NEIL WARNOCK has been appointed as Middlesbrough's new manager for the final eight games of the season.

With only goal difference separating Boro from the drop zone, Steve Gibson has acted decisively by sacking Jonathan Woodgate.

What should Warnock do when he takes his side to Stoke City for their first game?


Middlesbrough’s defence was all over the place in the first half of Saturday’s game, with the centre-half pairing of Ryan Shotton and Dael Fry repeatedly found wanting as the pace and movement of Rhian Brewster and Aldo Kalulu in particular caused a series of problems.

With Daniel Ayala unavailable, Warnock’s centre-half options for his first game are limited, but assuming Harold Mokoudi returns from illness to reclaim a place in the squad this weekend, a return to a formation with three central defenders has to be seriously considered.

Fielding Mokoudi and Fry with either Shotton or George Friend would help shore up the heart of the Boro backline, and at least ensure a solid foundation from which to build the rest of the team. Tightening up at the back has to be the first priority against Stoke, and safety in numbers might be the best option.


While Swansea’s players buzzed here, there and everywhere in Saturday’s first half, Boro’s lack of pace and energy was an obvious problem. Friend and Jonny Howson are reliable professionals, but they hardly provide dynamism or impetus from the full-back positions.

It was only when Djed Spence arrived in the second half that any Boro player started to make the kind of overlapping wide runs that were causing so much damage for Swansea, and for all that the youngster might have his defensive issues, his presence in a wing-back role would at least get the Teessiders onto the front foot.

On the opposite flank, while Hayden Coulson can do a job in a wide-attacking position, his best performances this season have come at wing-back. With Coulson on one flank and Spence on the other, Boro will at least be able to match their opponents for speed and stamina out wide.


Of all Woodgate’s strange selections at the weekend, the decision to start with Rudy Gestede and Lukas Nmecha ahead of Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher was the hardest to fathom. That it then took 69 minutes to introduce Boro’s two leading scorers from the bench merely compounded the sense of bewilderment.

Woodgate clearly had reservations about Assombalonga, and the striker’s fitness is understood to have been something of an issue in the last few weeks. On his day, though, Boro’s record signing is one of the most clinical goalscorers in the Championship. A side that struggles to create chances cannot afford to leave him on the bench - as Warnock will surely conclude.

Fletcher has been one of Boro’s most consistent performers throughout the season, and having scored ten goals in all competitions, the 24-year-old has to be a better bet than Nmecha. Whatever attacking formation Warnock selects at the weekend, Fletcher should be involved.


Given he has been sidelined for almost six months with a hamstring injury, the reluctance to ask too much of Patrick Roberts is understandable. However, with Boro’s league position having become even more grave, the time to remove the cotton wool and unleash the attacking midfielder has arrived.

Roberts is by far the most creative player in the Boro squad – Woodgate claimed his side would not be in a relegation battle had the 23-year-old not been so badly injured – and his second-half cameo was the only bright spot at the weekend.

It is no use bringing him on when Boro are 3-0 down though – this Saturday, Roberts has to start, preferably in a central role behind the frontline where he can best pull the strings and hurt the Stoke defence.


One of the key rule changes in football’s post-lockdown return is the switch from three substitiutes to five. Suddenly, managers have ample opportunity to make radical alterations during a game.

Previously, managers tended to shy away from making any unenforced changes before the interval, largely because it would have left them susceptible to second-half injuries forcing them to finish with ten men.

That is not really an issue with five replacements, so rather than waiting until half-time against Swansea, by which time the game was gone, Woodgate should have turned to his bench as soon as his side were being overrun.

Start slowly against Stoke, and early, decisive action from Warnock should follow.