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Opposition Preview - Middlesbrough (Home)
Written by ad_wilkin on Friday, 12th Apr 2024 10:17

The Manchester United connection is back as Kieran McKenna takes on Michael Carrick for the second time this season.

The meeting comes at a time when the current Manchester United manager is under pressure with both clubs' managers at 25/1 in the odds to replace Erik Ten Hag.

Middlesbrough are on an eight-match unbeaten run (five wins and three draws) and that run has moved them up to ninth position in the league and very much part of the battle for fifth and sixth places with West Brom, Norwich, Coventry, Hull and Preston.

Like the rest of Town’s remaining games, this is by no means a dead rubber for either side.

Last time out (Middlesbrough 0-2 Ipswich)

In a very tight and even game at the Riverside, it was Town’s superior finishing that gave them the edge with Conor Chaplin breaking the deadlock before Omari Hutchinson raced away to put the game beyond doubt in the second half.

The early chances of the game fell the way of Middlesbrough, Cameron Burgess performing some excellent last-ditch defending to stop a Boro break and Harry Clarke getting in the way of a Morgan Rogers curler.

Town then had a couple of chances of their own, George Hirst scuffed a shot into the hands of Seny Dieng before a rifled Nathan Broadhead shot deflected and dropped just over the bar.

Middlesbrough were constantly looking to launch the quick counter-attacks but Vclav Hladky was excellent at sweeping up and spinning that on its head so that Town could counter themselves.

The deadlock was finally broken due to some good link-up play between Chaplin and Burns and a bit of luck. Burns's cutback hit a Boro defender and dropped nicely for Chaplin on the edge of the box. Chaplin’s first-time strike grazed the head of Matt Clarke and beat a flat-footed Dieng in the Boro goal to give Ipswich lift off.

Middlesbrough tried to hit back. Emmanuel Latte Lath drifted out nicely into space on the left and then weaved his way inside into the box with an excellent dribble. However, his finish was wayward and he side-footed it wide of the post without testing Hladky.

That was about the extent of the action in the first half but Town started the second half strongly once again with Burns flashing a ball across the face of goal that unfortunately no one was able to get on the end of.

Boro then had another couple of chances, a cutback from the left saw a Matt Crooks shot blocked away, before Hladky had to be on his toes to punch an inswinging corner over his bar and then later on make a good diving save from a Latte Lath header.

With Middlesbrough building momentum, McKenna turned to his bench and it was one of the substitues that made the difference. With the Teessiders pushed high up the pitch Town were able to beat their backline. George Hirst dropped deep into the hole to receive the ball and lay it nicely off to Chaplin whose first-time pass found the breaking Hutchinson, who scampered through on goal leaving the defenders for dead. He had time on the ball and gave Dieng the eyes before curling it around him into the near post to give Town a 2-0 lead.

There wasn’t too much action of note after that. Rav van den Berg delivered a dangerous low cross which Luke Woolfenden dealt with at one end and Hirst was unable to hit the target from a Kayden Jackson pull-back at the other.

At times in the game both sides cancelled each other out. There wasn’t much of a gap in terms of possession or shots but Town managed to get more on target with three to Middlesbrough’s one and that’s what gave them the edge in the end.

What’s Changed?

Middlesbrough were going through a bit of an injury crisis when these sides met earlier this season, which is still very much the case with eight players currently on the treatment table.

Riley McGree, Marcuss Forss, Dael Fry, Alex Bangura (who was back on the bench against Hull) and Hayden Hackney are all set to be due back by the end of April, but whether any will be available for this fixture is doubtful. Darragh Lenihan and Thomas Smith are out with even longer injuries.

They have added to their defensive ranks in the January window, loaning players from both of Town’s promotion rivals.

Luke Thomas joined from Leicester following an unsuccessful spell at Sheffield United in the first half of the season and Luke Ayling has also signed on loan from Leeds since getting displaced by Archie Gray whilst out injured and having not been able to force his way back into the Whites team.

Ayling has become a key player in the Boro side, featuring in a vast number of their games since signing. His versatility means that they can operate with a back three or a back four with Ayling playing the right-sided centre-back/right-back role. He’s also on a bit of an assist run currently, providing four in his last six games.

Middlesbrough also strengthened in forward areas with the signing of Finn Azaz. Azaz was enjoying a productive second loan spell at Plymouth in the first half of the season and has carried that on going into the second half despite not being quite as prolific. He’d netted seven times and supplied five assists for Plymouth but only has three and one respectively in 12 appearances for Boro.

Key Players

Emmanuel Latte Lath

The Ivorian number nine is on 11 goals for the season and would likely have had more had he not been limited to just 19 starts.

Against Swansea he was Boro’s main threat with powerful runs in behind and a quick reaction to seize upon a goalkeeping error to score his first goal of the game following some excellent dribbling in the box.

His powerful running in behind and an excellent chop back in the box saw him net his second of the game with another unerring finish as he was the difference maker in that match, his goals securing a 2-0 win.

He added to that total again in Boro’s last match, firing home from a narrow angle and will come into this one full of confidence.

Isaiah Jones

Middlesbrough and Ipswich share a lot of tactical similarities and understandably have a similar style of , which leads to the obvious comparison of Jones to his Town positional counterpart Burns.

They have both played a similar number of minutes. In fact there is only a two-minute difference between them. They both have eight goal contributions but looking at other metrics Jones looks to be the more all-rounded player.

He has more progressive passes and does more defensive work for his side as well. Burns surprisingly has only won 12 tackles all season according to FBRef.

Having watched him in some of Middlesbrough’s cup games earlier in the season, Jones doesn’t just have pace, he is also an incredibly hard worker and doesn’t lose the ball much.

With Jones and Latte Lath in the side, Middlesbrough have pace to burn and players who know how to use the ball when they get it. Leif Davis will certainly have his hands full.

The Teams

Here we are again, four games to go. The fifth game in 15 days. McKenna understandably made changes for the midweek game against Watford. Some players are suffering with tiredness, others with illness, the whole squad will need to be used.

Chaplin and Woolfenden were both rested on Wednesday night, they are the most likely candidates to come back in despite George Edmundson and Jackson putting solid performances in.

Jack Taylor was all over the pitch in the first half and was unlucky not to score with his powerful shot from the edge of the box blocked by his own player. He understandably faded in the second half given that he is still on his way back from injury and building up his minutes.

I’d like to see the former Peterborough man start again in this one but I think McKenna will revert to the Sam Morsy-Massimo Luongo partnership.

I’ve also been a big advocate of Ali Al-Hamadi getting a start but I think his injury is the big reason that hasn’t happened so far with his minutes having to be limited.

That means Kieffer Moore will have to go again, he looked a bit brighter and full of running on Wednesday night and really should have scored with his free header from Harry Clarke’s cross and hopefully his aerial threat can cause Middlesbrough’s defenders problems in this one.

For Middlesbrough, Dieng is their number one goalkeeper and is likely to stay that way despite a shaky performance on Wednesday night against Hull.

Ayling has nailed down the right-back spot and Van den Berg returned to the side on Wednesday replacing Jonathan Howson in central defence to play alongside former Town defender Matt Clarke, who, having broken into the team, is now in very good form. That pairing is likely to continue for this one.

At left-back, there has been some rotation between Lukas Engel and loan signing Thomas. Engel started against Hull but I can see the slightly more defensive Thomas coming back in for this one.

The return of Van den Berg to fitness means that Howson can be pushed forward into his natural central midfield role. He partnered Lewis O’Brien against Hull but I think Daniel Barlaser could come in alongside him at Portman Road.

The front four then picks itself with the same four players having started the last four games in a row. Assuming there are no further injury problems, that means it will be Jones, Azaz, Sam Greenwood and Latte Lath providing the attacking threat.

Action Areas

Middlesbrough, like Town, are a team that like to have the ball but can also change their gameplan depending on the opposition. Away from home against Hull on Wednesday night, they only had 39% of possession, yet when they did have the ball they used it wisely

Their opener came from a lovely Matt Clarke ball over the top, which Greenwood raced on to, hooking over a Hull defender into the path of Latte Lath, who finished from a tight angle and their equaliser came from a wonderful counter-attack with Jones and Azaz working the ball back and forth between themselves as they progressed up the pitch before Azaz slid home via a deflection.

Visiting Portman Road it’s likely that they will set up in a similar manner with the pace of Jones and Latte Lath being their main threats to watch out for.

It means that like in the Watford game Town may not have that much space to work in going forward as they could face a compact block. Nathan Broadhead and Chapin finding space will be key for Town making the breakthrough.

I can’t call this one at all. Middlesbrough are a good side but Town are incredibly strong and were comfortable in the reverse fixture in the end.

It’s likely that both managers' tactics could cancel each other out once again, so clinical finishing will be crucial. It will be a game of fine margins and there could only be one goal in it. I think it will be a 2-1 but I'm not brave enough to call which way that will go this time round.

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