A Tale of Two Halves: The 20/21 Season

It wasn’t very surprising when Neil Warnock chose to praise Boris Johnson in a press conference over the weekend. They share some things in common.

Both men divide the nation between those who staunchly defend them for “doing their best” and others from opposition sides who can’t stand them. They have been caricatured in the media for years and tend to try and hide their failings behind quips and one-liners although Warnock is a lot better at that than the current Prime Minister.

As the football season comes to a close and the public can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel with Covid restrictions being lifted and the curve being flattened in the UK, both men now face scrutiny on their leadership over the last 12 months.

On one hand, the Prime Minister is benefiting from the NHS rollout of vaccinations to take some of the heat off current scandals and his governments handling of the pandemic while an alarming slump in 2021 has taken away from the progress Neil Warnock and Middlesbrough made earlier in the campaign.

While the recent Mayoral elections showed popular support for the Prime Minister and his party, a string of poor performances from Boro that was further compounded by a 3-0 defeat to relegated Wycombe on Saturday has led for some fans to question the ability of Neil Warnock to oversee yet another summer of “rebuilding” at the Riverside.

Is that all a bit too dramatic? Well, someone had to inject a bit of excitement into the end of this season because Neil Warnock’s side certainly haven’t looked capable of that in recent months.

A season that started so well, with a renewed optimism growing across Teesside as a fiery and resolute team charged into every game for the full 90 minutes, was essentially over with seven games to go as any hopes of a run at the play-offs fizzled out with a whimper.

That there were hopes of a play-off run at all highlights how well the season started. After 23 games, Boro sat in 7th place with 36 points, four points off sixth-placed Reading, with the second best defensive record in the Championship behind Swansea.

For a team that was still mostly comprised of players trying to bounce back from a relegation battle, the change in form was impressive. With 10 wins in 23, three shy of the total they’d managed in the previous 46, Boro were a side that were tough to beat and were seemingly hell-bent on never experiencing a relegation scrap again.

Hard fought victories such as the one against Bristol City at Ashton Gate typified the suffocating effect Boro were having on opposing teams, while the emergence of players like Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola were testament to Warnock’s legendary man management skills.

Part of a defence that had a run of six clean sheets in seven games in October and November, Dijksteel had quickly become the gaffer’s favourite while nobody could have seen Bola’s progression coming after the left back had struggled to keep a place in the team while on loan at Blackpool.

Duncan Watmore’s arrival went some way to addressing the need for goals in a side whose steely nature was papering over the creativity cracks that had seen the team fail to find the net in 6 of the first 12 games. The former Sunderland man bagged five in December and was handed the Player of the Month award.

Shaky performances in defeats against Huddersfield, Stoke and Preston highlighted the need for improvement in January but even then, those results were sprinkled in amongst a run that saw 3-0 wins over Derby and Millwall, a 2-1 victory over promotion chasing Swansea and a thumping 4-1 comeback against Birmingham.

Warnock was rewarded in the closing days of the January transfer windows with the signings of Yannick Bolasie, Neeskens Kebano and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing to sharpen the attack with the play-offs a genuine target. Make no mistake. however unlikely it may have been to crack the top six at the start of the season, Steve Gibson did not sanction the arrivals of Premier League talent on Premier League wages to finish 10th.

However, rather than sharpening the attack, the arrivals of Warnock’s shiny new toys only managed to further cloud the identity and style of play of the team. Though Kebano and Bolasie showed flashes of quality, they didn’t have the impact that Warnock would have wanted and we didn’t look as much of a team after they arrived.

It wasn’t a great shock to hear the gaffer say that he hasn’t had a real striker to call upon this term because he’s completely cut his forwards out of his game plan, especially since January. Despite it being clear that both Chuba Akpom and Duncan Watmore are at their best with the ball at their feet, they’ve been asked to use their necks more often, having to watch ball after ball fly over their heads.

While Akpom must improve in front of goal if he wants to remain at the club, he has not been helped by his manager, either tactically or in the press. It’s no coincidence that his best game in a Boro shirt was in the game against Rotherham when Boro finally decided to play it on the deck, albeit against 10 men.

That the manager hasn’t been able to implement an efficient and functioning style of play to suit the players at his disposal is worrying when he speaks of needing “8 or 9” players this summer and in regard to the long-term future of the squad. It’s not like he has had to make the best of a bad situation.

Of the eleven players that started the must win game against Bournemouth in April, eight were Warnock signings and the other three have been handed contract extensions under his watch and given his reputation it’s mad to think that any of those deals were signed off without his approval.

Of course, the January signings all came with their own red flags around match fitness and performance but Warnock must make more of the players who he brings in this summer.

He must also iron out the lapses in concentration and comedic mistakes that have plagued the defence since the year began. That resolute defence that only conceded 19 in the first 23 games, second best in the entire division and for a while the best in the entire EFL, have conceded 34 in the following 23. That’s almost double and a number of them have been completely avoidable.

In that time, they’ve conceded 10 to the bottom four across four games, including 7 between Wycombe and Rotherham. That’s simply not good enough.

Some of that will be rectified by bringing in a goalkeeper that is more reliable than Marcus Bettinelli, who has the worst shots on target to saves ratio (65.3%) of any ‘keeper to play at least half of their teams games in the league. Having a fully fit Dael Fry back alongside Paddy McNair, who has quietly struggled without the Boro Lighthouse, will also help.

The defensive fragilities have shone further light on the lack of a clear attacking plan as edging games earlier in the campaign made a lack of flair and excitement far more palatable. Points win prizes after all.

Perhaps the least palatable of the problems that led to Boro’s decline was a lack of desire. For a team that was so good at grinding out games through a combination of heart and good ol’ grit, Boro have let their heads drop on multiple occasions, especially in the aftermath of Dael Fry’s Eyegate assault against Blackburn.

They’ve also been guilty of sleepwalking through large of portions of the closing stages of the season. Yes, things have been done and dusted for weeks but fans have still been paying money to watch games on stream and at a time where we can’t physically be at matches, the least they could do is put a shift in.

That attitude can’t be allowed to fester into something more dangerous and create a hangover effect on the squad when they report back for pre-season training. Hopefully, some of Warnock’s signings are leader types who’ll help to keep everyone accountable and drag them back from disappointment.

That three key aspects – the mentality of the team, the football on show and the previously watertight defence – led to the dream of the play-offs slipping out of sight has created a major frustration in the fan base. In isolation, they may not have been a big deal.

Nobody expected us to make the play-offs at the start of the season. The positive start created expectations. If we’d met those expectations by grinding out games with unfashionable football, nobody would’ve cared.

On the flipside, if we’d been absolutely bang average all season, comfortably entrenched in midtable then the players taking their foot off the gas in technically “meaningless” games wouldn’t have been so annoying.

Within all of that, it is important to remember the progress that has been made under Warnock. We’d have snapped your hand off for 10th when the whistle first blew at Vicarage Road and while results and performances have been poor lately, it hasn’t been the relegation form some have labelled it.

We picked up 28 points in the second half of the season which would equate to 56 points across an entire season. In the past eight seasons that would mean a finish between 14th and 16th and in six of those eight seasons a cushion of between 12 and 16 points from the team in 22nd.

There has still been good performances as well. The Watmore inspired win against Huddersfield, victories away to Reading and Forest, a battering of Stoke and the feisty clash with Preston were all well deserved wins.

We’ve simply levelled out as the lower half Championship side that many expected us to be from the outset. Whether that is acceptable is a much wider and complicated issue.

There’s also the matter of injuries to key players for large spells. Marcus Tavernier and Anferenee Dijksteel have both missed 17 games each while Fry has missed 14. Boro have lost 9 of the games that Dijksteel and Tav have been unavailable for and 8 of the games without Fry.

Tav especially has been a huge miss for the side which at times has been unrecognisable without the energy of the 22 year old, who has become the tempo controller for the team in midfield.

Allowing those three a full pre-season to heal up should be a major boost. As a matter of fact, the whole squad should benefit from a proper pre-season and time off after the quick turnaround following Project Restart.

That Dijksteel, Fry and Tav are fully appreciated as key men is in part down to the coaching that Warnock and his team have been able to impart at Rockliffe. Dijksteel’s growth has been the most impressive but Fry and Tavernier both needed to have big seasons this year as well.

Tav is now more consistent and able to stamp his authority on games while Fry has cast aside any doubt that fans had about him being able to lead a defence. Warnock has also worked his magic on Marc Bola and got more out of George Saville, with 6 goals and 4 assists in the league, than either Tony Pulis or Jonathan Woodgate could manage.

Evidently, there is room to improve. The current squad is a collection of players rather than a cohesive collective and Warnock’s call for needing 8 or 9 additions isn’t too wide of the mark.

The goalkeeping situation has to be a priority and may need multiple additions to make it fit for purpose next season. Bettinelli, whose contract at Fulham is up, may be an easy option but he wouldn’t be a sensible one both due to his performances and his standing amongst the fans.

Likewise, Jordan Archer has flashed some good qualities in his brief run out but also shown the poor side of his game that meant he was never threatening Bettinelli’s spot when it mattered most.

Having Bola progress from out of nowhere, Grant Hall looking solid on his return from injury and with Paddy McNair finding his home in defence (at least in a back 3) adding to Fry and Dijksteel’s development, there’s a solid base to build the team on.

However, the defence does lack depth especially at left-back while Nathan Wood may benefit from another season on loan which would leave us needing reinforcements at centre-back.

There must be a more forward thinking player brought into midfield to team with Sam Morsy, Jonny Howson and Saville next season even if that comes at the expense of moving on one of the current trio. Boro’s midfield options are far too similar in what they bring to the table and have been part of the problem that has seen the forwards cut off from the action.

Up front, Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher are both already confirmed to leave the club, while it doesn’t look to be feasible to bring back either Yannick Bolasie or Neeskens Kebano.

Fulham’s relegation probably means Kebano will feature heavily for them and it’s hard to see Boro having the finances to match the offers that Bolasie will likely receive from abroad, as much as he’s floor-swept his way into people’s hearts.

There’s also Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Marvin Johnson to factor into this equation although you’d imagine Neymarv has more than earned a new deal while Warnock will trust himself to get Mendez-Laing back to his best.

That leaves Duncan Watmore, Chuba Akpom, Tav and Marvin Johnson as Boro’s guaranteed forward and wide options and there’s a case to be made for Tavernier to play as part of a midfield three.

The elephant in the room is the lack of a target man and if the manager is wedded to having a brute up top for the wide players to work around, then he must get at least one this summer. Nobody wants to see the ball being lumped over Watmore or Akpom’s heads ever again, that’s not how we’ll get the best out of them.

In that case, wingers who can deliver plenty of quality crosses must be brought in. These players also need to be able to keep the play moving and hold onto the ball, as Warnock will persist with firing the ball into the opposition’s half as quickly as possible.

Where that leaves the team in the future remains to be seen and is cause for concern because the type of players that Warnock needs to succeed are specific. They’re going to be older, seasoned professionals who don’t have much sell-on value and who are designed for the Warnock Way. That could hamstring the next manager down the line or force the club to make an uninspiring appointment.

This summer is massive and Boro must get it right. This season has always been about righting the wrongs of Jonathan Woodgate’s reign and steadying the ship. We just found ourselves on favourable waters and got further ahead than we had planned, so when the tide changed, we were disappointed to arrive at our destination bang on schedule. However, eyes must now be on progressing both in the short and long-term.

It’s fitting really that the season ended in a run of meaningless games because this past twelve months haven’t meant as much as they should. I’m quite thankful that the season is over because it’s been a struggle to get through, even when we’ve played well and won. Even more so, our summer mirrors that of Neil Warnock and Steve Gibson’s.

This summer is massive for us all. It looks like we’re past the worst of things. We should be able to to move forwards now and look to the future. Things getting back to normal. Things getting better.

Hopefully we all have a great summer and when that first whistle goes next season, everyone is back in the stadium to hear it.

Up The Boro

Photo Credits: PA, The Gazette/Teesside Live, Hartlepool Mail, Northern Echo,

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