Sheffield Wednesday 1-2 Middlesbrough Six Things: are Boro worthy leaders?

Mo Besic celebrates the opener –

Middlesbrough have gone top of the Championship at least temporarily thanks to a 2-1 victory at Sheffield Wednesday. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Even contest

Neither side established clear superiority in the first half. The fact that holding midfielder Adam Clayton started for Middlesbrough, as well as three centre-backs, highlights that denying space in their own half was their primary focus. The creative burden was thus carried almost entirely by Stewart Downing, who put in one or two accurate deliveries and threatened from set pieces. For spells, Wednesday looked nervy due to a combination of Daniel Ayala and Aden Flint’s  presence in their box and Cameron Dawson’s indecision, but the visitors didn’t fashion too many chances.

Bannan key for Wednesday

For Sheffield Wednesday, the night was about facing Middlesbrough’s aggression and having the composure to play their way through the press. Barry Bannan was a useful creative outlet early on – the Scot’s dinked cross early on saw Adam Reach head narrowly over. However, opportunities for Steven Fletcher and Lucas Joao to link up were rare and while highly-rated youngster Matt Penney was not short of exuberance, he was reluctant to hit the byline. Because neither side had much pace up top, play became condensed in the middle third.

Besic’s breakthrough

Middlesbrough’s build-up play from the back had looked laboured, so they were more likely to score after stealing the ball from the opposition and so it proved early in the second half. Left-back by-trade Jordan Thorniley, understandably, misjudged a long ball that Britt Assombalonga battled for, allowing Downing won possession to feed the overlapping Jonny Howson on the right channel. With Michael Hector out of the picture, Howson played in Muhamed Besic, who guided the ball away from Tom Lees before finishing with the expertise of a striker. It was a difficult night for Lees, who when given no options in possession, played an ill-judged ball that Assombalonga pounced on, before completing a one-two with the energetic Besic to tap home.

Nuhiu’s impact

For the first hour, three Boro centre-backs had had to deal with only Steven Fletcher in aerial duels but once Atdhe Nuhiu replaced an off-colour Joao, the threat became more diverse and thus Boro’s defensive unit stepped off. That became hugely advantageous; when Bannan’s free-kick was initially half-dealt with, the ball fell to Adam Reach, who volleyed sweetly into the far corner. Reach, who has scored stunning strikes against Leeds and West Brom in recent weeks, added to his collection of belters against his boyhood club. This one though proved in vain, as Boro survived a late goal-line scramble.

Luhukay’s tinkering

Jos Luhukay has done impressive work at Sheffield Wednesday; it should not be forgotten that the club was in a precarious position back in January and the fact they are currently in the play-off picture is a credit to the Dutchman’s work. However, Luhukay does have a tendency to tinker with his teams and while individuals should be held accountable for errors, one wonders whether, on this occasion, his tinkering might have interfered slightly with the fluidity of Wednesday’s performance.

Boro’s room for improvement

Middlesbrough’s disciplined, opportunistic performance merited the three points, which saw them go top ahead of Saturday’s fixtures, but it didn’t imply a side set to strengthen that grip. They scored a large proportion of their goals in August through set piece proficiency, then more recently they have started posing a threat in transition. Relying so much on those types of threats though makes them, perhaps, easier to handle than a side capable of opening up an opponent through sustained spells of possession. If they are to remain at the top, they need to find other strings to their bow.