Winning Without Crooks

It was inevitable.

Matt Crooks is sound. His hair is fine and he’s a bloody good footballer. He also happens to be a walking, talking yellow card in waiting. He’s tall, he’s long and he’s aggressive which makes Crooksy’s carefree attitude towards barging people over in pursuit of the football a magnet for Championship referees.

We knew this was coming. It’s arguably the only side of his game that really needs clearing up as you could class a number of the midfielder’s bookings this season as avoidable or downright daft.

After picking up his 10th booking of the season against Bristol City on Saturday, the 28-year-old now faces a two match suspension, which will see him miss tonight’s game against West Brom and Saturday’s trip to Barnsley.

While it’s never ideal to be suspended, Crooks’s self-inflicted absence this week is a particularly untimely one for manager Chris Wilder, who is now without his top scorer and midfield lynchpin.

Crooks has been nothing short of magnificent for the Boro this season, making the £1m+ fee that was paid to Rotherham for him in the summer look like a bargain, and especially since Wilder has taken charge of the team.

He has been a virtual ever-present, playing in 30 of the 31 league games so far, ironically only missing the reverse fixture against West Brom because of (you guessed it) suspension.

Not only is Crooks top of the tree for goals scored (8 in the league, 9 overall), his blossoming relationship with Isaiah Jones and Anfernee Dijksteel on the right hand side has been key to the short-term turnaround of the team’s fortunes.

We all know the drill by now.

Dijksteel gets the ball, gets his motor running and begins to glide down the channel. He looks up and plays it inside to Crooks who quickly interchanges with Jones.

All the defenders shit themselves and flock to Jones who plays it back to Dijksteel who in turn gives it to Crooks. This quick, precise pulling around of the opposition creates space for Jones who, once he receives the ball back, goes onto do lovely Isaiah Jones things.

As panic ensues amongst the opposition defence, Matt Crooks is able to saunter into the box and get onto the end of the incoming cross. It’s simple, it’s effective and it’s brilliant to watch. Them little triangles? Live for them, mate. Miles better than Dairylea.

It’ll be interesting then to see what impact Crooks being removed from the Teesside Triangle of Death has on the team going forward in the next two games and if Wilder makes any alterations to compensate for that particularly now that other managers are creating specific gameplans to contain Jones and the wonderful work being done on that right hand side.

Riley McGree, who Chris Wilder said is “the template of the type of player we’re going to bring to the football club over the medium and long term”, will make his first start in Crooks’s absence tonight barring any last minute complications after lively cameos against Derby and Bristol City.

Given that McGree was brought to the club to give Wilder a second natural option on the left of his midfield trio, it may be that the Australian plays there tonight with Tav being asked to fill Crooksy’s shoes on the right.

That’d cause less disruption to the integral right hand side, with Tav evidently having more of an understanding of both Jones and Dijksteel’s games, while also giving Wilder a glimpse of what McGree could offer from left wing-back areas as well when forced out wide.

While Crooks will mostly be missed offensively, his height and physicality will also be a major miss defensively with Boro facing two of the most direct sides in the league this week.

There’s also the matter of an Andy Carroll-shaped Typical Boro ghoul turning up to the Riverside tonight with West Brom currently going through a five game goal drought and without an away win in six games.

West Brom and Barnsley are 7th and 8th respectively for long balls per game this season, averaging 71 and 70 per game each, with West Brom also leading the league for crosses per game with 25.

Without Crooks, who is only currently behind Grant Hall (5.3) and Dael Fry (4.2) for aerial duels won per game in the entire squad with 3.6 and leads all active Boro players with 2.2 tackles per game, Wilder’s side are lacking their main midfield battering ram.

That puts added pressure on Tavernier and McGree to use their energy and athleticism to compensate for the loss of the physicality “Tree” offers.

That’ll be important tonight with new Baggies boss Steve Bruce able to call upon a dominating backline featuring Kyle Bartley, the returning Dara O’Shea and/or Matthew Clarke to squeeze up the pitch while Carroll and Karlan Grant are able to drop deep to win headers and second balls in midfield.

That’s something Boro will also need to be aware of on Saturday, as Barnsley’s Carlton Morris was able to do this to great effect in the Tykes recent victory over QPR.

Boro are at a pivotal point in the season with the race for the play-offs heating up as we head into the final third of the campaign. 8 points separate Blackburn in 3rd and West Brom in 11th, with the added caveat of teams having played an unequal amount of games.

Slip ups now are going to be costly and will add even more pressure onto any games in hand that teams have to come.

To keep pace with the chasing pack, Chris Wilder’s side will have to do something that they haven’t been able to do all season.

They’ll have to win without Matt Crooks.

Photo Credits: Teesside Live/The Gazette, Tom Banks (@banks_photo), Middlesbrough F.C.

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