|Middlesbrough 0 v 2 Barnsley|
Tuesday, 15th September 2020 Kick-off 18:00
Neil Warnock has assessed the Middlesbrough squad, now it's decision time
Friday, 18th Sep 2020 10:00 by Phil Spencer
It was just three months ago that Middlesbrough brought Neil Warnock to the club as their saviour. I know, it feels much longer.
With the Teessiders battling relegation under rookie boss Jonathan Woodgate, it was time for an experienced head to get the side back on track.
Woodgate inherited a tough hand when he took over his boyhood club, and while results were poor, we've seen since Warnock's appointment that many issues are deeply rooted in the club.
In three years Middlesbrough have now had four permanent managers with different ideologies, tactical styles, formations and crucially, different economic circumstances in which to do their jobs.
That has left the club with a first team squad that is basically a quite random collection of players with little in the way of genuine cohesion.
This is a real problem and something that the club need to address, however this is not something that will be a quick fix.
Since Warnock took over we've seen a real mix of performances from members of the team.
Some would argue that this is down to players 'not being good enough', but in truth that is an easy accusation to make.
It boils down to the individual styles of the player and how it suits the manager.
Under Garry Monk the focus was on free-flowing attacking football that would entertain supporters by overloading the opposition defence.
When that didn't work, the club turned 180 degrees and brought in Tony Pulis who has made a living with a strong and organised defence which is hard to beat.
While that got results Middlesbrough opted to flip the squad on its head once again by appointing Woodgate who wanted to play high-intensity football with an attacking focus, before replacing him with the no-nonsense approach taken by Warnock.
Considering every member of the current squad has been brought in with a different tactical approach in mind, it would be foolish to think that everyone is suited to life in the current regime.
We could spend hours talking about what has gone wrong in recent years, but our time would be much better served by deciding how to take the club forward.
There are various factors that make a successful team, but arguably the biggest is the need for a shared vision and philosophy.
That could be a tactical approach, a formation, a philosophy or even a business model that acts as a template for how the club should make decisions.
Such an identity has been lacking in recent years, and that's something that needs to be addressed under Neil Warnock.
Middlesbrough need a formation and playing style that will be replicated from the senior team through to the junior sides.
What we've seen under Warnock is a high-intensity, direct style of play which is based on getting the ball into the final third as quickly as possible.
That has brought mixed results so far, but let's look at why it hasn't worked at times.
Warnock is one of the most successful managers that the Championship has ever seen, and that's proof that his approach is successful.
What hasn't worked is the way that Middlesbrough's squad of players has carried out his instructions.
Warnock prefers a 3-5-2 formation when setting up his team, and for that to work it's essential that the club have players who are specialists in each role.
The team have benefited from players such as Jonny Howson, Marvin Johnson, Paddy McNair and Marcus Tavernier who have established themselves as 'utility players' who can do a job in more than position.
But Middlesbrough need more from their players than a six out of 10 performance.
Funds are limited at the Riverside Stadium and that means that it is difficult to go out and find the perfect 11 players to fit into Warnock's system.
So perhaps it's a case of making some difficult decisions to ensure that the players in the squad are regarded as ideal fits for the manager's system.
Being blunt, the balance of the Middlesbrough squad is way off.
Match Gallery: 24 photos
The first team set-up is particularly thin after losing a handful of players at the end of last season, and that's why certain positions need strengthening as a priority.
Dael Fry and Grant Hall are the club's only two recognised senior centre-backs, and while Anfernee Dijksteel and Paddy McNair 'can do a job', Middlesbrough need a natural option in the heart of the defence.
Djed Spence has quickly become the club's first choice right wing-back, but with performances inconsistent and no natural alternative available, this is another area that needs improving.
That's a stark contrast to the left flank where the club have Marc Bola, Marvin Johnson and Hayden Coulson as genuine options to play at wing-back.
In central midfield there's also a plethora of different options, however you could debate exactly how many of them have the physical and mental attributes to thrive in Warnock's no-nonsense style of play.
As an area with several options, it wouldn't be a surprise to see one or two players moved on for alternatives who are a more direct fit to the new system.
Middlesbrough's attack is another area that will need attention.
Barring a significant offer in the transfer market Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga will form part of Warnock's attacking unit.
However the boss has already said that he'd like to sign two new attackers.
Given the direct nature of the formation used, one of those players is likely to be a target man who can get on the end of long diagonal balls into the area from wide areas.
The other could well be a more lively attacker who can drift into the channels and use their pace to cause problems.
In order to sign the players that are needed the club may need to wheel and deal a bit by offloading some players from overpopulated positions in order to strengthen the areas where the squad are a bit thin.
Of course there's a debate for using young players to plug the gaps, but in a results-based business like the Championship it would be a huge gamble to pin your hopes on an academy prospect who has limited experience at first team level.
It's certainly going to be an interesting few weeks at the Riverside Stadium, and we can only hope that the three months that Neil Warnock has spent assessing the first team squad will lead the club to back him in the transfer market.
The time for assessment is over, it's now time to build a first team squad that can ensure the club's success in both the short and long-term.
Photo: Action Images
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