Joe Nicholson: West Brom test could expose frailties yet Middlesbrough have performed against the top sides

Following a dismal showing at Birmingham last time out, Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate was told his side would get ‘murdered’ if they didn’t improve against league leaders West Brom.

Friday, 18th October 2019, 5:55 pm
Middlesbrough produced their best performance of the season at Bristol City.
Middlesbrough produced their best performance of the season at Bristol City.

The choice of words during an intense Sky Sports interview was questionable, yet the point was perfectly reasonable. Boro can’t get away with another performance like that.

Woodgate insists he still believes in his players and their league position of 20th, two points above the relegation zone, doesn’t reflect their true ability.

Yet similar issues - not being able to shut up shop, struggling to defend from crosses and Britt Assombalonga spending most of the game on the fringes – are starting to appear chronic.

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Those weaknesses, as the Sky reporter suggested, could be brutally exposed against a high-flying West Brom side who have netted 21 goals in 11 league games this season – only Preston (23) have netted more in the Championship.

Slaven Bilic’s side often play in a 4-2-3-1 formation and possess pace and skill out wide in the shape of Grady Diangana, Matt Phillips and Kyle Edwards.

Boro couldn’t cope with Birmingham’s barrage of attacks down the flanks last time out, when Ryan Shotton, shoehorned into a left-back position and given a torrid time. West Brom will be even stronger.

Could a change of formation with wing-backs help stem the tide? It’s a tactic Woodgate has used before. On paper, then, it seems like Boro are facing a significant uphill battle, yet there have been signs they can pose a threat.

Two of the Teessiders’ best performances this season have come against sides who occupy places in the top six, Bristol City and Preston, in games which finished 2-2 and 1-1 respectively.

“I’m not sure why,” said Woodgate when that point was put to him. “I hope it’s not motivation playing against bigger sides.”

During the trip to Bristol, just like at Luton in the first game of the season, Boro excelled in an end-to-end encounter which was played like a basketball match. Those performances gave Boro fans hope, and Woodgate will need a similar display at the Riverside this weekend.