11 injuries to first team players the Hornets were clear favourites going into the match and showed their Premier League quality as they subjected Neil Warnock’s side to a 1-0 defeat.
The Teessiders certainly weren’t outclassed throughout and showed glimpses of real promise over the course of the 90 minutes.
But it was Watford who showed the crucial cutting edge – something that we hope won't be as constant a theme this term as it was last.
Here’s what we learned from the Championship opener.
Those pesky set pieces
I really, REALLY hope that I’m not going to be writing about this every week, but early signs suggest that this Middlesbrough frailty is chronic.
It took just 11 minutes for Watford to take advantage of some pretty poor marking as new signing Grant Hall allowed Craig Cathcart to power a header home from a corner.
Hall was guilty of turning his back on the attacker which allowed Cathcart a run at goal, but it wasn’t only him that afforded the hosts these sort of opportunities.
Middlesbrough lacked height and power in their side at Vicarage Road, and much like last term this seemed to invite pressure from balls into the box.
Whether it’s a case of drilling set pieces into the team in training, or working to add players with more aerial dominance, it’s certainly an area of Middlesbrough’s game that still needs to be addressed after last season.
Neil Warnock’s tactical blueprint
The match may have ended in defeat, but there was certainly signs of promise for Middlesbrough.
The 3-5-2 system appears to be Neil Warnock’s formation of choice, and while we don’t know whether that’s by choice or simply a lack of options, you can really see a game plan starting to emerge.
Starting with a no-nonsense back three, the tactical plan is based on feeding the balls into Djed Spence and Marvin Johnson in wide areas and playing direct passes into the channels for the attackers to latch on to.
This was certainly effective as Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga enjoyed a good game, with both players pressing hard and finding pockets of space to put the defence under pressure and get shots away.
There’s no doubt that both players were unfortunate not to get on the score sheet.
Again, this will likely come with time as the likes of George Saville and Jonny Howson get used to the demands of the box-to-box midfield role.
It'll also be boosted by the addition of Sam Morsy who will undoubtedly add some bite to an often inoffensive engine room.
Credit must go to Marcus Tavernier though, with the midfielder working hard to link up with the attack.
It’s encouraging to see him break into the final third and hopefully this will see his goal and assist tally boosted this term.
There’s still creases to be ironed out for sure, but you could certainly see the outline of an effective game plan coming through and it’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds in the coming weeks.
A new-look defence
Considering the level of quality that Middlesbrough faced, it was a decent job done by Neil Warnock’s defensive set-up.
Anfernee Dijksteel and Paddy McNair flanked Grant Hall in a back three, while Djed Spence and Marvin Johnson made it a five when under pressure.
We’ve already discussed Hall’s error for Watford’s goal, but on the whole it was a decent performance.
He might not be the fastest or most solid defender, but when flanked by fast, mobile defenders you can see a solid unit emerging.
McNair did a decent job in a position which certainly isn’t his best, but the real plaudits have to go to Dijksteel.
The ex-Charlton man had a rough first season at the club last term with a lack of form and a long-term injury pretty much subjecting him to a torrid first season.
But early signs suggest that he could be getting a second chance.
Playing as a right-sided centre back the defender showed pace, composure and positional initiative to suggest that he may have found his natural position.
His physical attributes ensured that he was able to cover for his teammates when under pressure, while his composure on the ball saw him bring the ball out of defence and play direct passes up to the attacking areas.
With new defenders on the shopping list and Dael Fry still to come back it remains to be seen what Neil Warnock’s plan will be for the back three, but there’s certainly signs of promise that this makeshift defence could have potential.
The importance of the attack
Much has been made of Neil Warnock’s insistence on playing a traditional two up front.
Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga were the players that pieced the tactical plan together at Vicarage Road, and for that they deserve credit.
Pressing the defenders into errors and making runs into the channels to pick up the ball you could see just how many problems Fletcher and Assombalonga were causing, and that’s a real pleasure to see.
We’ve had too many seasons of late where our attack has been painfully easy to defend against, but it looks like this term could be different.
Squad depth is clearly an issue outside of the two front men, and that’s why Warnock is determined to bring in two new strikers to his squad.
That sounded a little bit too demanding considering how hard it is to find a decent attacker these days, but given how much work his front men put in over the 90 minutes, you can see why four strikers are needed.
An obvious need to strengthen
While signing players who are more suited to Neil Warnock’s system is important, the main priority has to be on adding depth to the squad.
Sam Morsy has signed for the club and will surely be a key player in central midfield, but there’s some real bald patches in the squad.
After all, the fact that Warnock only made one change when chasing the game showed just how limited his options really are.
It’s so easy to say that the club need new signings, and with Warnock hoping for three or four more new players, the hope is that the squad will look a lot healthier in a few weeks’ time.
But for now it’s essential that the current players continue to adapt to the new game plan, as if they can stick to it then there’s a real opportunity to be a surprise package this term.
Photo: Action Images
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