Birmingham City 1-2 Middlesbrough Player Ratings: Wing stars

Britt Assombalonga – bbc.co.uk

A sturdy defensive display and a late goal from Britt Assombalonga’s gave Championship promotion contenders Middlesbrough a 2-1 victory at Birmingham City on Saturday. Here’s our Player Ratings from the game.

Birmingham City

Lee Camp – the seasoned stopper had been enjoying something of a resurgence in recent weeks, but unfortunately he takes some responsibility for Middlesbrough’s winner. He was very slow to close down Assombalonga, meaning that when he finally did, the striker was in complete control of the situation. 4

Maxime Colin – the Frenchman moved back to his usual position of right-back but, ironically, it could be argued that his better performances of late have come at left-back, when he drifted infield. When playing on the left, he has more passing options with which to utilize his excellent right foot; here, and especially when Jota drifted in field, he was asked to attack the flank with raw pace which is not quite his game. 5
Michael Morrison – this was not quite the type of game to highlight Morrison’s undoubted strengths in the air, but rather one to show his weaknesses. The centre-back can be limited in terms of distribution; there were times in the first half when that was problematic due to the way the opposition set up. The way both goals came about, also shows that Birmingham do not see the best of him when he is running back towards his own goal. 4
Harlee Dean – the former Brentford man is quicker than Morrison and while that strength helped him at certain points, it also lulled him into a false sense of security on occasions; he was guilty of closing down too far up the pitch in the lead-up to the opening goal. The fact Blues permitted at least three clear cut chances to a cautious side would suggest something was not quite right defensively. 4
Kristian Pedersen – the Fin’s commitment could not be questioned, because it took immense courage to make two goal-line blocks in the space of a few first half seconds to keep Middlesbrough out with the score goalless. In the second half though, Pedersen found himself in more space than Birmingham’s attacking quartet and that’s perhaps where they could have done with his ability to drive forward and power a shot from range. 5

Jota – the Spaniard’s influence was entirely nullified in the first half due to the shortage of space in central areas. As play stretched in the second half, he started to find more gaps between the lines and was influential for a half-hour spell after moving into more of a central role, contributing to the equalizer. For a player that should be Birmingham’s main creative outlet however, one cannot help but be left wanting that bit more – but that’s partly because we know just how good he can be. 6
Gary Gardner – the Aston Villa loanee normally brings battling qualities to Blues’ midfield, but they were less relevant against a side that packed the defensive third with 10 men. This was a disappointing performance from Gardner, whose lack of care in possession was highlighted by a pass completion rate of only 42%, prior to being taken off at half-time. 4
Maikel Kieftenbeld – the Dutch destroyer delivered a typically driven display. He brings unrelenting energy to the midfield and the tenacity he showed in the second half, as well as his ability to shift the ball quickly and accurately, was central to Blues’ attempts to claw their way back into the contest. One of the best ball-winners in the Championship. 8
Jacques Maghoma – now midway through his fourth season in B9, Maghoma has always brought pace to Birmingham’s team and that was on offer in parts of the second half. However, as a right-footed player operating on the left, it was difficult for him when there was no space on the inside, which is partly why he hesitated on a few occasions when he might have taken on Fry. When that happens, the former Burton man might be better off moving to the right, where he can attack the flank on the outside, but the problem is Jota couldn’t play on the left. 5

Lukas Jutkiewicz – before Adams’ goal, the target man provided the two biggest tests for Randolph, with a second half header that was accurate if lacking power then a free-kick that stung the Irishman’s palms. Although Jutkiewicz won nine aerial duels, only three were won in the final third, which would suggest that he struggled at times to be quite as influential in terms of creating chances as he has been in other games this season. 5
Che Adams – the Sheffield United academy graduate has been in outstanding form, scoring 12 goals in his last 20 games after swerving for a sweet, instinctive strike to equalize here. Normally, Adams is crucial to the team’s performance due to his pace, power and willingness to run the channels, but here he found space in behind hard to come back and that’s why, goal aside, he was not quite at his blistering best. 6

Craig Gardner (on 45) – his dedication and work rate could not be questioned, but Boro did play one or two passes in behind the midfield that Gardner might have cut out if he had Kieftenbeld’s pace. One or two small imperfections like that could be forgiven if he was very accomplished in possession, but we have long accepted that he’s not a technician. Although an icon for the club, his current value at Championship level is debateable. 5
Isaac Vassell (on 80) – as much as the idea of bringing on a third striker for Kieftenbeld just after the equalizer might have seemed exciting in the emotion of the moment, in practice it possibly de-stabilized the general setup and might have been a factor behind the space Boro had for their winner. 5

Middlesbrough

Darren Randolph – the Irish goalkeeper, who was popular during his stint at St Andrews, had an afternoon that could not quite be described as quiet, due to the constant possibility of an effort at goal, but ultimately he only faced four shots on target. He saved well from Jutkiewicz’s second half free-kick and could not have done too much about Adams’ goal. 6

Dael Fry – the academy graduate is highly-rated for his ball-playing qualities as a centre-back, but has recently been shifted to right-back. There, he was unable to replicate the long throws of the injured Ryan Shotton, but also offered a bit more quality in possession, as we saw for the first goal when he produced an excellent low cross. 8
Daniel Ayala – once regarded as one of the best centre-backs in the Championship, the Spaniard has been hindered by injuries at times in recent seasons but was back to his dominant best here. Rarely let Jutkiewicz get the better of him in those advanced areas. 7
Danny Batth – with question marks over Aden Flint’s fitness, Tony Pulis sees Batth as the most reliable available centre-back partner to Ayala and the former Wolves man’s performance in B9 vindicates that viewpoint. Batth’s distribution might not have been the best, but he completed all three of his tackles. 7
George Friend – the Boro stalwart has been one of the most consistent left-backs in the Championship for some time. Although he didn’t have the pace to attack the flank directly, he does have the intelligence to combine in tight areas and make inward runs; one of the downsides to Boro’s set-up meant we did not see that too often, although once Blues equalized, Friend benefited from the change in outlook. 6

Mohamed Besic – Boro’s Bosnian ball-winner won plenty of plaudits for his aggressive displays in the second half of last season, but has not quite been able to replicate that form since re-joining in late August and this was a disappointing display from the midfielder, who was the first visiting player to be withdrawn. 5
Adam Clayton – this blog has previously criticized the experienced midfielder on one or two attributes – and those doubts are not eradicated on one performance – but perhaps this is an opportunity to fully appreciate his shrewd defensive positioning. Whenever Birmingham attacked, he always tried to gain ground on the ball whilst keeping himself somewhere between the opposing strikers and their most-advanced midfielder. That way, he was always in pole position to do any piece of defensive work that the centre-backs were unable to, making him a central part of the impressive work Boro do without the ball. 8

Jonny Howson – the all-action midfielder brought plenty of leadership qualities, having captained Leeds and Norwich in his career and showed a willingness to influence more than one phase of play. He doesn’t quite have the legs to do so at the pace he used to be able to, but got through selfless work to protect Fry from Maghoma and, as we saw in the build-up to the first goal, he played a nice pass down the right channel for Fry. 6
Lewis Wing – the academy graduate, who gained positive reviews from his loan spell at Yeovil last season, should never have been dropped from Boro’s first XI but had to spend time on the fringes after Besic’s arrival. It’s only now that he’s starting to show he can bring energy and quality at Championship level; not only did he dig in as Tony Pulis demands, he displayed fine movement to score the opener, before picking an inch-perfect pass for the winner. 8
George Saville – the midfielder impressed at Millwall for his energy off the ball, composure on it and ability to make well-timed runs into the box, but was operating wide left for Boro on this occasion. In some ways, that limits one or two of Saville’s main qualities, but in fairness to him he still followed Pulis’ defensive instructions to the letter and also broke into forward areas on occasions, including a good decoy run to the near-post that led to Wing’s goal. 6

Jordan Hugill – as a Teessider by berth, Hugill already had a natural affinity with supporters but it helps that he has an excellent work rate, too. Hugill showed a willingness to press the opposition goalkeeper for the whole 70 minutes he was on the pitch, acting as a trigger for Boro’s press which helped take some of the workload off the defenders. Despite not being particularly tall, he has a good spring on him and can be pleased with a selfless afternoon’s work. 7

Stewart Downing (on 69) – the wide midfielder, who came through Boro’s academy 18 years ago, can produce a fine standard of deliveries but we did not see too much of that in his time on the pitch due to the nature of the contest. 5
Britt Assombalonga (on 70) – the front-man bagged a brace in last week’s 5-0 victory over Peterborough, so it was unsurprising that he looked confident when played through on goal, dinking the goalkeeper with expertise. Although not quite as quick as he used to be, Assombalonga still presses intelligently and remains a serious threat at this level. 7
Paddy McNair (on 87) – in some ways, it was easier for McNair playing for Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal, because he had the freedom to carry the ball out of defence. Pulis though is a different tactician and thus it is unsurprising that he has found it harder to show his full range of capabilities. 5