Middlesbrough verdict: The interesting contract and formation considerations for Neil Warnock which were highlighted in Luton draw
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Neil Warnock’s options are limited as Middlesbrough edge towards the conclusion of the 2020/21 campaign.
The Boro boss wants to assess his squad as he plans for a promotion challenge next season, yet a cluster of injuries have made it difficult to draw too many conclusions.
Warnock’s side is likely to look very different at the start of next term, yet there remains some unanswered questions.
A 1-1 draw at Luton may not be remembered in a few months' time, yet it was another step towards the 2021/22 campaign.
After Duncan Watmore cancelled out Glen Rea’s opener in the first half, Boro goalkeeper Jordan Archer, who will be out of contract this summer, earned the visitors a point with a 70th-minute penalty save.
Warnock will also be evaluating his formation options during the next few months. He has hinted he would like to play 4-3-3, yet with the likes of Paddy McNair and Marc Bola impressing in a back three, there is cause for consideration.
Despite having little to play for at Luton, Warnock resisted the temptation to throw in some of Boro’s academy products.
Hayden Coulson for Chuba Akpom was the only change from the Teessiders’ 3-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday last time out, as the latter dropped out of the matchday squad altogether.
While Boro did cause some problems in the first half, it was Luton who dominated possession and took the lead on 19 minutes.
Kal Naismith beat Bola to James Bree’s in-swinging corner and headed the ball onto the crossbar. Glen Rea reacted first to convert the rebound. In truth, the visitors looked vulnerable from set-plays in the first half.
Boro reacted immediately when Marvin Johnson got the better of Hatters defender Matty Pearson and crossed for Watmore to header home his ninth goal of the season - via a deflection.
The visitors’ attacking threat faded in the second half and Luton had a golden chance to go ahead when McNair was harshly penalised for a collision with Elljah Adebayo in the penalty area. Archer read Collins’ effort to save the spot kick.
Boro almost won it when George Saville hit the bar.
Due to a lack of options, Warnock stuck with a back three and wing-backs, with Neeskens Kebano and Johnson on the flanks.
The tactic was clearly to work the ball into wide areas where Boro’s wide men appeared to have the beating of Luton’s full-backs.
Kebano in particular caused problems for Naismith on the left of the Hatters’ defence, yet Boro didn’t get into those dangerous positions enough.
The Teessiders were sloppy in possession at times as both teams tried to play the ball forward quickly.
Operating in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Luton forwards James Collins and Elljah Adebayo regularly received the ball with their backs to goal, yet Boro’s defenders coped well.
Despite conceding the penalty, McNair was assured at the back and made a couple of excellent tackles when he was Boro’s last defender.
Grant Hall and Bola performed well alongside the Northern Ireland international, but McNair gets the nod for man of the match.
This result means Boro drop to 10th in the Championship table ahead of their final game of the season at home to Wycombe.