Middlesbrough, who are staring into the barrel of Championship relegation, sacked Jonathan Woodgate as manager following a 3-0 defeat to Swansea City. In an attempt to turn their fate into a fortune, they immediately announced their replacement. Who do you turn to in a time of crisis? Neil Warnock of course.
Having only recently left his post at Cardiff City, whom he led into the Premier League two years ago, Warnock was thrown back in the deep end to try and level the sinking Boro ship. With a varied history of avoiding the drop, everyone in North Yorkshire will be keeping their fingers and toes crossed this will be a success story, not a stuttering swansong.
His debut in the Boro dugout could not have started any brighter, defeating Stoke City 2-0 away from home as emotions instantly lifted around the club. Despite another promising performance on their travels, they fell to a stoppage-time winner against fellow strugglers Hull City and left the K-Com empty-handed. Another loss ensued at the hands of one of Warnock’s former employers, Queens Park Rangers, as the honeymoon period gradually evaporated.
Spirits have not been completely extinguished, with plenty of positives to take from his short stay at the River Side stadium. This tactical analysis of Warnock’s brief spell at Boro will cover how he has transported aspects from his productive Cardiff set-up and why his current tactics may be enough to keep them afloat for another season.
Formation and shape
During their terrific climb to the top division, Warnock’s preferred system at Cardiff was a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, built upon defensive solidity and swift transitions into attack. Branded with a more ‘direct’ approach than most, The Blue Birds would take flight through their imposing striker, Kenneth Zohore, flocking him with pacy players out wide and willing runners from midfield.
Their defence was also completely menacing, conceding the fewest amount of goals in the league, thanks to the consistency and aggression of their centre-backs, Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba, the latter named in the PFA Team of the Year for his contribution across the campaign.
Boro actually do have a decent defensive record with one of the lowest goals against tally in the bottom half of the table and have the threat of pace and power upfront. Ashley Fletcher provides an out ball and the main goal threat, whilst Britt Assombalanga brings his speed to the table.
Woodgate typically teetered towards a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2, another style Warnock trialled during his time in Wales. During his first two fixtures, the newly appointed coach continued the trend of his predecessor by using three midfielders and forwards with largely encouraging outcomes.
What ensured Cardiff’s concrete back-line was their adaptability in covering for another, comfortable enough to fill in a variety of positions. Bruna Mango, typically a centre-back, would be deployed as a right-back to allow for an equal amount of protection had Morrison or Bamba stepped out to press an opponent. Joe Bennett on the opposite side would do the exact same job, meaning emphasis was placed on the wide attacking players to drop back into the space left by either full-back.
Warnock has the luxury of these types of positionally flexible players at Boro also, with George Friend dependable at centre-back, despite his career largely being spent on the left. Marvin Johnson is also generally known as a left-midfielder, slotting in at left-back when required.
However, instead of wide players coming back to defend, it is the role of the combative midfielders to safeguard the space. The likes of Johnny Howson and Paddy McNair are also adept at playing in defence or midfield; therefore, Warnock can deploy very similar tactics to those that worked so efficiently in Cardiff.
In their recent loss to QPR, Warnock changed to a 4-1-3-2 formation, dropping Howson into right-back, gifting a start to January transfer loanee, Harold Moukoudi, as the deepest midfielder. The Cameroonian from Saint-Etienne was signed as a centre-back, another indication of Warnock’s fluid positional philosophy. Fletcher and Assombalanga played alongside one another up front. Neither were able to score but did manage to fashion a handful of chances between them.
Positional fluidity and high press
In the narrow loss to Hull, Warnock implemented his positionally fluid style of play, combined with a high press, to deny their hosts much breathing room in behind or to build possession from the back.
This was typified by two of Boro’s midfielders, McNair and Howson, who both had a crucial role to play at either end of the field.
Howson was clearly the deepest of the three in the middle, dropping into the backline on numerous occasions to cover for either centre-backs of full-backs when required. He covered for both Dael Fry and George Friend when either had engaged with an attacker or stepped out from centre-back.
McNair was often the furthest midfielder forward and despite starting his career as a defender for Manchester United, he has grown into a versatile figure, archetypal of the Warnock reign. The Northern-Irishman led the midfield press and was regularly initiating the attacks, using his defensive knowledge to deny the Hull back-line options in passing into the opposing third.
Within that press, Boro were not passive in shutting down their hosts, throwing numbers forward to force an error, a long pass, or even turn over possession. The majority of this joy came down the right-flank, where the combination of Manchester City loanee Patrick Roberts and Djed Spence caused serious problems in the first half.
This is in fact where the opening goal came from; after winning the ball back on the right, Boro switched the play to the left side where Johnson took aim at goal. After a scramble in the box, Hull concede the penalty, converted by Assombalanga.
Warnock has built a reputation on that sequence alone: aggression, hunting teams down, crosses into the penalty area that causes confusion for the opponents. They also largely snuffed out any similar opportunities Hull attempted to fashion in their own box, stationing virtually every man behind the ball to limit the amount of space and therefore a clear sight to Dejan Stojanovic’s goal.
This accessible rotation of positions did come back to haunt Warnock in their recent loss to QPR. Howson filled in at right-back for the injured Spence, whilst Moukoudi started in the holding role, meaning the consistency of the previous two fixtures had been lost.
Boro were offered a warning after Howson was caught on the ball just over the half way line, allowing Jordan Huggill, on loan from West Ham, to rush through on goal. His freedom was permitted due to a lack of covering from Moukoudi or from the centre-halves, extremely unlike a Warnock team.
They did not learn their lesson however; Huggill was found by a long ball over the top and although his lobbed finish was excellently executed, the lack of support for Friend would have been disappointing to watch for the man on the side-lines.
Attacking from the right
The majority of Boro’s best play has been down their right-hand side, as demonstrated in the earlier analysis for the opener against Hull. This came into fruition during Warnock’s maiden game and win at Stoke, where both goals were fashioned from the right channel.
Typically, the first of the Warnock era was a set-piece, whipped in left footed by Roberts and met by the head of Fletcher.
They opened up the Potters once again through that high press previously mentioned, re-claiming possession in a dangerous era and delivering dangerous cross right across the goalmouth that was begging to be put into the net.
For the decisive winner, Howson played a delightful pass first time into the path of Marcus Tavernier, who in turn drifted inside and curling the ball past the sprawling goalkeeper. It is no surprise that both Howson and Tavernier, along with Fletcher, lead the way in terms of assists in the league (Howson six, Fletcher five, Tavernier four).
This theme continued into the following two fixtures, coming close in going ahead against Hull after overloading the right-hand side, Tavernier eventually letting fly with a long-range drive that missed the far post by inches.
Arguably their best opportunity against QPR fell to Assombalanga, who’s inventive flick flashed over the crossbar, the cross having been delivered by Howson from the right.
Warnock is not typically associated with flashy, creative footballer, yet his sides have always benefited from flashy, creative footballers. Adel Taarabt at QPR, Junior Hoilett at Cardiff, now Roberts and Tavernier at Boro: he has managed to blend the brains and the brawn pretty well wherever he has travelled. If he can continue this development in Teesside, then Middlesbrough might well avoid relegation.
There is no doubt he gets results and whether you are a fan or a foe, Neil Warnock has already got the Middlesbrough contingent in his corner. His players have adapted quickly to his philosophy of positional rotation as can be seen in this analysis, high pressing and attacking down the right-hand side. Boro are running out of matches to save their spot in the Championship, but their current manager is making decent tactical strides in doing so.