Joe Nicholson's verdict: Middlesbrough's new identity wasn’t clear to see during Cardiff City defeat
Middlesbrough’s players, their coaching team and their fans knew what to expect when they travelled to Wales for a meeting with Neil Warnock’s Cardiff side.
The 70-year-old Yorkshireman has a reputation for building strong and robust Championship teams which are difficult to beat – and that’s exactly what the Teessiders came up against on Saturday afternoon.
Boro head coach Jonathan Woodgate wanted to try and match the Bluebirds’ physically, and attempted to do so by changing his formation from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2.
In truth, that wasn’t the obvious reason why Boro lost this fixture – their first defeat in five league games which came courtesy of Ashley Fletcher’s third-minute own goal.
As Woodgate acknowledged, his side’s passing was often wasteful while Boro’s lack of options in midfield forced the side’s defenders to take a more direct approach.
It all played into Cardiff’s hands, and the Bluebirds’ towering centre-backs, Aden Flint and Sean Morrison, were in their element when heading balls to safety.
Boro had a similar dilemma from corners and repeatedly deliberated whether to play it short or send one into the box – neither option came to fruition.
Up front, Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga received the chance to operate as a front two – they showed signs of developing an effective relationship at the end of last season.
But while the pair had the beating of Cardiff’s defensive duo with the ball at their feet, the Bluebirds’ backline was rarely exposed, as Boro failed register a single effort on target.
For all the talk of playing an offensive brand of football this season, Boro’s attacking play has still looked forced and clunky against sides who are organised at the back.
The Teessiders’ renewed identity wasn’t clear to see here.
You could argue there was little to chose between the two sides. Boro shaded possession with 54 per cent and the stats show that Cardiff recorded just a single effort on target – aside from the own goal.
Even so, Boro rarely looked like clawing their way back after falling behind, while the hosts caused problems out wide on the counter attack.
Boro knew that would be the case but couldn’t prevent a 1-0 defeat.