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View From The Town End: Chris Wilder’s High-Flying Middlesbrough

Getting to know a Middlesbrough side that’s flown up to seventh since we met them in September.

Mansfield Town v Middlesbrough: The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

When it rains, it pours. Fresh off terrible results against Kidderminster Harriers and Fulham, Reading now face the daunting prospect of trying to get a result against one of the division’s form sides: Middlesbrough.

Boro sit seventh heading into the weekend, having won five of their eight matches under new(ish) boss Chris Wilder. The former Sheffield United boss has rejuvenated a team which was losing its way under predecessor Neil Warnock - evident in the reverse fixture.

So what’s the new gaffer changed to prompt that turnaround, which players have contributed and how will this season end for Boro? Discussing all of that is Dana Malt, who can be found on The Boro Breakdown Podcast and the Fly Me To The Moon fanzine.

How’s the season gone for you so far overall?

It’s been a mixed bag, which usually comes with the territory of changing managers. I became apathetic towards it at a point, because I felt we could do much better than what was being offered on the pitch when Neil Warnock was in charge.

For me, our campaign truly kicked off when Chris Wilder was appointed. Our usually faulty stutters and inconsistencies have been replaced with good form and newfound optimism. We’ve been rejuvenated under a much more progressive and, crucially, fitting manager to the options within the squad.

Five wins, two draws and a loss since Chris Wilder succeeded Neil Warnock – what’s he done to turn Boro around?

Overall, the way Wilder wants his teams to play just suits the players at this club. Tactically, he’s used the midfield an awful lot more. Whereas Warnock’s build-up play was limited to ‘kick it and hoof it’ tactics that were more hopeful than purposeful, Boro now have a clear plan when trying to advance the ball up the pitch.

You’ll see the impressive Isaiah Jones be the main outlet on the right, with underlaps from Matt Crooks as the right-sided central midfielder, or Anfernee Dijksteel as the right-sided centre half. The combinations on that side of the pitch have been so prevalent in creating chances and it’s ultimately landed Jones the player of the month award for December.

Out of possession, our shape off is much better as well. Teams used to cut through us like a knife through butter, but we’re much more solid in plugging gaps and limiting space and, all in all, we haven’t given up too many clear-cut chances for the opponents we’ve faced.

Reading v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship
Boro’s December POTM Isaiah Jones in action in the reverse fixture
Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

What are Boro’s main strengths?

I would definitely say our movement off the ball and attacking from wide areas. As I mentioned with the underlapping runs, players moving into the half spaces provides give-and-gos that we’ve seen mostly through Crooks and Jones.

It works the best against teams that play with wing-backs as we can move into the space left in behind, but even against teams playing a flat back four, we are such a threat from out wide. Both aforementioned players have been brilliant this season but the latter has taken us all by surprise. His fearless drive and trickery coupled with his pace is making him such an exciting prospect, and with four assists and a goal under Wilder, he’s adding end product too.

Any weaknesses Reading can get at?

I think this depends on personnel. We had a much-changed defence in the cup game against Mansfield, probably partly due to the opponent but also potentially because of recovery from the Covid cases that forced our New Year’s Day game against Sheffield United to be postponed. As much as I love Sol Bamba, he has a mistake in him, and he’s probably not the best with pace down the sides of him, so if he plays he might be one to target.

How big a boost will new signing Folarin Balogun be?

On paper, huge. He’s the all-time top scorer in the Premier League 2, but of course, that’s youth football. Whether or not he can transition that into the Championship remains to be seen, but it’s the perfect signing for us in terms of what he can offer. With pace, good movement and a natural finishing ability, he has all the ingredients to fit perfectly into this Chris Wilder side, and we’ve been in need of someone that can add that clinical edge.

Will you finish in the play-offs this season?

I think we will, yes. Our form right now would certainly point towards that with six wins in seven. That won’t last, of course, but I think we have the best manager in the Championship, which is enough for me to believe!

How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?

Given how good a run we’re on, the overall improvement under Wilder and the situation at Reading on and off the pitch, you probably wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it could be a big score in Boro’s favour. But I get the feeling this game is a trap and my ‘typical Boro’ alarm bells are ringing. Personally, I’m going 1-1.