Boro are having a bit of a wobble. Having opened the season with only one defeat from the first twelve games, the Reds have lost four of the last six and their much vaunted defence has taken a hit.
The team who could previously boast the best defensive record in the entire English Football League has let in eight goals in the last four games which is two more than they had conceded in the previous eleven.
With star man Anfernee Dijksteel sidelined with an injury, a switch to a back four has put further strain on the backline who look far more comfortable with the additional protection brought by playing as a five man unit.
However, Neil Warnock will be confident of rectifying these issues with Dijksteel scheduled for a return soon and with a lifetime of managerial peaks and troughs behind him. Despite the leak that has sprung in his previously watertight defence, the gaffer’s main concern will be with his lifeless attack.
Including the past two defeats, Boro have drawn a blank on seven occasions so far this season and are the lowest scorers in the top half of the Championship. Only eight teams have scored less goals than Middlesbrough so far and five of those are the sides at the bottom of the table.
As has been the case for what seems like a millennia, Boro are struggling to produce chances and goals, with a laboured and predictable attack whose only threat going forwards is the threat of undoing some of the goodwill Neil Warnock has earned since taking over as manager.
As the famous line which is often wrongly accredited to Albert Einstein goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results, and it sums up the current state of the Middlesbrough attack. They’re stuck in an endless cycle of shuffling the ball out-wide for either Marvin Johnson to fire a ball in that neither of Boro’s strikers will attempt to get to or for Djed Spence to do some stepovers before being dispossessed or seeing his cross deflect of the closest play to go out for a corner.
There is no spark or guile, making it easier for the opposition to line up and plan for games, which has helped to mount pressure on a defence that is currently facing the prospect of having to keep a clean sheet to allow Boro to win games.
All of this is happening while arguably the most creative player in the squad is left to stew on the bench. It might not be emergency territory for Neil Warnock, but it’s time to sound the alarm and let Patrick Roberts loose on the Championship.
Regardless of his performances at the end of last season, with his goal and two assists following the restart of league football aiding Boro in avoiding relegation, it’s clear that Patrick Roberts would not be Neil Warnock’s first choice to line up on the flank in an ideal world.
Roberts has been limited to only three starts and three substitute appearances in the thirteen games since rejoining the club on loan in October and was given just 35 minutes of action in the two recent defeats to Stoke and Preston, when the team was in search of a way back into those games.
He didn’t even feature in successive 0-0 draws away at Blackburn and Brentford that could have been tipped in Boro’s favour with an extra bit of magic.
As someone who regularly suffers muscle injuries it is important not to overplay him which was Wanrock’s defence upon Roberts’ return but it has become clear that it’s a lack of trust in his ability to protect the goal and follow the system rather than a protection of his fitness that has led to the former Celtic man’s lack of game time.
The Man City loanee has an irritating habit of holding onto the ball for too long usually at the expense of furthering an attack and doesn’t provide the necessary support to the side’s fullbacks by constantly tracking back and covering lost ground.
However, with slim pickings in the squad, Neil Warnock is not living in an ideal world and has to compromise on his ideals slightly to breathe life into his attack. Rather than focusing on what Patrick Roberts can’t do, at least for now, he has to give him the opportunity to show what he can do.
Asked about the need to include him in upcoming games due to the lack of goals recently by BBC Tees’ Mark Drury after the collapse against Preston, Warnock sniped “Did you think he did much when he came on?. On the one hand it’s hard for anyone to make an impact in brief cameos but Roberts did do something that nobody else had really managed against Preston.
It was his quick feet and pass that gave Marcus Tavernier the opening to hit the post in the dying stages of the match.
Yes, the game was already dead and buried at 3-0, but it was the only real time Boro had a true sight of goal all evening and showed the attributes Roberts can offer to the side. His capability of playing on the front foot and willingness to drive the ball forward at pace is something only Marcus Tavernier can begin to rival in terms of quality and consistency within the squad.
In spite of his lack of minutes on the pitch, Roberts has produced the second most key passes per game (1.3) for the boys in red this season, only trailing Tav (1.5) and if we’re splitting hairs about decimal places and .2s of a pass we’re all just a big bunch of nerds that need to get a life.
To put it into simpler terms, Roberts is more likely to make a pass that leads directly to a chance or ignites the attack than basically everyone else at the club, according to the stats.
It may not turn his side into late 2000s Barcelona, but keeping his most talented attacker on the bench is giving Neil Warnock an unnecessary headache and giving his detractors an easy stick to beat him with. The less he plays and the longer Boro’s attacking woes go on, the better Patrick Roberts becomes in the minds of the supporters and the spare ten minutes here or there do no give Warnock the “get out of jail quick” card he may be hoping for.
Equally, in a season where expectations on Teesside are perhaps at their lowest in years, the gaffer needs to keep the supporters happy with exciting performances and signs of progression.
The fantastic initial run of form aside, this is a team that narrowly avoided relegation last season, so there will be bumps along the way this year. This is a Championship side in recovery and defeats and poor showings will happen.
That can be swallowed by most as long as there’s something to shout about for the majority of those games. This has come in the form of the resolute spirit that comes with being a Warnock outfit but must now be complemented by the quick feet and flair of Roberts.
Tomorrow’s game against Millwall is the perfect opportunity to reintegrate Roberts into the flagging frontline. Gary Rowett’s men are without a win in nine games and are one of those teams to have scored even less than Boro in the league with 14 so should be a more comfortable proposition for the defence.
However, the Lions are stronger defensively than their results show with only 14 conceded (same as Boro) and are happy to be without the ball which means they will need to be unlocked somehow. The injury to Jonny Howson also gives Neil Warnock the ability to play Roberts as a number 10 if he still feels that the wide areas need extra protection with more willing runners.
Whatever the case, Neil Warnock must find a way to spark some festive joy into the Boro attack and that must start with letting Patrick Roberts loose.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live, PA Wire