12 February 2020 08:42
At half-time at Wigan, you wondered how Boro were going to get anything from the game. At full-time, you wondered how Boro hadn't won the game. Jonathan Woodgate's side were below par from start to finish but found themselves in front thanks to two fortuitous Lewis Wing strikes. From that position, against the lowest scorers in the division, a team in the bottom three and with 10 men, you've got to be winning the game. Boro didn't: Harold Moukoudi's diving header capping off a hat-trick of calamitous second half goals.
Neither team deserved to win. For the most part, it was a throwback to the early stages of the season - Boro lacking urgency, ideas and incision in the front third of the pitch. Boro had far more of the ball than they're used to - 63% compared to a season average of 47% - but couldn't turn that into chances. Their only two shots on target were the goals - one a deflection that wrong-footed the home goalkeeper and the second a tame effort by Lewis Wing's standards that David Marshall should have saved. Still, that's taking nothing away from Wing, who has three in two games and six for the season now. Wigan should have known better than giving him that time and space. Wing and Morrison roamed and tried to make things happen but Boro were too predictable for most of the night. The game wasn't helped by referee Oliver Langford. Having watched the replay back, Woodgate was adamant Ashley Fletcher's first half goal should have stood. Paul Cook was equally as frustrated with the referee, at a loss as to how the yellow card count reached double figures in a game that wasn't bad tempered. For Boro, there's no getting away from the fact it's points dropped. At half-time on Tuesday night, they were facing the prospect of being dragged right back into the dogfight. Earlier in the season, questions were repeatedly asked about Boro's game management. In the six games since the win at Preston on New Year's Day, Boro have dropped five points from conceding goals in the last 15 minutes of games. Having those five points on the board would have lifted Boro up three places and they'd have been just three shy of Millwall in 11th. Is it a concentration issue? Is it a fitness issue? Boro don't appear to tire in games. But throwing away points from positions of strength has been a recurring theme throughout the season, starting against Luton on the opening day. Perhaps it's time to settle and stick? Woodgate's horses for courses approach has not been without its success this season. He caught both Slaven Bilic and Alex Neil off-guard with the way he set his team up against West Brom and Preston and has tended to tinker with the shape depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, rather than sticking with one formation. Even now, though, with far more options than Woodgate had six weeks or so ago, Boro's squad still looks far better suited to playing with wing-backs. Boro miss the youthful energy of Djed Spence when he's not in the side and get the best out of Coulson as a wing-back. But Boro don't have natural attacking width. At their best, with wing-backs joining the attack, they flow effortlessly going forward. Boro probed patiently but lacked the killer ball. Woodgate's willingness to tinker with the shape is no bad thing. Perhaps it's time to settle on a shape and stick. "When I came to the club I was an attacking player. "If you asked people in my Huddersfield days about me being the player I am now, they'd have laughed. With Grant Leadbitter bombing forward and scoring goals, Clayton knew he had to tinker with his game, for the benefit of himself and for the team. From a 10 to an 8 to a 6: Clayton became the sweeper midfielder, sitting deep and cleaning up, allowing others in front to thrive. Is George Saville following in Clayton's footsteps? Like Clayton, Saville arrived as a forward playing box to box midfielder, having scored 10 goals for Millwall the season previous. Saville is enjoying his best spell in a Boro shirt and his most impressive displays have come in a deeper role, cutting out and then doing the simple stuff to set the side on their way. Getting the midfield mix right has been an ongoing battle for Woodgate this season but right now Saville looks his best bet in that holding role.