Middlesbrough (H) Match Preview

Its back home for Latics on Wednesday night as we welcome Middlesbrough to the DW Stadium. It’s our second game against a side from the North East in a row but hopefully this one goes a lot better than our trip to Sunderland did on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, our record against Boro is equally poor as our record against Sunderland which doesn’t bode particularly well!

Saturday’s game for Latics was an all too familiar tale. We took the lead with our only passage of creative football in the first half and then sat back with 11 men behind the ball trying to protect our 1-0 advantage rather than taking the game to them and exploiting the gaps they left whilst chasing a goal. We lost 2-1, its not the first time this has happened this season and hopefully the last.

Opponents Middlesbrough have been the surprise package of the season but for all the wrong reasons. After being tipped for automatic promotion before the season they’ve won just 3 games, picked up 13 points and currently sit 22nd in the league. They’re without a manager, in really poor form and desperate for a game to kick start their season. Sounds scarily familiar doesn’t it…

Latics Team News

At Sunderland we picked the same side that dominated against Blackburn Rovers but obviously it didn’t bring us the same success. The game at the Stadium of Light highlighted some weak areas of our side and whilst they can’t be immediately solved with other players in our squad there should definitely be a few changes in my opinion.

I don’t think the formation needs to change and therefore the personnel in the back 3 will probably stay the same. Personally I’d like to see Ryan Nyambe replace Curtis Tilt but with doubts around the Namibian’s fitness I can’t see that happening. Tilt’s a good defender but on the ball he leaves a lot to be desired and needs improving. Rarmani Edmonds-Green is an option too.

James McClean and Tendayi Darikwa struggled slightly with Sunderland’s wide men on Saturday and won’t have an easy task against Boro’s wing backs either. McClean especially looks like he could do with a rest and I wonder if Joe Bennett could be swapped in just for this game. Then again I don’t think ‘rest’ is a word in Jimmy’s dictionary so I doubt it’ll happen!

For me the centre midfield department is where changes need to be made. Personally I don’t think Tom Naylor and Max Power have been putting in performances worthy of keeping them in a Championship side. Yes they were wonderful for us in League 1 but both have looked out of their depth at times this season and that’s all we can judge them on in my opinion. Shinnie and Cousins are both available, that would be my CM partnership for the Boro game.

The front 3 doesn’t need changing, the service into them is the problem. The one time we got the ball into Broadhead he was able to turn and create our only goal. They look like they really work well together but can’t do it all themselves and to be honest it doesn’t matter who’s playing there if the service isn’t right.

In terms of the subs bench we have to see Antony Scully on there. I’d have him in place of Josh Magennis who just isn’t offering what’s expected of him, especially considering we change our style to suit him whenever he comes on! Thelo should get more of a run out too especially if we’re chasing the game, as should Ashley Fletcher.

An Opposition View

To give an insight into where our opponents are at leading into tonight’s fixture I’ve called in the help of a few people far more knowledgeable on Middlesbrough than myself!

1) It’s fair to say it’s not been the start to the season Middlesbrough were expected to have, with your side currently sat in 22nd place. Can you sum up the first few months for us?

“In a word frustrating. At times we’ve looked a very good team, good enough for top 6. Sadly it’s been too infrequent and lasts for short spells in games. We are where we are deservedly.” [@Twe12thman]

“As you rightly say, it’s been far from the start to the season that anyone expected. On the back of a really good run last season under Chris Wilder, there was so much optimism this season and that’s very quickly evaporated. A difficult summer transfer window brought about a change in demeanour from Wilder and with results not going Boro’s way, confidence just dwindled. Those earlier games saw Boro playing well but not picking up the results they deserved, but eventually confidence took a huge hit and right now Boro travel to Wigan really struggling for any kind of form.” [@craig_johns]

2) Chris Wilder has been sacked a result of your poor start but you seem to still be playing a similar system to the one he was implementing. Has much changed since his dismissal?

“Not much really, including results. Same formation, just different personnel” [@Twe12thman]

“It’s been a difficult one for interim boss Leo Percovich because as you know, games come thick and fast in the Championship and that leaves limited training time in between. There have been a few hints from Leo that he would prefer to play a different way but is persevering with Wilder’s way and, in his words, trying to implement little fixes. He did switch to a back four in the second half on Saturday against Blackburn though, and it brought about a better performance, so we might see a change this evening.” [@craig_johns]

3) Your squad is far too good to be where it is and there’s a heck of a lot of talent that should click eventually. What can Latics expect from Boro on Wednesday night in terms of playing style?

“If our midfield show some fight and tenacity we’ll do ok. That’s been missing recently though, it’s our weakest area of the team.” [@Twe12thman]

“As noted above, tactically it’s tough to predict because after changing it second half, he might stick with that rather than revert back to the wing-back system. In terms of how Boro will play, this is a group of player who, as you say, are too good to be in the position they’re in, but the hard cold facts are that they’re there for a reason. Lately the football has been slow, predictable and lacking in quality or killer edge, which is due to the lack of confidence so clearly impacting them. We’ve not seen an away win since early April and quite often, in a sign of how fragile they are, if they concede one early they collapse and concede one or two more as well. What they do still have is fight and effort though. As they proved recently against Birmingham, if they can get their noses in front, they tend to really dig in and get a result. Killing games off and bring comfortable has been an issue though, with all three wins this season being similar, scrappy 1-0s.” [@craig_johns]

4) Finally, I’ve touched on the talent you’ve got in your squad, but who do you think will cause Latics the most problems come kick off?

“If they play, our 2 wide players Giles and Jones can cause huge problems to any opponent with quality deliveries in to the box. Muniz and Akpom up top are a busy pair who can capitalise on good service.” [@Twe12thman]

“Regardless of what formation they play, wide men Isaiah Jones and Ryan Giles will be the danger men when on the pitch. Neither are in particularly brilliant form right now, but Jones is the kind of player who loves to get on the ball and run and people and, to his credit given he’s still young, even while not in form he is persistent and keeps trying to influence things. Giles, meanwhile, relies more on his accuracy and his excellent crossing ability has seen him create a hatful of chances this season that Boro have not taken advantage of nearly enough.” [@craig_johns]

Tactical Talk

There wasn’t really much wrong with Latics tactically at the weekend, it was definitely a mentality shift that cost us the 3 points. We weren’t particularly threatening before our goal but the system was doing its job on the whole and whilst we didn’t deserve the lead we certainly weren’t being dominated. When we took the lead we fell back into a ridiculously low block, barely looked like scoring and got what we deserved in the end. That is a shift in mentality.

Ultimately its the managers job to prevent that from happening, or to change things when he notices it. Unfortunately on Saturday Leam, despite admitting himself that he noticed it 20 minutes prior to the goal, didn’t make the changes to prevent it and we paid the price. It will hopefully be something he learns a big lesson from, and he admitted as much post game.

So essentially I don’t think much needs to change from a tactical point of view. If you cast your mind back to the Blackburn game you’ll remember what a brilliant mix of direct and patient play we used and I think we need to do the same tonight. One trick ponies don’t survive at this level and our unwillingness to change things up has already cost us points this season.

We should stay in a back 3 to match up against our opponents too. As we’ve mentioned Boro are still playing the ‘Chris Wilder’ formation, a 3-5-2 with 2 flying wing backs and a couple of poachers up front. Playing a similar formation ourselves should hopefully limit the space available for their wide men and cramp their 2 strikers with our 3 CBs. It all sounds great on paper of course but I believe that’s what’ll give us the best chance.

Its what has brought teams success against them this season too. Coventry, Rotherham, Blackburn and Cardiff are all examples of teams that played 5 at the back against Boro, gave away very little space in the final third and took points away from the game in the process. If we’re at our best defensively we’re more than capable of doing this, as we showed vs Blackburn.

Two very well set lines of defence make it very difficult for the opposition to play through or around us.
Latics crowd one side of the pitch and force Blackburn down the line where they have no joy.

We really need to start the game on the front foot tonight and give these Boro players a real test. They’re all probably as low on confidence as they’ve been in their careers at this point and we have to try and pile on the misery early doors. After a defeat at Sunderland which will have definitely hurt the players I’m hoping they’ll be right up for this game and we take it to them straight away.

If Boro do change to a 4 at the back as Craig hinted at I don’t think much should change for us. We should still be aggressive and on the front foot but remain defensively sound, as in theory there will be more space for our forwards to exploit. I’m pretty confident they’ll play 2 up top regardless so the job stays the same for our defenders, stay narrow, limit space and stop crosses from coming into the box. That’s something we’ve been really poor at recently.

As I said earlier though this game won’t be won and lost tactically, it’ll be won and lost mentally. If Boro can pull themselves out of the dumps they have the better players on paper and should therefore win the game. But if Latics go into it with the feeling that they can pile on the misery and start aggressively and proactively we’ll win the game. Yes the style of play needs to be that wonderful blend of direct and patient play that we saw at Blackburn but ultimately if we sit off like we did at the Stadium of Light it doesn’t matter how we use the ball, we won’t see much of it!

Final Thoughts

I didn’t realise before I researched it how rubbish our record against Middlesbrough is! We’ve only beaten them twice in our history and haven’t tasted victory since 2007 so that’s certainly something that needs changing. We probably won’t get a better opportunity than this either as its the worst I’ve seen a Boro side in a long time, but again they’ll be hoping that changes too.

Its likely that their next manager will be at the game which gives them an extra incentive to impress, but also adds a pressure to them that might damage their performance. Hull were in a similar position when we played them and they seemed to thrive, but so were Rotherham and they really struggled. Ultimately, we won’t know until kick off time.

Its a tough game to predict whichever way you look at it. We’ve finally got a home win under our belt but have lost 4 of our last 6, Boro can’t find any consistency but have a top 6 squad of players to pick from. Its set to be a bonkers game, hopefully one that Latics come out of on top.

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