Following their third defeat in five games at the hands of Stoke City on Saturday, Middlesbrough fans were up in arms at the performance of their side – while their manager used his time with the media to complain about the state of Stoke’s temporary changing rooms.
This could, however, have been a deflection tactic as Neil Warnock’s side put in one of their more tepid displays under his management, with one of his more defensive and conservative lineups on the banks of the Trent.
Boro finished the game with just one shot on target from their eight total shots, four of which came from a set piece. Warnock’s men need to do better than 4 shots from open play in the match, especially when a major concern in the recent years has been the finishing of our front men.
One way of increasing the attacking output for Boro would be to surround the strikers with more forward-thinking players.
Sam Morsy replaced the brace-scoring Duncan Watmore from the side who beat Swansea 2-1 at the Riverside. Against Derby, too Warnock fielded a side with Watmore supporting the striker, Britt Assombalonga in this case, and with Patrick Roberts providing additional support and Boro scored a season-high three goals in the game.
For the following game, a loss to Huddersfield, they were both dropped for Marvin Johnson and Djed Spence. The replacements had changed the game against Derby, but their inclusion from the start put more creative pressure on Marcus Tavernier, who had been playing well whilst deputising for the injured Morsy in a midfield three.
The Tavernier Shuffle
WhoScored.com have Tavernier listed as playing seven different positions this season for Middlesbrough, including one outing as a right winger and another as a holding midfielder, as well as filling in at right wing-back at times.
Despite the fact he does a job in multiple positions, many Boro fans seem to be latching on to him for blame when the Teessiders are defeated. With Twitter comments ranging from ‘How is Tav still getting in the team’ and ‘How on earth Tav starts every game’ to ‘Tav and Spence need hooking.’
This versatility has been what has endeared him to managers since his first appearance for the reds since his debut under Garry Monk in 2017.
This is also his biggest barrier to progression in the Middlesbrough team, as no manager has seemed to find his best position. He had some great performances for Tony Pulis as a forward, and scored on his debut against Sunderland while playing as one of three attacking midfielders for Monk.
Does he look better further back?
Middlesbrough have looked like struggling, however, when Tavernier is played at the sole creative player in a Middlesbrough side (though most teams would struggle with just one creative outlet in their side.)
In his exploits with England’s Under 19 and 20 sides, Tavernier was regularly deployed as a central midfielder, often donning the number four or eight jerseys.
Neil Warnock needs to decide on a position for Tavernier and keep him there as moving his around every game will not be allowing him to find his feet in the side.
WhoScored.com graded Marcus Tavernier’s five games at central midfielder (where he played mostly in place of Morsy) at a 7.2 – his joint highest score this season – tied with two other 7.2s which happened in single games.
While Boro have options in the central midfield position, with Howson and Saville playing some outstanding football along with new signing Morsy and the somewhat forgotten Lewis Wing, but Tavernier has performed as well as any in this position and shouldn’t be discounted.
If Tav isn’t the attacking solution, then what is?
Machester City-loanee Roberts hasn’t figured as much for Boro this year as fans would have hoped, and Warnock eluded to the fact that he did not want to sign Roberts prior to his arrival, indicating he wanted someone else who may fit his style better.
Warnock’s stance on the former Fulham man obviously waned due to the lack of other options forthcoming for Boro’s recruitment team, but he has been reluctant to give Roberts a run of games in the side.
Middlesbrough proved earlier on in the season that they can sit deep and be secure defensively, and the emergence of Marc Bola to provide a stable full back option opposite Anfernee Dijksteel in a four-at-the-back formation should allow Warnock to add another attacking player further up the field.
The former Cardiff manager will be thinking about recruitments in the forward positions in a month’s time, but he needs to use those at the team already and build up the match fitness of Watmore and Roberts instead of trying to play men more suited to less advanced roles, i.e. Spence and Tavernier.