SOMETIMES, football can be a simple game. Pick your 11 best players, play them in their best positions, then sit back and see what happens. After 40 years in management, Neil Warnock’s first move in a new role is invariably to go back to basics.

It’s not quite that easy of course, and as he reflects on his final moves as Middlesbrough head coach, Jonathan Woodgate will no doubt have his reasons for signing off on the team sheet against Swansea City that rapidly became his managerial death warrant. However, it is surely telling that Warnock’s first team selection since his appointment as Woodgate’s successor could be interpreted as a clear rejection of his predecessor’s muddled thoughts.

If Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga are your two best centre-forwards, play them together up front. If Jonny Howson has spent the vast majority of his career playing at centre-midfield, play him at centre-midfield. If Djed Spence’s emergence has been one of the few bright spots of the season, with the teenager adding some much-needed energy and adventure at right-back, get him into the team on the right of the back four. Round pegs, round holes.

Warnock clearly spent the second half of last week working on some specific tactical tweaks – it was noticeable, for example, that George Friend and Dael Fry dovetailed much more effectively at the heart of the back four on Saturday than either of the pairings trialled by Woodgate in the Swansea game – and in some cases, a change of manager appears to have resulted in a change of mindset. When Warnock pores over the statistical data produced by his technicians this weekend, it will be interesting to see when Assombalonga in particular last willingly covered so much ground.

Ultimately, though, it felt as though Boro’s reawakening at Stoke’s rain-lashed bet365 Stadium was a victory for simple common sense. Take the first goal for example. Patrick Roberts, the best technician in the Boro squad and therefore the best crosser, delivers a teasing free-kick into the area from the right-hand side. Fletcher, the best header in the Boro squad, gets ahead of his marker to glance a deft finish into the bottom corner. Two players, doing what they are good at. Lukas Nmecha crossing for Rudy Gestede, as would have been the case under Woodgate against Swansea, might well have produced a different result.

Fletcher’s opener was Boro’s reward for a bright and industrious opening, and the Teessiders maintained their front-foot approach throughout. Whereas their play had been hesitant and disjointed seven days earlier, here it was immediately noticeable that players were being encouraged to break towards the box. Spence spent much of the afternoon playing as an auxiliary right winger. Paddy McNair, having been shackled under Woodgate, played at the point of a midfield diamond, almost as a ‘number ten’.

True, Boro were indebted to two crucial saves from Dejan Stojanovic. The first, when the scores were level, saw the Macedonian tip James McClean’s first-time volley over the bar. The second, at the start of the second half, saw him block McClean’s shot with his legs. Stoke’s former Sunderland winger also hit the post with a header.

Boro remained the dominant force though, and Marcus Tavernier wrapped things up within a minute of leaving the bench midway through the second half. Picking up the ball on the right, Tavernier spun inside McClean before drilling a fine finish into the corner.

Nick Powell’s late dismissal emphasised Stoke’s unravelling - for Boro, the Warnock era is successfully underway.