Joe Nicholson's verdict: The biggest concerns for Jonathan Woodgate and Middlesbrough after lacklustre Barnsley display
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Against their direct rivals, the division’s bottom three, Jonathan Woodgate’s side have taken just a solitary point out of a possible nine.
Just over a month ago, it seemed like those fears had been banished. The Teessiders appeared to be making progress under Woodgate after four successive wins over Christmas and an evenly-contested FA Cup tie with Tottenham.
Even before their 2-2 draw at Wigan three games ago, there was a feeling that Boro were looking up the table rather than down.
Yet a failure to finish teams off and close out games has led to an eight-game Championship winless run, and now, alarmingly for Woodgate, his team appear bereft of confidence.
To be fair to the Boro boss he’s always tried to remain grounded this season, even when he was awarded manager of the month in December and his team were playing well.
Yet it does feel like some complacency has crept in, and it’s hugely concerning that his side don’t look ready for the fight.
After bringing in new signings in January and seeing players return from injury, Woodgate now has options when it come to team selection, yet it’s fair to say he hasn’t found the best way to use them.
The fact that Woodgate made four changes to face Barnsley suggests he doesn’t know his strongest side and has lost a bit of faith in some of his younger players.
Wing-backs Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence were key for the Teessiders during their upturn in form over the festive period, yet both dropped out at Oakwell. Spence wasn’t even on the bench.
When asked about the changes, Woodgate pointed out that both played in the equally poor defeat against Luton and reiterated the point that younger players need to be protected.
That may be true, and Woodgate also has the luxury of seeing these players day in, day out in training. Yet Boro were no better without their younger contingent, including Marcus Tavernier, here.
Barnsley matched the visitors up by playing with a back three, while Boro wing-backs Marvin Johnson and Jonny Howson struggled to deal with Tykes flankers Clarke Oduor and Kilian Ludewig.
In comparison, Barnsley were better than Boro’s recent opponents Wigan and Luton, but the Teessiders barely laid a glove on them.
Alex Mowett pulled the strings in the engine room as George Saville, Lewis Wing and Ravel Morrison struggled to get a grip in Boro’s midfield.
For the second match running Ashley Fletcher and his strike partner, this time Britt Assombalonga, were detached, as the visitors failed to register a single effort on target.
At the other end, Boro’s backline of Harold Moukoudi, Ryan Shotton and George Friend came under increased pressure and defended admirably up until Conor Chaplin’s 73rd-minute winner.
The goal was deserved, as Boro took another heavy hit in the relegation dogfight.