Joe Nicholson's verdict: Jonathan Woodgate's second-half changes made the difference for Middlesbrough in Stoke win

Jonathan Woodgate knew something had to change.

Saturday, 21st December 2019, 6:28 pm
Ashley Fletcher challenges for possession against Stoke.
Ashley Fletcher challenges for possession against Stoke.

When the half-time whistle blew during Middlesbrough’s meeting with Stoke City at the Riverside, Sky Sports’ TV cameras must have wondered why they’d bothered broadcasting the festive Championship fixture.

It was supposed to be a relegation six-pointer, yet the goalless 45 minutes prompted many of the 18,270 (that was the official attendance anyway) to head for an early break.

Stoke may argue they were in the ascendancy at that point, Michael O'Neill’s side were certainly dominating possession as Boro sat deep with little ambition or urgency.

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Woodgate and his coaching team recognised that and tweaked their side’s formation at the interval, switching from 5-3-2 to 4-2-3-1 to provide more protection on the flanks.

Some may argue the Boro boss made the wrong call in the first place, yet his decision to choose a system which worked well in the recent win over Charlton was justifiable.

So was the call to start the more experienced Adam Clayton over eventual match Lewis Wing.

“I thought I needed an experienced head in the middle of the pitch.” said Woodgate when asked to explain his team selection after he was forced to name another youthful side.

Yet Woodgate deserves credit for the way he impacted this game – most notably the introductions of Wing and Rudy Gestede for Clayton and Stephen Walker on 58 minutes.

The pair were already warming up when Ashley Fletcher headed home an equaliser moments after Sam Clucas had opened the scoring.

Boro needed to respond quickly after falling behind and, with tensions running high, they did just that.

The change of system also allowed the likes of Wing and Marcus Tavernier more freedom in midfield, and the pair combined excellently for Boro’s winner.

A word too on experienced duo Daniel Ayala and Jonny Howson, who once again provided a platform to build on from the back.

Wing-backs Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson didn’t look out of place either.

And while it was easy to be downbeat after a drab first-half display, the result was always going to be the most important factor.

Boro are now six points clear of the drop zone ahead of their Boxing Day meeting with Huddersfield.