Match Preview: Middlesbrough vs. Preston North End
Fresh off the back of the derby day victory at Ewood Park, PNE travel to the North East to play Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough on Wednesday night. The Lilywhites will be hoping to at least extend their unbeaten run to eleven games, if not extend their winning run on the road to an incredible six.
Boro will be a stern test of North End’s potential playoff credentials, as they themselves currently reside in 5th place, occupying one of the play-off spots we hope to have crept into come May 5th. PNE might be able to welcome back some faces missing from recent games. Callum Robinson is edging ever closer to fitness having been back in training for around a week, the same going for Louis Moult who is also returning from a hamstring injury.
These potential comebacks along with Ben Pearson, who completed his two-game suspension when missing the clash at Ewood Park at the weekend, and the potential return of Brad Potts, who missed that game with a knock, mean we could be going into the game at the Riverside looking even stronger than we have in the last few weeks. Our previous meeting with Boro came towards the end of that run of form before December that began to pull us away from the immediate threat of relegation. Alan Browne had really begun to turn up the heat and Callum Robinson was finding his feet as our greatest attacking threat.
It was Browne who gave us the lead at Deepdale that evening. He collected the ball and turned before firing an unstoppable strike fiercely into the bottom corner just before half time. Boro struck back just after half time, during a run of consecutive games where North End made something of a habit of conceding immediately after the restart.
Marcus Tavernier made the most of a Paul Huntington error to get in behind and slot home the equaliser that day. That was the beginning of the end for Hunts’ place in the side, his ever decreasing turn of pace and increasing propensity to get left in the dust soon meant that Jordan Storey would cement his position as Ben Davies’ partner in the North End back line.
The hosts will be keen to bounce back from a recent slight lull in their own push to the playoffs. The Riverside outfit having recently been held 0-0 at Wigan and, at the weekend, suffering defeat at home to Brentford by conceding two late goals after going ahead.
These results came after a run of only two defeats in the league since just before Christmas, a streak which kept them in the play-off places through the winter period.
The Smoggies have been very tight at the back all season, a resoluteness they have to thank for their promising league position. In contrast, they have scored just 39 goals in the Championship from 36 games so far this campaign. Compare this to North End’s 55 goals scored and it’s clear to see where Boro’s strengths and weaknesses lie.
They have found it difficult to find the net this season, top scorer Britt Assombalonga has twelve and former North End man Jordan Hugill has seven, but their tendency to play with a one-striker system means only one of those two, or their backup Ashley Fletcher (6 goals this season) is usually on the field at any given time, although Fletcher has been used as a winger in recent weeks.
North End, following the win at Rovers at the weekend, have made it to the ten game unbeaten mark and have also won our last 5 away games. That being said, goals have been drying up a little in recent weeks, North End only managing the one against both Bristol City and Blackburn, games in which we lacked a little of the creative spark we’d seen in games prior.
This could be helped by the potential return of Callum Robinson and Brad Potts to the side. Both of these players being able to get forward and create opportunities while Ben Pearson will be back in his pivotal midfield role, maybe allowing for slightly braver attacking exploits just by being there to cover.
Middlesbrough attack mainly down the flanks, 74% of their forward moves coming down either the left or the right with them often playing in from the wing-backs, through the attacking midfield towards their lone striker, be it Britt Assombalonga or Jordan Hugill. A lot of danger can come from the Boro wings.
For a while now they have operated with wing-backs in the shape of George Saville and Jonny Howson, both of whom are central midfielders by trade. Their experience of playing centrally allows them to easily tuck in and tighten the midfield after a defensive transition.
This isn’t something that will be of immediate concern to Alex Neil. The gaffer, speaking after the 1-1 draw at Deepdale in November noted how they (Boro) had utilised a back four for the previous 7-8 matches so their change to a 3-5-2 came as something of a surprise. He did, however, iterate that we were “well versed in playing against a 3-5-2” and, given the quality of our attacking play that evening, there’s no immediate reason to be concerned about Pulis’ side’s somewhat unique shape for the Championship.
Britt Assombalonga is a frightening prospect when on form, a combination of pace, power and deadly finishing ability makes him one of the most formidable forwards in the Championship on his day. But, he can blow very hot and cold, and he’ll have to be on top form to really get the better of the Davies-Storey partnership, especially when operating as a lone striker.
Jordan Hugill is hardly an unknown quantity at Deepdale. His power and devastatingly inconsistent (inconsistently devastating?) finishing will always be a potential threat and, while it may break my heart if he scores against us, there is a part of me that would enjoy it, considering the smattering of uncalled for abuse he used to receive from some sections of the North End following.
This week’s opposition view is brought to you from @Boro_Breakdown on twitter, a Middlesbrough podcast.
Words to describe Boro at the minute? Disconnect and divided.
There is a disconnect and a divide at Boro at the moment. Even though we are 5th in the table and have the chance to secure a playoff position over the next few games there is a lot of discontent with Boro fans over the style of play, the manager and the cost of going.
Tony Pulis is known to be a Footballing Dinosaur but when he arrived it was anything but, he got the best out of Adama Traore, Patrick Bamford, Mo Besic and Ryan Shotton to name a few and managed to get Boro into the playoffs after an inconsistent start under Garry Monk.
Two Tickets to Jurassic Park, please!
However, 14 months on, Traore and Bamford have gone to Wolves and Leeds respectively, the last two transfer windows have been abysmal from a recruitment perspective and now Boro lack an attacking threat, which sees them one of the lowest scoring teams in the Championship and the Football League.
Poor recruitment and balancing of the books, has forced Tony Pulis to play a very defensive style of football. This has caused a number of problems with fans such as lower attendances, disgruntlement at the recruitment team and Tony Pulis and with walk-up prices being one of the highest in the Championship, the board too.
On the pitch, Boro have been able to grind out results all season, especially away from home. We dig in and wait most games and when we get a chance we have to put it away because we create next to nothing.
On the bright side, the signing of John Obi Mikel has lifted the spirits of Boro fans, the Nigerian international is a Rolls-Royce and oozes class on and off the ball.
We’re definitely overachieving this season, and Tony Pulis deserves credit for that, but we want a bit more entertainment!
Can we make the playoffs? A couple of results should do it, then it’s anyone’s.
Expect Boro to play 5-2-2-1 with George Saville and Jonny Howson occupying the wingback positions. On Saturday against Brentford we were great in the first 30 minutes, we played with a high press and opened the scoring with a rejuvenated Ashley Fletcher. However, 5 minutes after the break Tony Pulis made one of the worst substitutions of all time and took off top goalscorer Britt Assombalonga for left back and club captain, George Friend, and decided to sit back and try to defend a 1-0 lead, at home, with 40+ minutes to go.
It was no surprise Brentford went on to win the game 2-1, they were the much better team and deserved the three points.
As for changes, we could potentially see former Preston centre forward Jordan Hugill come in for Britt Assombalonga and George Friend come in for George Saville at wing back.
Jordan Hugill hasn’t set the world alight since his return to Teesside. Hugill used to pull pints in the Dickens Inn, one of the busiest bars in Middlesbrough and is now a professional Footballer. He will always have the support of Boro fans as he is a local lad living his dream but unfortunately, his performances haven’t been great.
However, if he bags the winner on Wednesday, all will be forgiven.
How will Wednesday go? I expect this to be a really tough game for us, Preston are on a great run of form and Alex Neil has done a tremendous job.
On the other hand, if we get the first goal, we will see the game out and should win. The Brentford result was the first time since 2015 that Boro have lost from a winning position and hopefully, it was just a blip.
Boro 1-0 PNE
North End are on a superb run of form, but Middlesbrough are on one of the most consistent sides in the division. North End’s strength is fairly evenly spread throughout the side, particularly after settling on the centre-half pairing of Jordan Storey and Ben Davies, whereas Boro’s strength lies at the back and their very defence-orientated shape can hinder their attacking fluidity.
It’s another brain vs. heart decision for me to predict an outcome this time. My heart is pounding for the potential play-off push and wants to predict a sixth consecutive away win, with the potential return of Brad Potts and Callum Robinson I might predict Boro’s second consecutive home 1-2 defeat.
My brain, however, doesn’t find it hard to imagine both sides cancelling eachother out somewhat and resulting in a low-score draw, perhaps a 1-1?