An incredible turnaround, what next for Patrick Roberts and Marcus Browne's cruel injury blow: Verdict after Middlesbrough’s FA Cup defeat at Brentford

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ANALYSIS: Joe Nicholson takes a closer look at Middlesbrough’s 2-1 FA Cup defeat at Brentford.

When the team sheet was about to be announced at 5pm there was a sense of anticipation.

Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock told the media on Friday that he planned to play the strongest side possible for Saturday’s FA Cup game at Brentford – yet a Covid-19 outbreak at the start of the week had ruled out several first-team players.

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For that reason, around 50 per cent of the squad would be made up of under-23s players, many of whom have progressed right the way through the Teessiders’ highly-rated academy.

Sam Folarin of Middlesbrough celebrates with teammates after scoring against Brentford.Sam Folarin of Middlesbrough celebrates with teammates after scoring against Brentford.
Sam Folarin of Middlesbrough celebrates with teammates after scoring against Brentford.

Supporters love to see a home-grown player break through the ranks, so the inclusion of 18-year-olds Nathan Wood and Hayden Hackney in the starting XI will have been pleasing.

In the build-up to the game Warnock spoke about his admiration for the FA Cup and the importance of taking it seriously despite difficult circumstances.

Yet the Boro boss had also admitted his side weren’t going to win the competition and suggested to the 12th Man Podcast last month that he could name a full team of home-grown academy players.

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With the Teessiders’ in contention for a play-off spot after 22 league games, the Championship is clearly the priority. In many ways the trip to Brentford was something of a free hit.

A 2-1 defeat will obviously sting but will also simplify Boro’s season.

Opportunities to impress

For many, though, this was an opportunity to impress.

Despite many players being unavailable, Boro’s starting XI was stronger than many were anticipating, with Warnock making seven changes from the side which beat Wycombe last weekend.

In came Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson, Lewis Wing and Manchester City loanee Patrick Roberts - all players with a point to prove.

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Hackney and new goalkeeper Jordan Archer were the only debutants in a side which still had an average age of 22.8, even if the seven-man bench had just three first-team appearances between them before kick-off, all of which came from Sam Folarin.

It should be noted this wasn’t a full-strength Brentford side, either, with the Bees making nine changes from their League Cup defeat against Tottenham on Tuesday, while manager Thomas Frank was self-isolating after testing positive for the virus.

Brentford B Head Coach Neil MacFarlane took charge of the fixture and said after the match he felt it was a terrific game of football considering the players who were missing.

But despite the changes Boro’s Achilles heel was their inability to take their chances, registering 23 efforts at goal compared to Brentford's nine.

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Browne’s crucial injury

As expected the hosts dominated possession in the early exchanges, yet Boro posed a threat on the counter attack, particularly through Marcus Browne.

The 23-year-old marked his first league start of the season with a goal at Wycombe and had the beating of full-back Mads Roerslev when the Teessiders sprung forward.

Browne’s best effort came when the game was still goalless as he ran onto Roberts’ neat pass before forcing a low save from goalkeeper Luke Daniels.

The Bees keeper made a string of fine saves in the opening 45 minutes, keeping out decent efforts from Wing and Akpom before the break.

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At the other end the visitors defended well but switched off at key moments.

Boro assistant Kevin Blackwell was shouting ‘handcuffs’, telling Coulson to get tighter to midfielder Halil Dervisoglu, when Saman Ghoddos delivered a 35th-minute corner.

The message wasn’t enough, though, as Dervisoglu stroked the ball home first-time to put his side ahead.

Yet the opening 45 minutes was overshadowed by an injury to Browne, who went to ground unchallenged and had to be stretchered off after dislocating his knee.

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It’s a cruel blow for a player who has only just recovered from a hamstring issue and was starting to find form.

Browne’s injury did allow Folarin to enter the fray and score his first senior goal three minutes after half-time. It was a wonderful moment for the 20-year-old who joined Boro from non-league club Tooting & Mitcham.

What next for Roberts?

One player who Boro fans will have been interested to see is Roberts, who had made just three starts since returning to the club on loan from Manchester City.

Warnock has admitted he’ll hold talks with the 23-year-old about his future, suggesting we may have seen the last of the playmaker in a Boro shirt.

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Yet Roberts started in the No 10 position at Brentford, with Warnock still seemingly reluctant to play him out wide.

It was a mixed evening for Roberts who once again showed flashes of his ability, like when he cut inside of defender Fin Stevens and forced Daniels into a low save.

Yet the Boro man drifted in and out of the action on an evening where he’ll have hoped to make a telling difference.

Browne’s injury may mean Boro want to hang on to Roberts for the second half of the season yet the latter’s future remains unclear.

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An incredible turnaround

At the other end of the pitch it was surprising to see Marc Bola not only start at centre-back but also captain the side.

This time last year the 23-year-old was loaned out to Blackpool and struggled to get a game in League One, yet he’s now become a key player for Warnock.

Bola looked solid in an unfamiliar role and swept up danger alongside Wood when Boro were under pressure.

The stand-in skipper could have done better when he allowed Ghoddos to cut inside and convert the winning goal, yet Boro’s backline had been left exposed.

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Bola’s versatility could be useful in the second half of the season, especially as Boro are short of centre-back options.

There were other positives on a mixed night, with Hackney showing good composure on the ball and taking his chance to impress.

Boro fans will hope it was a sign of things to come.

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