By Joshua Healy
As Boro were pegged back by a frustrating late goal to draw at ten-man struggling Wigan on Tuesday night, Jonathan Woodgate may well have been feeling a sense of deja vu.
On paper, the entertaining 2-2 draw may look like a decent point on the road in the battle to avoid relegation from the Championship. Woodgate, however, will be left reeling at dropping points from a winning position – and not for the first time this campaign.
The thrilling, topsy-turvy 3-3 draw with Luton on the opening day of the season has, in hindsight, set a precedent of what has been, thus far, a fairly chaotic season.
Since that balmy, crazy night in August, Boro have gone on to throw leads away on six other occasions, with the latest coming against a fellow relegation candidate. And that’s not including the FA Cup tie with Tottenham at the Riverside.
There was the late drama with Derby, the nightmarish second half collapse to Hull, the Riverside bore draw with Millwall – and the encouraging – but frustrating all the same – draws at QPR and Bristol.
Boro, themselves, may have relied on late goals to earn draws with Birmingham and Blackburn recently – but it doesn’t get away from the fact that game management, or a lack of, is costing Woodgate’s men dear.
In all, an unforgivable 14 points have been thrown away from winning positions this season. Had Boro held their nerve in every one of those games, they would be sitting in the playoffs now, rather than looking over their shoulder, precariously just seven points above the drop zone.
Boro fans had been praying for some excitement after a season devoid of any drama under Tony Pulis – but, as they say, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
Pulis regularly came under criticism for his hesitance in going for the jugular, even if results were largely positive; Woodgate, in equal measure, is under fire for his naivety and his apparent lack of knowledge in closing out games.
The departure of Darren Randolph hasn’t helped in bridging Boro’s leaky defence, nor has the long term injuries to Ryan Shotton and George Friend.
Perhaps the biggest loss is Daniel Ayala, however, who limped off in the 2-0 win at Preston on New Year’s Day. Boro haven’t kept a clean sheet in his absence.
Burnley target Dael Fry ought to be the defensive linchpin, but the Teessider has been guilty of too many costly mistakes of late and that is hardly helpful for Randolph’s young successor Aynsley Pears, who has been thrown in at the deep end without armbands.
He is far from the only guilty party; new boy Harold Moukoudi arguably should have been sent off at Wigan before his calamitous own goal.
And while the loss of personnel and a number of individual errors has hurt Woodgate, it is perhaps the manager’s decision to abandon a winning system that has been the main cause of regrettable recent results.
It is no coincidence that Boro’s best run of the season came during the highly profitable Christmas period when Woodgate persisted with the 5-3-2 formation.
With a frighteningly thin squad, Woodgate made the most of versatile players in Jonny Howson and Paddy McNair, while bringing out the best in youngsters Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson.
But a productive January transfer window in which Boro brought in Ravel Morrison, Patrick Roberts, Lukas Nmecha and Moukoudi gave Woodgate, in his own words, “so many options”.
In order to maximise a plethora of attacking-minded players, Woodgate decided to abandon the 5-3-2 system and in turn, Boro’s fortunes have changed, and not for the better.
The wingback system worked effectively, allowing Boro to stretch the opposition while protecting the three-man defence.
In reshuffling his system to accommodate attacking players, Woodgate has sacrificed the security afforded to him with five at the back.
The only solution, it seems, is reverting to a familiar and winning system, even if that means dropping a big name.
For while Boro have scored four goals in two away games, they have only came away with one point.
While supporters may be happy to see the back of Pulis’ no nonsense, laboured, safe style, even if Boro were battling at the top end of the table, they will not be satisfied with recent results, even if Woodgate is delivering on his promise of “exciting football”.
Steve Gibson, too, will be concerned with the current league standing and if results don’t improve pronto, those missed opportunities to take maximum points and Woodgate’s apparent tactical naivety may well come back to bite him.