Bournemouth – Middlesbrough 3:0
Karanka’s Middlesbrough failed to make it 3 wins out of 3 in their recent matches against promotion rivals in what is shaping up to be an excitingly close battle between the top 4 teams. Making just 3 shots in the 90 minutes, they were evidently the lesser team against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth who have bounced back from a recent slump to again lead the table. The game was vital to both sides’ push for promotion, as the win leaves Bournemouth with 73 points – ahead of both Middlesbrough and Watford by just a single point with 7 games to play.
The home side have been managed excellently to develop a passing philosophy which goes further than most attempts in England, they play with a high intensity and pace accompanied by an expansive structure which sees quite free movements, as the full-backs actively support possession inside whilst the wingers are quite variable. Their intensity on the ball is not lacked without possession, as they’re probably the highest pressing team in the league with the front 4 in utilizing man-marking which many sides struggle against.
On the other hand, Aitor Karanka of Middlesbrough has worked for years under José Mourinho, which shows quite clearly in how he has designed his team. They hold the best defensive record in the league by 10 goals in what is usually an excellently organised 4-2-3-1 system with which they sit in a mid-block with situational pressure high in the opposition’s construction of possession out of defence.
Bournemouth lined up in a formation which has seen little change throughout the season. Artur Boruc started as goalkeeper behind their standard back four of Daniels (LB) and Francis (RB) on either side of a centre-back partnership with Cook and Elphick. The two central midfielders were Drew Surman and Harry Arter, who were supporting the two central forwards of Kermorgant and Wilson. Marc Pugh saw the majority of the ball on the left wing, whilst Ritchie was present on the opposite.
Aitor Karanka set up in Middlesbrough’s standard 4-2-3-1 which has been the case for the whole season. Dimitrios Konstantopolous was the goalkeeper protected by a back four of George Friend, Ben Gibson, Tomas Kalas and Emilio Nsue from left to right. The double 6 partnership of Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter were flanked by a somewhat of a surprise inclusion of Adam Reach on the left, whilst Adomah featured on the right. Similarly to their opposition, Middlesbrough utilized a central partnership in attack, with Lee Tomlin playing just deeper of Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford.
Both sides’ midfields are amongst the best in the league, and this particular area of the pitch proved to be quite key in the development of the game.
In Middlesbrough’s possession, there was a quite poor partnership between Clayton and Leadbitter, which was pressed against easily. The centre lacked support by wide players, with both very wide in anticipation of playing through the touchlines, and when Adomah came inside as the first half progressed, he contributed very little and was caught out on a few occasions. Meanwhile, Lee Tomlin rarely offered support and instead held the positioning of an extra striker in most situations, which was surprising as this gave no benefit to the possession game of the away side, whilst it failed to utilise his pressing resistance which could’ve been used to counteract Bournemouth’s high pressure system. Furthermore, with Tomlin’s lack of support, Bournemouth’s midfield partnership could afford to press higher in their man-orientations on Middlesbrough as there wasn’t an as big of a threat of the 10 space being exploited behind.
Aitor Karanka seemingly noticed this, as in the second half you could immediately see Tomlin dropping deeper and more frequently to support Clayton and Leadbitter, whilst Reach also offered inside also. In addition, the positioning of the two central midfielders was much improved from the first half performance, or at least until Clayton was substituted off in the 53rd minute leading to a change to a much more of a 4-4-2 shape with Kike alongside Bamford as two strikers. These small changes of some of Middlesbrough’s issues led to them having a much better control of the game in the second half albeit if the opposition were more willing to relinquish the possession of the ball. That being said, this did not translate to a threat in their chance creation, as the 3 shots they took all game goes to highlight.
Adam Clayton was often given the responsibility of collecting possession from the centre-backs, whilst Leadbitter was around 5 yards higher, often on the same vertical line as the Manchester City graduate. This had a few negative effects alone. Firstly, when Leadbitter was to receive the ball from his teammate, he was facing away from goal and was never given the time to turn and advance the ball forward. Secondly, both players’ positions have similar effects, for example both the same angles and capacity to access the same spaces on the pitch; given this, both players offered the same benefits to Middlesbrough thus a pass created no change and could be considered redundant.
Although Middlesbrough had the ‘superiority’ in the more possession (54%), Bournemouth edged the midfield battle. In contrast to their opposition, they had good support from wide areas in the form of both full-backs, whilst Pugh and Ritchie supported too, albeit situationally. Away from tactical reasons, they were also simply better technically, with Arter in particular having a great game which was featured an excellent long-range shot for the home side’s second.
Bournemouth Left Focus
In possession, Bournemouth have a significant focus on their left flank and yesterday’s match was no different with just under half of the attacks channeled down this third. With Pugh and Daniels making up one of the best partnerships in the league, they threaten excellently in these situations.
Their excellence down this side is in no small part down to the expansive positional play and movements of the two wide players, but in particular with the full-back. Inverted movements from the full-backs is almost unheard of in the Championship, with Bournemouth and Norwich the only teams who have this in their system. Given its rarity, teams are often caught out by these moments as they don’t know how to deal with such movements by the full-back and often leads to the shape becoming disorganized.
Often he came inside to support the midfield battle, which dragged the man-marking Adomah inside with him. From this they could easily create 1v1 situations between Pugh and the opposition right-back, Nsue. The movement was mainly to either offer support in the midfield battle in which he would come inside but not necessarily move higher upfield, from here he could potentially create numerical advantages. The other main alternative was threatening runs in the half space, which Middlesbrough found difficult to cover as the players seemingly didn’t understand who should track him, leading to him having a bit of a ‘head start’ against his defender. Meanwhile, Pugh would sit deeper on the touchline to further draw out the full-back and increase the space he left behind.
Unlike a lot of teams in the Championship, Bournemouth work well to stop their wide possession from becoming isolated from the centre of the pitch. The two players key to this are the central midfielders, who shift well to the flank and take up good positions deeper to receive the ball and attack the often open centre. In these situations, both are usually deeper than the ball but Arter situationally moved ahead as he does in most games for the Cherries. Because of this, despite their focus on the left side at times, the side definitely don’t lack versatility in the spaces they can move the ball into which cannot be said for a few wing-focused teams in the league, and this was the case for Middlesbrough in their loss.
Middlesbrough Wing Orientation
In possession, Middlesbrough looked to have a considerable focus on attacking down either touchline through wide players Reach and Adomah. This seems to be a part of their strategy to exploit Bournemouth’s defensive weaknesses, as they have had numerous issues in defending deliveries from wide areas however it proved to be little benefit in this game. Because of this focus on wide attacks, I feel they wasted the central talents which Tomlin has to offer, with his excellent dribbling in compact areas, whilst in wide areas he maintained a central position and such attacks were quite disconnected and more easily pressed against than the wide possession of Bournemouth.
In addition to Bournemouth’s weakness in defending crosses, these wide attacks possibly could have served to exploit the expansive shape of the home side, which is particularly so in wide areas. Especially in the opening third of the game, Middlesbrough looked to attack often on the counter-attack in these areas, reinforcing the idea of their attempts to attack focusing on Bournemouth’s weaknesses, as they are at times unstable in their defensive transition.
One way in which Middlesbrough attempted to use the wide attacks, was through long diagonal passes in the air to either flank from central positions. Although they had the players capable of this, with Clayton in particular a very good passer of the ball, it proved ineffective. Given the time it takes for the ball to reach its target, Bournemouth quite comfortably could shift across and press the recipient nearly immediately following him receiving the ball.
You can compare that well to Bournemouth’s switching of possession which involves normally both central midfielders with shorter passing. This is much more difficult to judge in contrast to the one long pass, whilst offers versatility as when a long pass has been made, there is nothing to change its destination, whereas a different direction of pass can be played after the initial ball when making a combination of passes to switch the play, meaning that it is unpredictable for the opposition.
Both teams pressed quite intensely, as Middlesbrough looked to disrupt Bournemouth’s possession-based style of play, whilst such pressure is a key aspect of Bournemouth’s defensive organisation. Either side were also using man-marking in their pressing, with Bournemouth more strictly so than Middlesbrough, this is commonplace in English football and more so in the Championship.
Bournemouth caused Karanka’s side many issues in their 1st phase of possession, as they regained the ball high up on a consistent basis, especially in the first 45 minutes. This was down to the previously mentioned poor midfield, both tactically and technically, which the intense front 4 of Bournemouth worked very well to cause a number of counter-attacking opportunities from inside the opposition half.
On the other hand, the home side dealt with Middlesbrough’s pressing to a much better extent. With their focus of developing possession down the left hand side, they could more easily develop numerical superiority around the ball which reduced the ability of the pressing quite considerably. This often involved the near centre-back, and at times both central midfielders along with Pugh and Daniels, with Wilson making movements into the space which Nsue left at times to follow Pugh upfield. One of the best aspects of Bournemouth in possession is their combination play, and such numerical superiorities allowed them to utilise this feature well to bypass the pressure which would otherwise stop the majority of Championship teams who don’t possess this ability on the ball.
Howe’s Bournemouth fully deserved to retain their position at the top of the Championship table after a strong win over promotion contenders, the result has further made the race for the top 2 positions even more interesting. From a neutral’s perspective it was an interesting game to watch, as a clash between two of the tactically most intriguing teams of the league, for contrasting reasons also. Bournemouth’s great possession game prevailed although the performance was definitely unlike performances from Middlesbrough that followers of the league have become accustomed to throughout the season.