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Two up, two down: A Neil Warnock masterclass, but where have these performances been?
Monday, 15th Mar 2021 14:54 by Jake Emmerson

Saturday saw Boro put in a strong performance that resulted in a convincing win against a Stoke side that were only two points behind in the league prior to the match.

Before the game began, it had all the features of a game that Boro would normally be destined to lose. Playing at home against a team that hadn’t won in nine away games, it came across as the sort of game where we would see a ‘typical Boro’ performance.

However, Warnock’s side bucked the trend that we have seen all too often since the new year, maintaining their 9th spot in the league for the fifth consecutive game.

Here are our two ups and two downs from the game.

Two up

A Warnock tactical masterclass The Stoke match was one of Warnock’s best in terms of in-game management during his Boro tenure.

After starting the game on the back foot, conceding huge amounts of possession, he turned the game on its head with a formation switch, moving Paddy McNair into the midfield.

This allowed skipper Jonny Howson to fulfil his new role of man-marking Nick Powell out of the game, which he did to great effect.

More importantly, it allowed Boro to put an end to Stoke’s midfield dominance and start to create chances of their own, which they soon did. Paddy McNair went on to have a man of the match performance, putting in an excellent display as the more advanced of the midfield three.

While Yannick Bolasie has spent much of his career on the wings, Warnock’s choice to play him more centrally also paid off well. Bolasie won all eight of his aerial duels in the match and contributed at both ends, resulting in his first assist in a Boro shirt.

Finally, Boro managed to achieve their first clean sheet in 5 games and only the second clean sheet all season in games without Anfernee Dijksteel, Boro’s latest casualty.

This with Grant Hall’s first in a Boro shirt and is richly deserved after yet another strong performance from him and Dael Fry.

Crisp counter attacks One of Warnock’s classic favoured tactics, Boro used counter attacks to perfection on Saturday, striking at the back end of both halves to kill off the game. Boro have generally struggled more in games where teams have sat back and allowed us to have possession and so to some extent, Stoke played into their hands. They had the majority of possession and tried to take the game to us.

However, after Grant Hall had given Boro the lead against the run of play, they absorbed Stoke’s attacks well and found some incisive passes that made the most of the many runs being made by the front three. Kebano could’ve easily scored twice in the first half before the second goal was struck.

This goal came at the end of an excellent counter attack where Bolasie fought excellently to slide a ball through for McNair who then showed great composure to cut inside and put the ball in the far corner.

The final goal came from another high-quality counter attack that took advantage of the strength in depth on Boro’s bench. Getting the ball away quickly from a Stoke corner, Sam Morsy went on an excellent run before playing through Nathaniel Mendez-Laing who sent a delightful chip past Angus Gunn.

It was very satisfying to see Boro taking their chances, with attacking runs being found with well-chosen passes and composed finishes to round them off.

Two down

A difficult start It was difficult to come up with many criticisms of the weekend’s performance, with every Boro player putting in a good shift on the pitch and ultimately a very satisfying result.

The first 20 minutes of the match were the only spell where Boro looked uncomfortable. While there were other attacks faced throughout the match, Boro dealt with the majority of these well and any breaks through the defence saw excellent saves from Marcus Bettinelli, who had one of his best performances of the season.

During the starting period, Stoke had 75% of the possession and the ball rarely left the Boro half. Stoke’s midfield controlled the game, using their wealth of experience to move the ball around well and make Howson and Morsy’s lives miserable.

If Stoke had been able to carve out a slightly better chance or if Tommy Smith’s shot had crept the other side of the post, Boro could have found themselves having to make yet another comeback.

Where have these performances been? While the bad points from the game were few and far between, the performance could raise the wider question of why it has taken this long for this kind of result to occur.

This is a relatively harsh criticism as this season was expected to be a season of turnaround under Warnock, where he established his philosophy and started to assemble his core group of players to help enact his vision.

However, by the turn of the year, Boro had put themselves in the running for the play-off spots, before four points in seven games made them look like an unlikely prospect. Boro have shown poor home form and have lost to Birmingham, Blackburn, Rotherham, Brentford and Bristol City at the Riverside, at times putting in embarrassing displays.

Although it is encouraging to see things start to come together again, there is still some frustration as to why this performance couldn’t have occurred in one of the aforementioned defeats. While the play-offs aren’t completely out of reach, it would likely take an unprecedented run of form for Boro to make it from this point.

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