The Championship headlines this week pictured a familiar face, as veteran manager Neil Warnock took over the hotseat at strugglers Middlesbrough.
The now 71-year-old takes over from Jonathan Woodgate, whose first season in management has not gone according to plan on Teesside. Boro are currently lingering perilously close to the relegation zone, 21st in the table and level points with third bottom, Hull City.
Boro’s opposition on Saturday have themselves benefited from a managerial change this season. Stoke City were rock bottom when Nathan Jones was relieved of managerial duties back in November.
Former Northern Ireland gaffer Michael O’Neill took charge a week later and the club have had somewhat of a revival under his stewardship. Looking at the league since O’Neil’s appointment, Stoke would be sitting ninth, just a point outside the play-off places.
However, their poor start has hampered them dearly. Instead, the Potters sit eighteenth, two points above the drop zone – making this weekends clash with Middlesbrough vital in the relegation battle.
Both teams returned to action failing to find all three points last weekend.
Stoke came away from the Madejski Stadium with the points shared thanks to a 91st minute equaliser from Nick Powell against Reading.
The result means that the Potters have carried on their unbeaten streak from before the Covid-19 interruption. It’s now five games without defeat for O’Neill’s men, their best run of form all season.
As for Boro, Warnock will be keen to end a spell that has seen the visitors pick up just one win in their last fourteen outings in all competitions.
Last time out, Woodgate’s team fell victim to a rampant Swansea side. The Swans found the net three times before halftime at the Riverside, enough to see off a less than ardent Boro performance.
Stoke will be without midfield duo Joe Allen and Jordan Cousins at the weekend. Skipper Ryan Shawcross will also be absent through injury.
Daniel Ayala is unlikely to be fit for Boro, the only fresh injury news for the visitors.
What to Expect
With both sides averaging less than 50% possession this season, it will be interesting to see who dictates the game.
Stoke attempt roughly seventy-six long balls per game, the fourth most in the division and ten more than opposition Middlesbrough. With this in mind, the Potters are likely to dominate in the air.
Their total of thirty aerial duels won per game is somewhat superior to Boro’s twenty-one, which coupled with Stoke’s fourteen goals from set pieces this season may worry Warnock.
On top of this, Warnock has inherited the divisions lowest scorers. With just thirty-seven goals this season, Boro have been less than potent in front of goal.
Stoke’s standout performer this campaign has been central midfielder Sam Clucas. Not only has the former England C international played more minutes than any of his teammates, he is also his clubs’ top scorer.
For Middlesbrough, Neil Warnock’s direct football may meet its match against a aerially dominant Stoke side. Therefore, a strike partnership of 6”1 Ashley Fletcher and 6”4 Rudy Gestede could be something Warnock is dreaming off. The pair have manged just ten goals between them this season, yet the influence of Warnock could have a positive effect.