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Middlesbroug column: What Neil Warnock can learn from Tony Mowbray's time in charge
Thursday, 14th Jan 2021 17:29 by Jake Emmerson

A new year brings the opportunity to look back at how we have developed from years gone by.

We can reflect on the good, the bad, the downright embarrassing - but most importantly, can our history teach us anything?

A decade ago, Boro were in a not dissimilar state to the one we found ourselves in last June. We were 20th in the league, with Tony Mowbray having taken charge in October following Gordon Strachan’s disastrous tenure.

After a period of heavy spending using up all parachute payments, limited funds were available to pick up new signings. This meant Mowbray’s job was to steer the club away from relegation, working with what he had, developing the talented young players and trimming down the excess to reduce the wage bill.

When he took over, Boro were 23rd; they had gained 1 point from their previous 6 league games and had scored 12 in 13 games. With a strike force comprising of Leroy Lita, Marvin Emnes, Scott McDonald and Kris Boyd this simply wasn’t good enough. Mowbray started with 10 points from his first 8 games - a similar total to Warnock who managed 12 in his 8 games at the back end of last season.

His team selections generally made the most of the promising young defenders from the Boro academy: Joe Bennett, Tony McMahon, Matthew Bates and Rhys Williams in particular. His midfield generally involved experienced heads like Julio Arca, Nicky Bailey and Barry Robson that could win the ball and were proven at a good level. He wasn’t blessed with lots of options from the wings and so often preferred to push full backs further forward and keep his experienced attacking players more central. Sounding familiar?

After steering Boro away from relegation, even achieving a relatively respectable league position, Mowbray looked to achieve more with virtually the same squad in his first full season in charge. He loaned in a first-choice goalkeeper (Carl Ikeme) and a young player from Manchester City who ultimately proved disappointing (Alex Nimely), while ensuring that Arca, an experienced central midfielder, stayed on for another year. Ringing any bells?

Of course, there were differences between Mowbray’s and Warnock’s tenures at the club. Aside from a pandemic, Mowbray inherited a huge squad. In the 2010/11 season, Boro utilised 38 different players in the league - a number that would surely give Neil Warnock a laugh. The next season, they used 29.

There were also some differences in the timelines; Middlesbrough were more recently relegated when Mowbray took over and he was given a longer period to turn things around in his first season. Mowbray also had far less experience than Warnock and was generally met with a positive reaction from fans from the start while there was more wariness greeting Warnock.

The similarities are nonetheless undeniable. At the halfway point of Mowbray’s first full season in charge, Boro were 3rd in the league on the back of a run that had seen them win 4 of their last 5 games. It was hard to believe that the team was the same one that everyone had watched the season before.

Now, Boro find themselves four places lower than in 2011, on the back of a run that has seen them win 4 of their last 5 in the league and largely exceed expectations from the start of the season.

However, in 2011/12, after the halfway point, things went steadily downhill and eventually Boro ended up 7th, missing out on the playoffs by 5 points.

In the second half of the season, Mowbray’s side suffered two really poor runs. After winning 4 on the bounce up to Boxing Day, Boro failed to win their next 6 games in the league (3 draws) which left them 6th. A brief resurgence followed before a winless run of 8 games (4 draws) stretching between March and April left them unable to recover.

After keeping 10 clean sheets in the first 23 games, Boro kept 4 across the next 23. During the season, Boro gave up a lead on 10 different occasions. In the second winless streak they managed it 3 times in 4 games, drawing with Ipswich (courtesy of Grant Leadbitter) and Brighton before losing at Hull.

So, are there any lessons to be learnt from the 2011/12 season? What kind of mistakes did Mowbray make that Warnock can seek to avoid? Do things look more hopeful now than they did then?

The poor form in 2012 was partly down to losing key players at critical periods. Having scored 8 in his previous 13, Scott McDonald missed 11 games with ligament damage from the start of February. Mainstays Rhys Williams and Faris Haroun both missed the second winless runs while captain Bates was absent for the final 7 matches with a knee injury. Ill-discipline also played a part with Robson missing 5 league games through suspension, only one of which Boro managed to win.

While injuries are unavoidable, it is possible to ensure that suitable alternatives are available when they occur. In 2012, Mowbray was forced to turn to substandard reserves including Seb Hines, Bartholomew Ogbeche and Adam Hammill as replacements for his key injured players.

So far this season, Boro have suffered injuries to key players - Fletcher, Howson and Dijksteel in particular. While generally coping well with the loss of the first two, Boro’s form took a noticeable dip in the games for which Dijksteel was missing.

Warnock is no fan of the January transfer window (he’s far from alone in that view), but it is still an opportunity to get cover for our exposed areas. The talk has been about wingers but defensive cover - someone who could play at centre back or right back - could be very valuable.

In 2012, Boro were arguably complacent in their January dealings. Only Lukas Jutkiewicz was brought in and he ended up scoring 2 in 17 appearances. A couple of extra signings and who knows what might have been!

Mowbray’s Boro failed to hold on to leads and failed to snap back from defeat, which led to slumps. Warnock so far has managed to mostly avoid such problems. Potentially discouraging defeats have generally been followed by strong performances in the following game. We saw this in particular after the losses against Norwich and Huddersfield in November. As far as holding onto leads go, when scoring first, Boro have won all but 3 games so far in the league.

Finally, the obvious point and the point we make time and time again; Boro must score more goals. Although there’s been encouraging returns in the previous 5 league games, there have still been 7 occasions this season in which Boro have failed to score. In 2011/12, this happened on 14 occasions and ultimately proved fatal to Boro’s promotion hopes.

After 22 games in the 2011/12 season, Boro had scored 28 goals - exactly the number we have so far this season. Ultimately, they finished with 52. To be serious promotion contenders, we need between 60 and 70 to be in the mix. Both Leeds and WBA scored 77 last season.

Whether Warnock will be able to maintain the form seen so far with such a small squad remains to be seen. However, with a new year comes new hope, and if anyone is capable of using their previous experiences, successes and failures, to avoid repeating past mistakes, it’s Neil Warnock.

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