On Saturday, Middlesbrough fell to their ninth defeat of the season as Swansea City put three goals past Boro for the second time this year at the Liberty Stadium.
The poor result followed an upturn in recent form for Jonathan Woodgate’s reds, with only one loss in the side’s past six games.
What are the main points to take from this result into the festive period?
Five-at-the-back is the way forward
The clash with the Swans was the first time since the 2-1 loss against Birmingham City that Woodgate’s side had played a four-at-the-back system.
Injuries to Ryan Shotton, George Friend (pictured above) and Anfernee Dijksteel have made it more difficult to play this formation, but good displays from the likes of Jonny Howson, playing on the right-hand side of three centre backs in recent weeks, and Djed Spence, playing his first 180 senior minutes this week, helping to ease the troubles.
Spence wasn’t risked by Boro’s head coach ahead of this game, but the defensive fragility seen when Daniel Ayala and Dael Fry are left with either inexperience or players playing out of position around them is clear and obvious.
This is a matter which must be addressed in January, as another injury in the backline could spell grim news for Middlesbrough’s survival hopes.
Names such as Luke Woolfenden from Ipswich, Chey Dunkley of Wigan or even Chelseas PL2 captain Marc Guehi could and should be on the notepads of the Boro Hierarchy.
Since the switch to the five-back, Woodgate has seen his side win two matches as well as draw five and lose four times.
For a side with four wins and nine losses on the season, it has shown a statistical change for the better, and the product on the pitch has improved since the point gained against QPR at Loftus Road in November.
Ill discipline has crept into Boro’s game
Under Tony Pulis in the 2018/19 season, Daniel Ayala was the only Middlebrough player to be sent off, as he was twice shown red last year, against Sheffield United and Preston.
In this game, Boro matched last season’s tally with Marcus Browne and Paddy McNair both being sent for early showers.
Browne received a straight red card – although he was on a yellow card at this point – for jumping into a rash challange on Swansea’s Mike van der Hoorn, where as Paddy McNair saw the card brandished for an elbow left on the Swans’ captain Matt Grimes which enraged the City chief Steve Cooper.
In an interview post-match, Cooper said: “In terms of the red cards, with no disrespect to Middlesbrough and Jonathan (Woodgate) my opinion is they are both red cards.
“The second one is worse than the first one. We’re really pleased that Grimes hasn’t got a bad facial injury.”
These cards add to the one received by George Saville and Marvin Johnson for their own horror challanges in games with Derby and Hull respectively. Not forgetting that McNair missed the win over Charlton as he had picked up five yellow cards.
Two games from the halfway point in the season, and Middlesbrough have twice as many reds as in the whole of last season. A teams poor discipline, while not solely their responsibilty, reflects badly on the manager of a club and will be something Woodgate will hope doesn’t continue – as he doesn’t have bodies to spare.
Marcus Browne may not be long for Teesside
The signing of Marcus Browne in the summer of 2019 was met with huge warmth on social media.
Not only because Middlesbrough used a clever trick on twitter where they could compose a ‘Welcome to Boro, @MarcusBrowne14’ tweet, but because this was the first signing of as attacker that Boro fans had seen since the arrivial of Rajiv van la Parra in the January window.
Fans were hopeful that he could come straight into the team and show the kind of flashes he had whilst in the third tier with Oxford United last season.
Injuries and inconsistencies, however, have seen Browne struggle to feature, and this red card has blown the fuses of many Boro fans.
It wasn’t just the red, it was the fact it was minutes after the side had got themselves back on level terms and, against a side winless at home in their last six attempt, looked certain to return to Teesside with at least one point, if not three.
His poor decision making and awareness of the game around him, however, may prove that he is not actually ready to be playing vital minutes for a struggling team at this level just yet.
Middlesbrough have Marcus Tavernier – who was in a similar place in the pecking order to Browne at the start of the season, withboth given starting squad numbers – has pushed on massively to where he is one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Teenage striker Ste Walker was probably ahead of him in the pecking order before this match, and if he wasn’t then he is now.
There is a good player in there, as he showcased in his first ever appearence for Boro against St Ettiene back in July, but perhaps another six months in League One may help him find his spark.