Why the winds of change aren't in Jonathan Woodgate's favour at Middlesbrough – yet
One win from the first five games is not the start a rookie manager would hope for – but the scale of Woodgate's ambition can't be measured in just a few weeks
Life at the Riverside under rookie boss Jonathan Woodgate hasn't exactly been plain sailing – just the one win so far this season, picked up in Boro's most recent Championship game against Wigan Athletic. In the Carabao Cup, Boro were dumped out by Crewe on penalties.
But maybe that paints a bleaker picture of the story so far. The Luton and Brentford games could have been easily won with more ruthlessness in the final third, and Middlesbrough’s start to the season would have had a much more positive outlook. There have been glimpses of Woodgate’s style being implemented, but fans are trying to remain patient after 18 months of turgid Pulisball.
Dips in form for individual players hasn’t helped – Adam Clatyon, Lewis Wing and Ryan Shotton haven't exactly performed to their usual standards, to name a few. Given the lack of depth in his squad, Woodgate needs them to be performing every week. Wing in particular can be inconsistent, but his displays against Luton and the first half at Brentford show he has the quality.
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Boro's win against Wigan wasn’t achieved via the attractive football fans are expecting this term, but after a ropy start the result was all that mattered. Jonny Howson's quality ultimately won the game for Woodgate's side, and that’s where the optimism lies: although numbers are thin, Boro have a squad most Championship clubs could only wish for.
The bottom line is that Middlesbrough have spent big for the last three seasons, and the talent they have is obvious – Ashley Fletcher and Paddy McNair are two players who have already impressed this season.
And yet the summer was underwhelming. There are still areas where the Teessiders lack quality; Woodgate still only has two wingers, and Boro haven't had a natural No.10 since Gaston Ramirez departed in 2017.
The club's priorities were keeping their prized commodities, moving on some high earners and adding pretty much everywhere on the pitch. They succeeded in two of those areas: Martin Braithwaite, Stewart Downing and Aden Flint were moved off the wage bill, while Darren Randolph and Dael Fry were retained. Only four players arrived, however, and just one of them adds creativity – a lot of pressure for young Nathan Browne to have on his shoulders.
It's early days, but Anfernee Dijksteel, Marc Bola and Tomas Mejias – three of the summer signings – haven’t seen much first-team football, while Jonny Howson and Hayden Coulson have emerged to keep the two new full-backs out of the side. There's some frustration among Boro fans about the club's recruitment team, especially given their lack of success in the transfer market over the last few years.
As well as the transfer frustrations, supporters have shown concern with their team's displays this season. Luton was an exciting game that Boro should have won. Brentford was a real Jekyll and Hyde performance; one of the best first-half displays in years at the Riverside – with two perfectly good goals ruled out – followed by a second half where the hosts didn’t get started and were punished.
Concerns intensified over the next three games. Middlesbrough were poor against each of Crewe, Blackburn and Wigan, and two of them ended in defeat. The Wigan result should give the team confidence to improve this season. It’s a cliché, but the first win is always the most important.
Fans recognise that Woodgate has a tough job on his hands. It’s his first gig in management, at his hometown club, and there was a consensus going into the summer that the playing style and squad needed an overhaul. All of it had to be achieved while cutting back costs too, which isn't something previous Boro bosses have had to contend with.
Outsiders shouldn’t read this as Steve Gibson’s interest waning – he still ploughs his personal money into the club at a loss – but Middlesbrough need to become more self-sustainable. But even Gibson isn't immune to criticism, and must reassess his club's recruitment model after yet another disappointing summer.
There are a number of factors contributing to Middlesbrough’s bad start, but the main change this season is the team's philosophy. The club is working towards fixing its frayed relationship with a discontented fan base after years of disconnect, all while developing a team and style of play to entertain – and ultimately, get out of the Championship. It's a transitional period for Boro, where change doesn't automatically mean success. And so far, Woodgate is finding out the hard way.
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