Long Read: The big tactical decisions Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate has made since Riverside appointment
It hasn’t been a smooth start for new Middlesbrough head coach Jonathan Woodgate, who has faced plenty of dilemmas since being appointed at the Riverside in June.
The Teessiders have won just two of their 14 league games this campaign, with regular challenges cropping up for Boro’s new coaching team.
We take a closer look at five big tactical decisions Woodgate has made since the start of the campaign.
Starting the season with a 4-3-3 system
Woodgate made it clear in pre-season he wanted to play with a 4-3-3 formation which would allow his side to attack and press teams high up the pitch.
At first it looked like a refreshing change following the safety-first approach taken by Tony Pulis and, in the 3-3 draw at Luton, Boro supporters were at least entertained.
Despite the result, Woodgate’s side also impressed in the first half against Brentford at the Riverside, yet cracks soon began to appear.
One of the problems was the Teessiders’ lack of natural wingers, with Marvin Johnson, who prefers to cut inside, and Ashley Fletcher, an inverted forward, often tasked with operating on the flanks.
For long spells that left lone frontman Britt Assombalonga isolated, with Boro’s attacks starting to look clunky and forced.
The bigger issue though was the side’s vulnerability at the back, and the lack of protection out wide left Boro’s inexperienced full-backs exposed.
That was highlighted in the 4-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday at the Riverside, and against Birmingham when the Teessiders were completely outplayed.
After that deflating night at St Andrew’s, Woodgate felt it was time for a change.
Changing the shape
Woodgate had utilised a back three with wing-backs before making a permanent switch against West Brom earlier this month.
The Boro boss altered his system in the second half against both Wigan and Reading at the Riverside - the Teessiders’ only league wins so far this season.
Boro also lined-up with a back three at Cardiff to try and match the Bluebirds’ physicality and, while unspectacular, Woodgate’s side at least looked solid.
Woodgate has said his principles and way he wants to play won’t change, and that players will still be encouraged to press from the front and pass out from the back.
We saw evidence of that against Huddersfield last week and in the early stages against Fulham before visiting goalkeeper Marek Rodak was sent off.
Overall, it seems the change of system has improved Boro – even if having less forward players on the pitch has blunted their attack.
Moving Paddy McNair into central midfield
During Boro’s summer clear out, it would have been easy to cash in on the Northern Ireland international who hardly played under Tony Pulis last season.
McNair has looked like a player transformed this campaign, though, after moving back into his natural midfield role and playing every minute of every league game under Woodgate.
The Boro boss will have wanted his midfielders, especially his No 8s, to chip in with more goals this season, even though McNair has scored twice, against Millwall and Wednesday, in 14 league games.
The 24-year-old has also helped drive the team forward with his powerful runs from midfield, which makes you wonder way he wasn’t deployed there at all last season.
Due to Boro’s lack of centre-backs, McNair had to be moved into defence against Fulham last time out, yet it seems clear where his best position is.
Dropping Adam Clayton
The holding midfielder is into his sixth season at the Riverside and has been a regular starter during most of that time.
At the start of this season, following the departure of John Obi Mikel, Clayton looked like the clear candidate to start in the anchorman role, yet the 30-year-old has dropped out of the side in recent weeks.
In Clayton’s absence, Lewis Wing has occupied a deeper midfield position, with the latter possessing a greater range of passing and more creativity.
On the flip side, it can be argued Clayton provides more defensive security – but do Boro really need that if they’re operating with a back three?
Clayton’s performances have been mixed this season and, in a 4-3-3 system, there were times when he struggled to cover the extra ground which was vacated in the engine room.
Moving Jonny Howson back to right-back
Howson has been repeatedly praised by Woodgate and labelled one of the senior role models in the dressing room.
The 31-year-old possess plenty of qualities, one of which is his versatility, which has been evident this season.
Many would argue Howson should be deployed in his natural central midfield position, yet Boro’s lack of full-back options have prevented that.
Howson started the season in the full-back berth and regained the position after new signing Anfernee Dijksteel struggled to nail down a first-team spot.
Woodgate has said he wants to give youth a chance at the Riverside, yet it’s clear he doesn’t want to keep youngsters in the firing line, as shown by the omissions of Dijksteel and left-back Marc Bola in recent weeks.
The Boro boss even tried playing Ryan Shotton at left-back to try and protect Bola - a move which clearly wasn’t sustainable.
Hayden Coulson’s return from injury is a timely boost, and the 21-year-old does look ready to keep his first-team place.