Three weeks can be an eternity in football – particularly if you’re a Middlesbrough supporter.
It was just 19 days ago that the Teessiders were preparing to take on Norwich City in a contest of two of the Championship’s most in-form sides.
Despite pre-season predictions of mediocrity, Neil Warnock’s side had enjoyed a 10-match unbeaten run and rather than pushing for the play-offs, it seemed plausible that a challenge for automatic promotion could be on the cards.
But as we all know things can change in the blink of an eye.
Since that 10-match streak came to an end against the Canaries things seem to have all got a little bit messy.
While victories at home against Derby County and Swansea City have given the illusion of a side who have the capabilities to mount a genuine play-off push, the club’s form on the road has been a little bit more concerning.
Middlesbrough’s previously flawless defence record has been ripped up and replaced by that of a team who look leaky at best.
Including the 3-0 defeat against Preston North End on Wednesday evening, Boro have conceded seven goals in their last three away games.
But what’s even more concerning is how poor the club have looked going forward.
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Warnock is renowned for his compact, old-school and efficient style of play that has made him one of the Championship’s most successful ever managers.
His set-up is based on ensuring that a team is hard to beat more often than not, which in turn ensures that a club can grind out enough results to avoid any risk of being dragged into a relegation battle.
Based on Middlesbrough’s season last term fans certainly aren’t complaining with his style of play, but it certainly brings an element of frustration.
The club’s early-season form proved that the Teessiders are capable of mounting a genuine push for the top six under the leadership of Warnock.
But at some point Warnock is going to have to let the shackles off in order to chase three points on a regular basis.
A large part of the supporters’ frustration is around Patrick Roberts.
The attacking midfielder was signed on loan from Manchester City as the solution to Middlesbrough’s creative woes.
Warnock’s side showed last term that they weren’t exactly blessed with natural offensive talent and so the addition of the 23-year-old was seen as the first step to remedying that issue.
Unfortunately he’s barely had a chance.
Since joining the club Roberts has been available for 13 matches.
In that time he’s started three matches, came on a substitute three times and been an unused substitute on seven different occasions – more than half of the games that he’s been available for.
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Warnock has previously explained his lack of game time, telling the Hartlepool Mail: “There are certain games where you look at the opponents and not necessarily think you could get away with it, but just know you could give him an opportunity in the area.
“There’s no point in playing him in an area he’s not comfortable. For example, my lads at the minute, if they’re playing wide, are having to chase full-backs.
“That’s no Patrick’s game really.
“It’s just a matter of trying to get him in the right areas when I put him on or when he plays. He’s training hard enough.”
However to supporters that reasoning is starting to wear thin – particularly when the club aren’t winning games.
Following a run of three defeats in their last four, Middlesbrough have fallen away from the top six and nestled in a mid-table position – something that has given Warnock something of a decision to make regarding the club’s objectives.
Having admitted that Middlesbrough are firm contenders for a top six finish, the head coach must decide what his targets are for the season ahead.
If the reality of the situation is that a safe mid-table position would equate to a good season for Middlesbrough then so be it – I’m sure that after last term and seeing the lack of depth in the squad supporters would understand.
However if Warnock is serious about pushing for the play-offs this term then he needs to empower the club’s main creative force in Roberts and allow him to do what he does best in order to chase games.
It may well be a tactical gamble that might backfire from time to time, but if Middlesbrough are serious about chasing promotion then they’ll need to win games – something that the Manchester City loan star can undoubtedly contribute to.