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First team

Media View: Expert insight on Middlesbrough

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AFC Bournemouth AFC Bournemouth

AFC Bournemouth will be hoping to maintain their unbeaten start to the season when they face Championship rivals Middlesbrough on Saturday (3pm kick-off).

While Jason Tindall’s team won their first game 3-2 against Blackburn and progressed in the Carabao Cup at the expense of Crystal Palace, Neil Warnock’s Boro lost 1-0 at Watford and exited the League Cup at the hands of Barnsley on Tuesday.

Boss Warnock will not be in attendance at the Riverside after testing positive for Covid-19. 

Ahead of the clash, afcb.co.uk caught up with Craig Johns who covers the fortunes of Boro for Teesside Live.

MIDDLESBROUGH IN PROFILE

Manager: Neil Warnock (appointed June 2020)

Club captain: Britt Assombalonga

Last game: Middlesbrough 0-2 Barnsley (Carabao Cup)

Top goalscorer 2019/20: Ashley Fletcher (13 in all competitions)

Championship finishing position 2019/20: 17th

afcb.co.uk: What was your verdict on Boro’s 1-0 defeat at Watford?

CJ: While by no means a classic for the neutral, Boro put in a very disciplined display against a side Neil Warnock described as the best in the division pre-match.

With the exception of the early goal – some very sloppy marking from a corner – Boro limited the home side to just one more shot on target and that was a tame long-range effort.

Defensively, Boro were really well organised in their three-at-the-back system and kept a very good forward three at bay.

Going forward, they lacked a bit of killer instinct in the final third as they struggled to create many clear-cut chances for their two strikers.

That said, they still had enough opportunities and you felt they were unfortunate to leave without at least a point.

Given the opposition, I felt there were plenty of positives and reasons to take heart from the defeat.

afcb.co.uk: What’s your evaluation of the current Boro squad?

CJ: It’s a relatively young squad that is short of depth. Manager Neil Warnock has shown plenty of times in the past that he can achieve a lot with little and he’ll likely need to do that again if he is to succeed in making Boro play-off contenders.

The starting XI is strong and in Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher (pictured above) they have a very potent strike partnership up top.

But a look at the bench highlights the lack of depth, with Warnock having had no other strikers to call upon at Watford and tellingly only making one sub as they desperately chased an equaliser.

He’s made clear he still wants another two strikers this summer – and was optimistic of making progress on one this week – whether that will be complete in time for Bournemouth’s visit remains to be seen.

The squad have made immeasurable improvements since Warnock replaced Jonathan Woodgate with eight games to go last season and it’s clear they’ve reacted well to the organisation he has brought.

However, given the depth, without a few new signings, they could be just a couple of injuries away from a bit of a crisis.

afcb.co.uk: What have you made of the three new signings, two permanent and one on loan – Grant Hall, Sam Morsy and Marcus Bettinelli?

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CJ: Grant Hall was at fault for the Watford goal last Friday, but, in his defence, he did have a pretty solid game otherwise.

He looks a little short of pace, but as the centre-piece of the three-man defence, he should have one either side of him to protect him in that regard.

He's an experienced defender though, which will be vital to a young team and I expect he'll prove a good signing when he fully settles.

Marcus Bettinelli came straight in for his debut at Watford, just 24 hours after joining on loan from Fulham and it was immediately clear why Warnock wanted him.

With two promotions on his CV, Bettinelli had just one save to make at Vicarage Road, but his voice could be heard throughout, orchestrating and encouraging the defenders in front of him. Like Hall, his experience could be vital.

Morsy, meanwhile, will be an interesting capture from Wigan and could add bite into their midfield that they've been lacking, to add a bit more balance.

Against Watford, Jonny Howson sat in a deep-lying midfield role and was able to be one of Boro's most creative players. But ahead of him, George Saville and Marcus Tavernier (pictured below) struggled to get into the game.

What they required was one of the two to really add some bite into the game, get some tackles in and dictate the tempo with their possession.

Saville wasn't able to do this and it meant Tavernier couldn't express himself in the hole behind the two strikers either. I'm quite hopeful Morsy can come into that midfield and provide exactly what's needed.

afcb.co.uk: How would you sum up Neil Warnock’s tenure so far?

CJ: Watford was just Warnock's tenth game in charge of the club – including the Carabao Cup first-round win over Shrewsbury. It’s now 11 with the midweek defeat by Barnsley in the Carabao Cup.

But in that time we've seen Middlesbrough become a far more disciplined side.

There's still plenty of work to be done and he could certainly do with a few new faces to help, but the early signs are that players as individuals are responding positively to his management and improving.

Young defender Anfernee Dijksteel probably sums up his transformation best, with Warnock happy to put his faith in younger players and coach them to become better.

The team flirted with Championship relegation under Jonathan Woodgate last term before Warnock saved them.

Now, his ambitions mean he wants to see his side challenging at the top end of the table, even if he admits it will be one of his biggest career achievements if he were to.

I don't think there's much optimism among supporters that the squad is currently strong enough to challenge for promotion, but you can certainly sense a feeling of being in safe hands at least with Warnock.

afcb.co.uk: Are any players either injured or suspended against the Cherries?

CJ: Right now, Boro are injury-free and, given the depth in their squad, they'll be hoping to remain that way for as long as possible.

afcb.co.uk: Who is Boro’s dangerman?

CJ: Britt Assombalonga has been handed the club captaincy by Warncok and the veteran striker has been revolutionised under the new management team.

He was the player who looked most likely to make something happen for Boro at Watford and was full of endeavour throughout.

Having said that, Watford seemed to earmark Marcus Tavernier as Boro's creative threat and by limiting the time and space Tavernier had, the visitors struggled to create much.

afcb.co.uk: What’s your score prediction?

CJ: Bournemouth certainly had an entertaining return to the Championship against Blackburn.

I suspect, if Middlesbrough can carry on from their performance at Watford, they'll prove a lot harder to break down than Rovers.

Bournemouth are a good side still, but I think Boro's solid defence can help them achieve a credible 1-1 draw at the Riverside.

You can follow Craig on Twitter – @craig_johns

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