Joe Nicholson's verdict: Middlesbrough's system was exposed at Fulham due to lack of options
Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate made six changes ahead of Friday’s 1-0 defeat at Fulham – he wanted to change his defensive set-up too but didn’t feel he had the right personnel available.
Boro may have altered their shape during a sharp upturn in form over the last month – yet most of their success has come when operating with a back three and wing-backs.
Academy graduates Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence have played a big part in that, providing some much-needed pace and energy on the flanks.
However, against a slick and free-flowing Fulham side, Boro’s first-choice system looked vulnerable, as Woodgate’s side suffered their first Championship defeat for over a month.
The Cottagers, operating in a type of 4-3-3 set-up with striker Bobby Reid dropping deep, outnumbered Boro in midfield and switched the play quickly in the early exchanges.
On Fulham’s left, Spence wasn’t able cope with winger Ivan Cavaleiro and full-back Joe Bryan, with the latter delivering the cross for Anthony Knockaert to open the scoring.
Knockaert also caused problems for Coulson on the opposite flank, but to be fair to Boro’s young wing-backs they improved as the match wore on.
Coulson, 21, and Spence, 19, won’t come up against this sort of quality every week and the experience should once again stand them in good stead.
Woodgate admitted afterwards he wanted to select a back four, yet the lack of fit centre-backs prevented it.
Jonny Howson and Paddy McNair were once again asked to operate in a three-man backline, and the Boro boss didn’t want to risk losing extra protection.
Still, the visitors could have been three or four down after the first half an hour, as Fulham sliced them open with ease.
Boro were chasing shadows in the early exchanges, yet it should be noted this was the Teessiders’ third game in the space of a week.
The visitors did grow into the contest, though, even if Fulham keeper Marek Rodak wasn’t overly tested.
Rudy Gestede was often isolated up top when Boro went direct to their towering frontman.
Woodgate’s young side will have to go again against Birmingham on Tuesday night.