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Match Previews

Ask the Expert: Middlesbrough (A)

21 November 2020

Two in-form teams go head-to-head at the Riverside Stadium this afternoon as Norwich City face Middlesbrough in the Sky Bet Championship.

Ahead of the match, spoke to Dominic Shaw, who covers the club’s fortunes for Teesside Live, to learn more about Neil Warnock’s side and the relationship between the two clubs. Middlesbrough are currently seventh in the Championship - a decent start with just one loss. How would you sum it up so far?

DS: Really solid and really impressive. Expectations weren’t high after last season’s struggle but they were higher because of the impact Warnock had made at the end of last season. Although he didn’t play Middlesbrough’s chances down and made it clear he was here to win promotion, not to aim for mid-table, he was realistic and said the size of the squad could be an issue. They’re still two or three injuries away from being in trouble. He’s just made Boro so difficult to beat - ten unbeaten now and I think they’ve kept six clean sheets. Although goals are still hard to come by, Warnock’s not overly concerned because they are creating chances. Despite a few jibes from opposition managers, they’re playing some good stuff; it’s not long ball and ugly to watch. It’s been pleasing on the eye and they’ve probably been unlucky not to get more from a few games.

assombalonga.jpg They’ve conceded the fewest goals in the league and lost the joint fewest games with AFC Bournemouth, so it looks like a stubborn defence has provided a good base for them to build on.

DS: Definitely. Dael Fry has had a difficult few years with a couple of injuries. Last season, when he was playing, he was playing in an unsettled defence. He got Covid-19 in the summer so missed the bulk of pre-season and the first three or four games, but since coming back he’s been excellent. Paddy McNair has been described by Warnock as the best player in the division and he’s playing left of Fry. In the past, McNair has always said he sees himself as a midfielder but he’s been superb at the back. Then there’s Anfernee Dijksteel who was signed in the summer of 2019 and had a difficult first year, as did Marc Bola - two lads who were signed from League One. The transformation of those two has been nothing short of incredible, especially with Bola because with Dijksteel there were flashes but he got a bad injury and missed four or five months. Bola looked lost to be honest and it was a really difficult first season for him, and Warnock’s said that he thought he wasn’t going to play a part, but he’s transformed them both and they’re both key. They haven’t really budged. They signed Grant Hall from QPR, so you wondered how they’d cope, but with Dijksteel, Fry and McNair they’ve been superb and Hall is available again now but you wonder how he’ll get back in the team really.

dael fry.jpg Canaries fans will be keen to know how Jonny Howson is getting on nowadays.

DS: Warnock described him as Mr. 8/10 every single week, because he’s playing that midfield role and you know exactly what you’re going to get from him. Last year, he played a lot of his football at centre-half because Woodgate had so many injury problems, so he played Howson on the right of a back three and did really well. When Warnock came in, it was clear he’s a midfielder and that’s where he would be playing, and he’s been excellent. He’s played mostly as a deep, sitting midfielder in a three with Sam Morsy and George Saville in front, but he’s not just sitting and destroying, as you’ll know from watching Howson at Norwich. There’s far more to his game than that and he’s getting forward, starting attacks and looking to move the ball forward. His engine - although he’s in a more disciplined role - he’s still covering plenty of ground. One of Warnock’s concerns when he came in was that Boro were so inconsistent and he didn’t really know what to expect from the side week in, week out. Now, he does and Howson is key to that. Him, McNair and Morsy don’t have any off days - you just know exactly what you’re going to get from that.

howson boro.jpg Duncan Watmore was recently signed until January. Is he going to be a starter?

DS: It’s a short-term deal for now as he’s had injury problems in the past. The thinking is they’ll see how he does for a couple of months and assess from there. If he impresses, Warnock said he can earn himself a longer deal. Boro are short of forward players as Ashley Fletcher is out until the back end of January, Marcus Browne is injured, and they’ve played Jed Spence, who’s a right back or wing back, on right midfield. Marvin Johnson is playing left of midfield but is usually a left wing back, so they are short of players in the forward area. When Watmore is at his best, he’s fast, direct and gives Warnock something different. He’s had a difficult couple of years, but Warnock is the master of reigniting people’s careers. We’ve seen it with a few players at Boro and on several occasions at other clubs he was at. Watmore has been hugely impressed with Warnock and has loved working with him so far, so if anyone can get him playing again then it’s him.

duncan watmore.jpg As for Warnock, he was recently named Manager of the Month. The supporters must be really behind him at the moment.

DS: The fans love him. Obviously, it’s a shame at every club that fans aren’t in, but it’s a real shame at Boro because there does seem to be a feel good factor around the club again at the minute. They’re doing well and everything Warnock says the fans love; they just appreciate his honesty. You ask him a question and he’ll give it straight. People here appreciate that. To be fair, Jonathan Woodgate did that - he was honest and frank, but it was a difficult time for him in his first job. What the fans like about Warnock is he just keeps it simple. He doesn’t over complicate anything and absolutely appreciates the importance of man management. He uses his instincts to see what a player needs and wants. He did a Zoom call a few weeks back with the supporters forum and said he’d go on for 20 minutes, and ended up being on there for two hours. It was like a stand-up routine really of Warnock’s greatest hits. This week, he’s raffling off his Manager of the Month prize and all the money is going to Budwick Hospice, which is a local hospice. It’s already raised more than £5,000. He’s completely bought into it and keeps saying that he loves going into the local social clubs, so he’s gutted he can’t do that. A video went viral of him out on a bike ride with his Boro training gear on; it’s just things you don’t really see from the modern day manager anymore, and obviously it helps when they get results on the pitch, which they are. Everything is hunky-dory really.

warnock point.jpg A couple of Norwich players used to be at Boro - Ben Gibson and Jordan Hugill - did you expect Ben to hit the ground running at Norwich as well as he has?

DS: Yeah, I think so. From his time at Boro and knowing Ben personally how good a professional he is and how hard he worked despite the nightmare he had at Burnley, he was always ready in case the call came or he got the move he wanted. There was that much pent up frustration from the way things went at Burnley, and you can understand a little bit of rustiness in the first week or two of training, but there was no way he wasn’t going to go to Norwich and hit the ground running. When Boro went up with Ayala and Gibson at centre-half, Gibson would only have been 23 at the time and I don’t think there was a better defender in the league then. He is a Premier League defender when he’s playing and he was knocking on the door of the England squad. Norwich is a great move for him and he’s a great signing for Norwich both this season and if they go up for next season.

gibson boro.jpg As for Hugill, did you see much of him at Boro?

DS: Yeah, I felt for him at Boro because it was a dream move for him. He came through the ranks in the non-league game up here in the North East. He’s a Boro fan who had been in the stands when they went on the UEFA Cup run. It just kind of didn’t really work out for him, playing as a lone striker in that Tony Pulis team was a tough task for any centre-forward. Often, you’d come off without getting a look in. Through no fault of your own. He looks back on it with mixed emotions because he’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity to play for his hometown club, but maybe didn’t feel he could do himself justice. I’m glad that it worked out for him at QPR last season. I was speaking to the lads who cover them and they said he really impressed there, so I hope he’ll do it again. I think Norwich was a great move for him in the summer, so I hope things work out for him there.

hugill boro.jpg Both teams can use five substitutes for today’s game following the EFL’s rule change during the week. What was Boro’s response to that?

DS: In the last game at Brentford, Boro only named six subs because George Saville couldn’t travel due to a family emergency. I think they’ll always be in a position to name seven subs, but only just. You’re probably thinking that, unless you include some of the Under-23s, you wouldn’t be able to name any more than seven subs. Warnock said that Boro didn’t vote for it and actually name checked Norwich and Nottingham Forest as the teams he think will benefit from it due to having bigger squads that they’ll be able to use. He said that one of the things he hopes comes of it, when asked about the issue of dementia in footballers, that a substitute can now be used for five minutes if there are any issues of concussion or a head injury to take the pressure off the doctors. On the nine subs thing, Warnock said he didn’t vote for it. You don’t want to put young lads in for the sake of it, they’re still has to be a feeling that you’ve earned a place in the squad and that you’re there on merit.

warnock subs.jpg Finally, how do you see the game going and what kind of approach can we expect from Boro?

DS: They’re really hard to beat but they don’t set out to just stifle a team, they do show ambition as well. Although they’ve kept all those clean sheets, I think they’ll do well to keep Norwich out. I think it will be a tight game with both sides in form, so I fancy a score draw or 1-1. It was mentioned to Warnock that there had been a 3-3 draw between these sides and he said he’d be doing somersaults if Boro managed to score three goals!

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