The tables have very much turned for Middlesbrough and Derby County.
In the first fixture back after the first lockdown in June, the Rams beat Millwall and would go on to win their next two games, moving to within a place and a point of the play-off places.
They’ve since won two of 19. Last season’s promotion ambitions have been replaced by relegation fear and, judging by Liam Rosenior’s scathing assessment post-match, there’s a lot for the rock bottom Rams to worry about.
There’s little to concern Neil Warnock and Boro. Their transformation has been the absolute opposite of what’s gone on at Pride Park and the biggest win since the manager’s appointment was a fine way to bounce back from the harsh Norwich setback.
On July 1, Derby, in seventh, were 16 points ahead of Boro after 40 games.
After 13 fixtures of the new season, Boro are 15 clear of the Rams – and the gap only looks likely to widen, for these are two teams going in opposite directions.
Steve McClaren was in the stands at the Riverside but there was nothing magnificent about Derby’s display for the newly appointed technical director.
For Boro chairman Steve Gibson, Wednesday night’s success must have been extra satisfying given the boardroom battles that have gone on between these two clubs since Derby’s controversial £81m Pride Park sale.
That was back in the 2018/19 season when the Rams pipped Boro to a play-off place and made the final. Promotion is not on the Rams’ radar this season but is firmly at the forefront of Boro’s thoughts.
After a tight defeat to arguably the league’s best team, Boro hit back and found their attacking teeth. They scored three and could have had more, particularly in the late stages when the visitors were crying out for the full-time whistle.
On paper, as Warnock pointed out, Derby shouldn’t be scrapping at the wrong end of the table, especially with Wayne Rooney in their ranks. But England’s record goalscorer tried to be everything and everywhere. He went from midfield to up-front to midfield again. There was no balance. The opposite could be said of Boro, who looked drilled and organised – as ever – but also found the clinical edge they’ve lacked this season.
Jonny Howson and George Saville bossed the midfield, the latter exceptional. The defence was superb. Obviously. Patrick Roberts took a touch too many at times but still troubled the away defence, as did Marcus Tavernier. And Duncan Watmore marked his debut with an assist that was all about awareness, Britt Assombalonga on hand to poke home the opener. The substitutes made a real impact as well. More on that later.
Warnock revealed post-match that he had to give out a “bollocking” before the game because he noticed his players were being a bit “sloppy” in the dressing room. They were nothing of the sort on the pitch. This wasn’t Boro at their best. They’ve played better this season and not won, but that’s a promising sign, no matter the opposition.
Here’s what we learnt:
Boro’s likeable team and deserved recognition
Neil Warnock spoke pre and post-match of the quality in Derby’s ranks and how he feels they’ll get out of trouble. He won’t be the only one to make that assessment.
But those who cover the Rams are deeply concerned.
While Boro were never in the position last season that Derby find themselves in now, the weekly spiel from opposition managers about the quality in the squad and “they’ll be fine” insistence didn’t tally with what was being served up on the pitch a year or so ago.
The fear last season was that Boro would buy into the theory that they were too good to go down. On paper, Boro boasted quality but lacked balance and were let down by game management, sloppy goals at one end and a lack of goals at the other.
Derby now look a team without a plan. Only Coventry have conceded more and they’ve failed to score in eight of their 13 games. There was a clear imbalance as Rooney tried to be a bit of everything,
Boro’s players, on the other hand, know their roles. There’s clarity in the message from Warnock and it’s clearly getting through. This is such a likeable Boro team – young, wholehearted, constantly improving and playing with a smile.
Warnock was reluctant to pick out individuals after what he felt was a fine team display, but it was good to see deserved recognition for Saville and Marc Bola, who both featured in the WhoScored team of the midweek fixtures.
Both have been written off in the past but are playing their best football for Boro under Warnock – and they’re getting better by the week.
Moments of quality
All of Boro’s goals were carved out by quality. The first came thanks to a nicely weighted Jonny Howson delivery and the awareness of Watmore to nod-down, the second was created by the vision and pass of Marc Bola and the low, hard drive of Johnson, and the third was all about the substitute as he cut in from the right on to his strong foot and picked his corner.
Derby had their moments but lacked that quality, a key point in the game coming just after the break when Louie Sibley had a great chance to level but dragged his shot wide.
The visitors didn’t get too many openings. Even Rooney up-front couldn’t get the better of the immense Fry and McNair. Dijksteel was outstanding, again, and Bola is growing in belief by the week. All got 8s in the player ratings.
At the other end, Boro have created more openings in other games but here they were clinical and their timing hurt a Derby side clearly lacking confidence. The first goal was always going to be crucial. Get in front against a side struggling so much – and with Boro’s defensive record – and you fancied the hosts seeing it out. But rather than edge their way to three points in the second half, Boro struck to give themselves breathing space and could have had a couple more late on.
Derby were desperate for the half-time whistle after falling behind late in the opening period, and they were desperate for the full-time whistle as Boro threatened to run riot.
The impact from the bench
There was a little bit of social media criticism for Neil Warnock for his substitutes against Norwich on Saturday, but there can be nothing of the sort this morning.
The manager turned to Marvin Johnson and Djed Spence on the hour mark, replacing Duncan Watmore and Patrick Roberts, who the boss felt would fade because of their lack of football.
Johnson and Spence have that bit more defensive awareness but the duo didn’t see the game out, they saw it off. Within minutes of coming on, Spence had set off on two direct runs, baffling Derby with his fast feet. He should have had an assist when he brilliantly teed up Tavernier, but Marshall saved well. From the rebound, though, Bola picked out Johnson with a clever pass and his fierce low cross was turned in.
Both Spence and Johnson were in the mood, stretching the game with their pace. And the latter’s finish for the third goal was lovely.
Warnock explained after the game that he felt he had to be “a bit more positive in the wide positions” in a bid to score more goals, hence bringing Watmore and Roberts into the side.
But from the bench Johnson and Spence both showed they can hurt the defence and pick the lock with their pace. We need to see more of that.
Roberts and Tavernier are tricky and skilful, Watmore has an instinctive eye for goal and Johnson, Spence and Coulson all offer raw pace. They’ve all got the quality to trouble defences and can ensure it’s not another 12-month plus wait for three goals in a game.