Middlesbrough should turn to George Saville to turn their fortunes around
There was an air of change and excitement at the Riverside Stadium earlier in the summer when Jonathan Woodgate replaced Tony Pulis at the helm of affairs at Middlesbrough.
Indeed, the fans would have hoped to witness some attractive and expansive football under their former player after a year of boring old-school football, which saw them narrowly miss out on a playoff spot the last term.
However, things haven’t really gone according to the script for the Teessiders thus far in the Championship and Boro currently find themselves languishing 16th in the standings with just a solitary victory in their first four fixtures.
Boro showed some signs of promise in the opening day 3-3 draw against newcomers Luton Town but three back-to-back defeats, including a shock penalty-shootout humbling at the hands of Crewe Alexandra in the League Cup, gave Woodgate plenty to think about.
The Teessiders, though, somewhat turned their fortunes around and managed to register their first victory of the ongoing campaign in the mid-week fixture on Wednesday, as Britt Assombalonga’s solitary first-half strike handed the club all three points in a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Wigan Athletic.
Despite that, however, Middlesbrough are likely to have their work cut out when they play host to Millwall this weekend.
Indeed, Woodgate will be expecting his team to bag all three points and build some momentum after a lacklustre start but, in all honesty, its easier said than done.
Turning the clock back to the previous season, one area where Boro failed to compete toe-to-toe with their promotion rivals was in terms of the number of goals scored.
Well, their unimpressive tally of 49 goals in 46 games last season was a combination of several factors, ranging from Pulis’ presence to the lack of a prolific and consistent striker.
Sadly enough, things look to be going down the same lane for the Teessiders under Woodgate this season as well, with Boro having managed just 4 goals in their first 4 Championship games.
As a matter of fact, that tally would look absolutely disgusting if those 3 goals scored on the opening day away at Luton Town are excluded.
Woodgate has definitely brought about a change of philosophy but that has hardly produced the desired results, with the club struggling at the bottom of the table.
As evident from the first few games, the manager has preferred a 4-3-3 system with Ashley Fletcher and Marvin Johnson playing as wide attackers on either side with Assombalonga leading the pack.
In the midfield, Adam Clayton has emerged as Woodgate’s go-to man for the central holding role, whilst the likes of Patrick McNair and Lewis Wing have been given the nod in the remaining couple of advanced No.8 roles on either side.
When the manager opted for a switch to a 4-2-3-1 system in the 1-0 defeat against Blackburn, it was Clayton who made way for Jonny Howson to start in a No.10 role behind the striker.
Boro have looked pretty lively in the midfield, with the likes of McNair and Wing stringing together some promising and energetic displays in the opening stages of the season.
Indeed, the form of former Man United man McNair in a No.8 role has been one of the few positives from an otherwise forgettable opening few weeks for Boro and, while that should please Woodgate to a certain degree, Middlesbrough have undoubtedly missed the services of George Saville.
Saville, who had scored 4 goals in 34 appearances for Boro in the Championship last season, was a regular starter under Tony Pulis, who used him here, there and everywhere due to the lack of depth in the squad and injury concerns.
The 26-year-old was often slotted into an unfamiliar wing-back role last season but that was expected to change following the arrival of Woodgate this summer, with many looking forward to Saville adding steel and energy to the midfield in his preferred box-to-box role.
However, as surprising as it sounds, the Northern Irishman is yet to start a game in the Championship this season and his sudden slip down the pecking order looks pretty mysterious, to say the least.
Saville’s involvement has been limited to just a couple of substitute cameos from the bench against Luton and Wigan thus far, although he did start in the League Cup defeat to Crewe Alexandra.
To put things into perspective, if the opening four games are anything to go by, Woodgate should be wise enough to hand Saville a few starts and use him more often than he has done so far.
Agreed, the likes of McNair and Wing have done well, and despite the obvious competition for places in the middle of the park, the 26-year-old deserves a fair crack of the whip.
A lively and energetic midfielder with plenty of drive and determination, Saville not only has the ability to break up the play and win possession back for his team but he also has the quality on the ball and the vision to set up goals with his knack for playing key passes.
A perfect example of a box-to-box ace in the midfield, the 26-year-old covers a lot of ground and is a tireless worker on and off the ball, although it is his goalscoring prowess that makes him a far more exciting proposition than the likes of Howson, Clayton and McNair.
Saville, formerly of Chelsea and Wolves, carved out a massive reputation for himself as one of the best versatile central midfielders at Millwall, scoring 10 goals in the 2017-18 season of the Championship before earning a move to Boro.
Indeed, his goalscoring exploits from the midfield at Millwall had made him a highly sought-after property in the English second-tier and Boro looked to have pulled off a real coup when they landed him last summer.
A versatile central midfielder with solid well-rounded attributes, Saville also has the experience and the know-how at the Championship level to help Boro in their surge for promotion.
There is still a lot of time to go in the season and those who haven’t started a game might ultimately go on to play a key role later on in the campaign, but Woodgate should shift his focus to Saville in a bid to add that much-needed goalscoring threat to his midfield trio.
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Keeping that in mind, it is a no-brainer that Boro need to start using the 26-year-old Northern Irishman more regularly, if not, as a sure starter every week.