West Brom and Middlesbrough have always had a connected history. Men like Tony Mowbray and Bryan Robson have hero status at both clubs for good reason. Players like James Morrison; Jonathon Greening, Chris Brunt and Andy Townsend have also donned both the Red and Black & White stripes in glittering careers.
Despite a desperately large gap between these two teams in the Championship table, both teams will have entered The Hawthorns with optimism. Slaven Bilic’ West Brom sat at the top of the tree and hold a healthy three point lead over Leeds. Although their form has dipped slightly over the last five games (dropping six points), they have outperformed Leeds in the same period so remain top.
Middlesbrough have had an uncomfortable transition under Jonathan Woodgate. Fans expected a tough season, but not one were relegation has been a real threat. Four straight home wins have eased the concern slightly, but Middlesbrough still hadn’t won away all season. Although excitement in Teesside has returned through exciting youth talent, it would be a big task to turn that record around against the league leaders.
In the following tactical analysis, we examine how both teams set out to close the decade out with three points.
Having experimented with a 4-4-2 in the draw with Barnsley, Slaven Bilic decided to return to his tried and tested 4-2-3-1. Charlie Austin lost his place to allow for Gareth Barry to step in as a second pivot alongside Jake Livermore.
Last weeks goalscorer Filip Krovinovic was dropped in favour for the energetic Matt Philips. Kyle Edwards was brought in to attacking midfield to rest the ever-present Romain Sawyers
Jonathan Woodgate opted to make minimal personnel changes from Boxing Day’s win against Huddersfield. His tactics changed slightly, preferring a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 3-5-2. This meant Adam Clayton returning to the side in a double pivot with Saville. In form academy graduate Djed Spence played as an attacking winger instead of his usual wing back post.
The inclusion of Clayton relieved another academy graduate, Lewis Wing, of defensive responsibilities and allowed him create more going forward. He would be creating chances for Ashley Fletcher and Marcus Tavernier – yes you’ve guessed it, another academy graduate.
Middlesbrough defending from the middle
Middlesbrough defended impeccably in the first half. Aware that the danger was with Livermore and Barry threading balls into the attacking four, ‘Boro operated a midfield block. Feeling safe when possession was with West Brom’s defence, there was no need for Middlesbrough to engage until the first line was breached.
The above frame shows the visitors reluctance to engage the West Brom defence and instead restrict their passing options. The attacking midfielders drop in to form a midfield four to block passing channels. With only lateral and negative passing options available, West Brom are forced to cycle the ball in the defensive third.
Middlesbrough forced 64% of all passes from Hegazi and Ajayi to be played laterally in a congested defence. This nullified the playmaking threat from the West Brom midfielders – which has been a key factor in their performance this season.
Adam Clayton as a deep-lying playmaker
In the seasons leading to promotion for Middlesbrough – Adam Clayton was one of the first names on the weekly team sheet. Jonathan Woodgate knows this as he was his teammate for most of them! Although appearances are not as frequent now, his abilities both win and without the ball remain.
When Middlesbrough were in possession, Clayton performed a ‘Pirlo-esque’ regista role at the Hawthorns. Movement was made in front of him by Tavernier, Wing and Spence allowing him to conduct the Teesside orchestra from deep.
Above, Marcus Tavernier drops into the number 10 position to draw the defensive midfielders to him. He recycles the ball straight back to Clayton who can now chip the ball over to an unguarded Lewis Wing.
With the extra space gained, Wing can cushion the ball to Tavernier (2). Spence has made a run into the wide channel and can receive a pass from Tavernier (3). Clayton’s vision and technique was at the heart of ‘Boro progressions all game. Resulting from this move, Middlesbrough win a corner and score their first of the afternoon.
Here we see how Clayton varied his pass selection throughout the game. He opens up his body as if to switch flanks but instead slices the defence open with a well-timed through ball. George Saville exploits this opening and tests Sam Johnstone.
Middlesbrough targeting the near post on corners
Jonathan Woodgate had evidently performed some analysis on West Brom defensive corners. What he found is that Sam Johnstone can be exploited at the near post. This is evident most in the first half, when looking at the distribution of corners below.
Four out of five first-half crosses were directed to that near post. Middlesbrough would also place George Saville on the goalkeepers to congest his route to the ball.
The above frame displays the corner routine that results in Middlesbrough’s first goal. The first point of interest is Saville’s position in relation to the West Brom goalkeeper. He positions himself in front to block his vision of the cross and impede his run to clear. The second, and most crucial block is Tavernier in front of the goalscorer – Ayala. Tavernier blocks his marker to allow Ayala and free run and header on goal.
Saville consistently placed himself in front of Johnstone when attacking corners and caused him many problems. Middlesbrough targeted the near post to exploit this and tried to free up players to attack the ball through tactically positioned blocks.
Matheus Pereira finding space in the second half
Due to the aforementioned midfield block Middlesbrough executed in the first half – Matheus Pereira cut a frustrated figure. He has been a standout talent in the Championship this season and has racked up nine assists already this term. His supply channel was cut by dominant performances from Clayton and Saville and he wasn’t able to operate between the lines to create chances.
In the first half, his key passes were reflective of this. He wasn’t able to affect the game outside of the box and his two key passes were made inside the ‘Boro box.
Although these may look like good areas to influence the game, only one of these was successful and Middlesbrough congested their box well.
Pereira is a player of David Silva style – his biggest threat is when he can turn in the space between the midfield and defence. In the second half West Brom played with two strikers, pushing the ‘Boro defence back and creating more room for Pereira. He was able to influence the game more and performed a greater amount of key passes from deeper.
As West Brom were throwing two or three players into some attacks, Middlesbrough’s defence was dropping deeper and gaps between the blocks were growing. This is the space Pereira thrives in and he had his chance to influence the game in the 83rd minute.
Pereira picks up space in between Clayton and Fry and turns to find the West Brom striker Charlie Austin.
This would have resulted in an equaliser for West Bromwich Albion had it not been for the heroics of Aynsley Pears in the Middlesbrough goal. The cross was perfect and met well but on this occasion, Middlesbrough were spared.
It will have frustrated Slaven Bilic that Pereira wasn’t able to have the same effect in the first half as he did in the second. Potentially fatigue was a factor in this, as 10 of the 11 Middlesbrough players had started the game on Boxing Day.
The above analysis shows that no team in this league are infallible or without weakness. Entering this festive period, fans of both teams would be forgiven for predicting their side may be playing football in a different league come August.
Slaven Bilic, however, has had an inconvenient reminder that this is a gruelling and unpredictable league. His side were outplayed and tactically outclassed by a Middlesbrough side with renewed optimism. It was clear they were missing the dynamism and assurance that Romain Sawyers brings to the side.
Jonathan Woodgate has had an extremely merry Christmas period, to say the least. His side have won three games consecutively for the first time since August 2018. Coincidentally that run ended featured a win against West Brom with Ayala on the scoresheet too.
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