Assessing Neil Warnock's first season at Middlesbrough - including tactics, man management and recruitment
Neil Warnock has completed his first full season at Middlesbrough following a relentless campaign – but how should the last 34 weeks be assessed on Teesside?
Clearly Boro improved on the previous year when they narrowly avoided relegation from the Championship, with the Teessiders moving from a 17th-place finish to 10th under Warnock.
Yet there was more than a hint of disappointment as Boro’s season petered out in the second half of the season, with the team winning just two of their last nine fixtures.
Warnock has admitted there are things he could have done better, and clearly there are areas which will need ironing out if the team are to challenge for promotion next term.
Building a positive atmosphere
One thing Warnock will want to implement is a positive atmosphere in the dressing room, something his side appeared to have when he won promotion with Cardiff and Sheffield United.
Several players have praised Warnock’s man management this campaign, while the improvements made by players such as Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola have been hugely impressive.
Yet there was talk at the end of the season about cliques forming in the dressing room, which appeared to be having a detrimental impact on the squad.
Warnock definitely said it was his job to solve the problem, and with several players set to leave the Riverside this summer, there should be an opportunity for the Boro boss to bring in players who will buy into his project.
Building on a core group which includes Marcus Tavernier, Dael Fry, Paddy McNair and Jonny Howson, who have also improved under Warnock, is the aim, yet finding a system which is effective will be a challenge.
Finding the right system
Boro started the 2020/21 campaign playing with a back three, a system which appeared to suit several players and allowed the side to play with two strikers.
At times Warnock appeared a little too hasty to try and change his system as he often tried to match up opponents in terms of shape and structure – even if it’s beneficial to be adaptable at times.
There were times when a man-to-man marking approach worked a treat, the away performance at league leaders Norwich immediately springs to mind, yet there were times when Boro were badly exposed when playing with a back four – such as the defeats against Rotherham and Preston.
It may be more beneficial for the Teessiders to play with a back four next season, yet may depend on Warnock’s centre-back options.
Regardless of his side’s formation, Warnock will want his team to play in a similar way. The Boro boss isn’t a big fan of playing out from the back, although he does encourage his players to be more expansive in the attacking areas of the pitch.
As with any style of play, you need the right type of players to make it successful.
With forward options limited, it was hard to see how the likes of Chuba Akpom or Duncan Watmore were going to win headers against towering centre-backs when the ball was launched forward by goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli.
It’s an area Warnock is desperate to rectify this summer, with an imposing striker, or three, at the top of the manager’s transfer list.
Areas to improve
Equally, the Boro boss will want to sign more wide players or attacking midfielders who can contribute with goals and assists.
When Yannick Bolaise got up to speed at the end of the season, it was clear he was the type of player Boro had lacked in the first half of the campaign. Unfortunately, his biggest contributions came too late in the season.
At the other end of the pitch, Warnock has acknowledged his side made too many individual errors which proved costly, undoing the manager’s methods to limit opposition chances.
Boro were beaten 18 times and conceded 53 goals over 46 league games, which is surprising considering they lost just one of their first 11, while Warnock often makes his sides difficult to beat.
The blame can’t all be attributed to one person, yet it didn’t help when goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli finished with the lowest save percentage in the Championship compared to other regular starters between the sticks.
Finding a reliable No 1 keeper could be the difference between challenging for a top-six place and another mid-table finish.
A mixed bag in terms of signings
Sticking with recruitment, it’s fair to say Boro’s signings last summer were mixed.
Grant Hall, after a tough start due to injury, Sam Morsy and Duncan Watmore, who signed in November, will be seen as successes, yet others underperformed.
Akpom didn’t appear to suit Boro’s style of play, with Warnock saying publicly he wasn’t able to watch the striker play live before signing him.
Ahead of a big summer with several new arrivals expected, it’s clear Warnock and Boro’s recruitment team will have to be on the same page.
It must also be said that Boro were extremely unfortunate with injuries. Losing key players such as Dijksteel, Tavernier and Fry, as well as last season’s top scorer Ashley Fletcher, at key moments of the season would have been destabilising for most teams.
It’s clear the squad will need beefing up to cover such a scenario next season.
Boro may have some talented players but when you compare their squad to clubs such as Norwich and Watford, who won automatic promotion, and the likes of Brentford and Bournemouth in the play-offs, there is an obvious lack of depth.
In that respect, Warnock did a fine job to guide his side into the top six just before Christmas.
With another summer to work with players and a chance to address some key areas, the Boro boss will hope his side can sustain a promotion challenge next term.