Dissecting Jonathan Woodgate’s disappointing start to management at Middlesbrough

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 30 September 2019, 15:53

It has been a disappointing start to Jonathan Woodgate’s tenure as Middlesbrough head coach.

Boro are languishing in 19th in the Championship, having picked up just nine points from their first nine games; for context, that’s half the number of points they had accrued by this stage last season.

The indications at Boro though, are that the club and fans appear willing to give the rookie time to settle into the job.

With a promotion challenge feeling like more of a hope than an expectation, could Woodgate benefit from a bit of patience?

We investigate the situation...

Stylistic difference

Part of the problem Woodgate is having is the personnel.

Tony Pulis built a team that would respond to the opposition’s strengths, snuff out danger and look for opportunities to pounce on errors by hitting them in transition with clinical finishing.

While Boro did sometimes press under Pulis, they pressed in a relatively conservative way.

Woodgate, by contrast, wants the team pressing not just to keep the opponents out, but to force the tempo and get themselves on the front foot.

That, so far, has not quite happened – at least not consistently – and one wonders whether stalwarts like Daniel Ayala and Adam Clayton, who are used to playing in subdued setups under Aitor Karanka and Pulis, are comfortable playing a high line.

Lack of depth

With just five players coming in and 14 exiting the building permanently, chairman Steve Gibson has had to change the way the club operates to become self-sustainable.

This strategic shift could be vital for Boro long-term, but short-term it might have an impact on the pitch due to the resultant lack of depth.

They started the season with just 18 players who had featured in more than 10 EFL games; of those, Dael Fry, Jonny Howson, Ayala and Friend have all spent at least parts of the early weeks on the sidelines.

With a few of the available players looking slightly below-par and summer recruits like Marc Bola and Marcus Browne not quite stepping up from League One as hoped, it has been difficult for Woodgate to settle on a core he can trust early on.

Britt and determination?

It might seem odd that, of all the Boro players we could question based on the poor form, we choose Britt Assombalonga – the current top scorer with three league goals.

Woodgate has said in press conferences that he has “full belief” in his striker, which is understandable.

However, if we look at the English teams who most successfully executed Woodgate’s ideology last season - Liverpool, Leeds and Barnsley – what do they all have in common?

They all had central forwards – Roberto Firmino, Kemar Roofe and Cauley Woodrow respectively - who never gave defenders a moment’s peace.

If Assombalonga is given a job out of possession, he might do the bare minimum, but he will never press, hassle or harass with any real vigour.

In fact, the 26-year-old averages 0.2 attempted tackles per 90 minutes – the fewest out of any Championship player who has played up top this season.

For that reason, one could argue that Boro will not be able to execute Woodgate’s ideas while Assombalonga starts every week.

There could be some mileage in experimenting with Ashley Fletcher, more athletic and more willing to engage in the physical side of the game, starting centrally as the main pressing striker, rather than coming in from wide.

Midfield potential

If Boro can correct their pressing from the front, then their midfield has some potential - the likes of Paddy McNair and Lewis Wing are big talents.

McNair started out at Manchester United as a centre-back and, in his appearances under Louis Van Gaal, he showed an aptitude for carrying the ball out of defence and going on long runs into opposition territory.

That was somewhat risky as a defender, but in a free midfield role his impulsive instincts serve Boro well.

Similarly, Lewis Wing is a very energetic midfielder who loves to press and possesses plenty of technical ability – even if we might like to see him build on his performances against Luton and Brentford on a more consistent basis.

Woodgate’s character

The big question is whether Jonathan Woodgate has the character to get through this spell, which could be one of the most challenging he has and will face in his career.

As a player, he only had to look after his own performances.

As an Under-18s coach, he only had to worry about developing players and not results; even as first team assistant coach, it was fans calling for Pulis, not him, to leave the club when results went awry.

Now, not only does Woodgate have to fixate over the performances of a whole squad, he is carrying the weight of the team’s fortunes on his shoulders, because he is now more in the spotlight when things go wrong – even if Boro have been supportive as mentioned above.

What should help Woodgate at this stage is that he appears to be an active, energetic and driven person.

If we look at his press conferences, he will typically reply very quickly – sometimes before the question is even complete – keeping his answers short and to the point.

His behaviour suggests he is the type of manager who will respond to a difficult period by actively doing something, or reacting, rather than over-thinking things, internalizing his feelings too much and potentially doubting himself.

It’s a difficult situation for Woodgate and time will tell whether he can turn results around on Teesside, because there does need to be more evidence than we have seen so far that he can build an exciting, vibrant team that will challenge in future season.

However, he at least has a supportive chairman in Steve Gibson as well as the right characteristics to adjust.

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