JONATHAN WOODGATE is ready to recall a number of his young players for this evening’s crucial home game with Leeds United, but the embattled Middlesbrough boss continues to stand by his controversial decision to shuffle them to the sidelines in recent weeks.

The pressure is mounting after a run of eight successive games without a victory, with back-to-back defeats to Luton Town and Barnsley meaning Boro head into tonight’s match just three points clear of the relegation zone.

Woodgate’s position has been called into question on social media in recent days, with his reluctance to field some of his youngsters having been cited as a key black mark against him. Djed Spence was omitted from the matchday squad at Barnsley despite having been one of his side’s best performers for the majority of the season, Marcus Tavernier has not featured in either of the last two games and Hayden Coulson was restricted to an 11-minute substitute spell as Boro lost to one of their key relegation rivals at Oakwell.

Woodgate is set to shuffle his pack again this evening, but insists there are explanations for all of his recent calls. Spence’s absence four days ago is understood to have been a disciplinary decision, with Woodgate having been unhappy at aspects of the wing-back’s conduct and attitude.

“People need to realise that when you get to a certain level, you can’t drop below those standards,” said the Boro boss, who made his name as a player with Leeds before going on to enjoy further success at Newcastle, Tottenham and Real Madrid. “You have to keep pushing yourself to be the best you can be.

“That’s what I want for the team. Everyone has to keep on pushing, and if someone doesn’t push, there’ll be consequences. Clayts found himself out of the squad, so it’s not just Djed, but no one asked me about Adam Clayton when he was left out of the squad.

“I’ve dealt with things on numerous occasions. Marcus Browne was left out of the squad, but no one asked me then. I wasn’t asked about Browne or (Marc) Bola, but you leave Djed out of the squad and everyone is asking questions. It happens. If people lower their standards, then they’ll find themselves out of the squad.”

When it comes to Tavernier, Woodgate’s decision to take the 20-year-old out of the firing line has been based purely on form. Having enjoyed a successful autumn and new year period, Woodgate feels Tavernier’s form has dipped in the last month or so, with his workload having been identified as a potential factor in the decline.

The arrival of Ravel Morrison has given Woodgate an alternative attacking-midfield option, although Tavernier’s thrusting runs were missed at the weekend and there is a good chance he will be back in the fold tonight.

“I think Tav went through a bit of a sticky patch, and because you are a young player, everyone looks at you and says, ‘Get him in the team’,” said Woodgate. “I said at my first press conference I want to get young players in, and I still want to do that.

“But if they have a little dip in form, people look at it and say, ‘That’s why we are getting beat – because Tav’s not playing’. No one has said we are getting beat because Adam Clayton isn’t playing, but look at the four games we played and won (over Christmas). Who played centre midfield? Adam Clayton and George Saville.”

That pairing could be restored tonight, with Woodgate fully aware of the importance of a meeting with a Leeds side that have put their promotion push back on track after a rocky spell. Marcelo Bielsa’s side have won their last two games without conceding a goal, and thrashed Boro 4-0 at Elland Road in November.

“Leeds are an exceptional team, and they’ve proved that for most of the season, but I believe we can beat them,” said Woodgate. “I know some of our fans don’t, but I think we can and my players think we can, so why can’t we? We’ve done okay against the bigger teams.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 3-4-3): Pears; Howson, Shotton, Friend; Spence, Clayton, Saville, Coulson; Tavernier, Fletcher, Morrison.