Joe Nicholson's verdict: Young Middlesbrough wing-backs handed Jonathan Woodgate a much-needed boost against Charlton
We knew Middlesbrough had a depleted squad ahead of their league meeting with Charlton on Saturday – yet it wasn’t until the team sheet was announced at 2pm that Jonathan Woodgate’s lack of options really hit home.
Boro’s outfield substitutes had an average age of just over 19 years old and a handful of Championship appearances between them.
On the pitch, teenage right-back Djed Spence came in from the cold, he hand’t even been in the squad this season, to make his first league start of the campaign.
Many inside the Riverside had probably never seen the 19-year-old play. Could he handle the pressure of a crucial second-tier fixture? The answer was an emphatic yes.
Woodgate has previously struggled to find the right balance between attack and defence, and while switching to a back three has brought more security, the Teessiders have often lacked invention and pace going forward.
Against Charlton, though, the inclusions of Spence and 21-year-old Hayden Coulson, another academy graduate, in the wing-back roles added fluidity to Boro’s attacks.
Woodgate’s side were much better going forward when possession changed hands, aided by their two young flankers who weren’t afraid to run with the ball and send crosses into the box.
Boro’s youthful side had important pillars of experience too, with unsung hero Jonny Howson once again excelling in a back three.
Captain Daniel Ayala led by example while goalscorer George Saville produced his best performance of the season in a 1-0 win.
In truth, the only thing missing was more goals, after Boro missed a couple of golden chances to put the game beyond doubt.
A better side could have punished them, though, and while there were plenty of positives for Woodgate and his coaching team, Charlton were well below par.
The Addicks didn’t even test goalkeeper Aynsley Pears until the closing stages and, on this evidence, they look set to join the relegation dogfight.
This result moves Woodgate’s side four points clear of the relegation zone ahead of tricky away games against Nottingham Forest and Swansea.
Anything less than a win would have left Boro looking anxiously over their shoulder, yet the result, performance and emergence of Spence has provided a timely boost.