MIDDLESBROUGH’S relegation worries intensified on Thursday as they crashed to a dramatic 2-1 defeat to fellow strugglers Hull City.

Having won his first game in charge of the club at Stoke City, Neil Warnock was brought to earth with a bump as Mallik Wilks’ stoppage-time strike dumped Boro back to within a point of the bottom three.

Tomorrow’s home game with QPR represents another opportunity to edge away from the drop zone – so what are the key questions Warnock will be wrestling with ahead of his first game in charge at the Riverside?


The decision to drop Ashley Fletcher for Thursday’s game on Humberside was a surprising one. The striker had performed impressively against Stoke, heading home Boro’s opening goal, and Warnock’s formation, with Hayden Coulson and Patrick Roberts playing as out-and-out wingers, appeared to play to his strengths.

If Boro are going to overload the wide positions again tomorrow, there is a strong argument for starting with Fletcher given his aerial prowess. However, even if Warnock tweaks his midfield, Fletcher should probably start anyway given he has been markedly more prolific than Britt Assombalonga since the turn of the year.

Assombalonga scored his first goal since November on Thursday – Fletcher has scored six in his last 13 starts.


Marcus Tavernier has come off the bench in Boro’s last two matches, and has made a positive impact in each, scoring within a minute of his introduction at Stoke and having an effort ruled out for a push at Hull.

Warnock likes him, and has talked about trying to get him into the team, but is it possible to accommodate Tavernier and Patrick Roberts in the same starting side?

If the Boro boss sticks with the formation he fielded at the KCOM, Tavernier could play in the left-sided attacking role that was filled by Hayden Coulson, with Roberts lining up on the opposite flank. Warnock might decide that is too attacking, but having criticised his side’s errant final balls, some sort of change is surely on the cards.


For most of his youth career, Hayden Coulson played as an attacking wide player. Jonathan Woodgate played him there, and Warnock also stationed the 22-year-old in an attacking position against Hull.

However, for all that his youth matches might have seen him positioned high up the field, Coulson’s best performances in Boro’s senior ranks have come as either a full-back or wing-back.

At this stage of his development, the youngster looks better suited to marauding forward from a deep position, and Warnock must be considering moving him back into the backline. Marvin Johnson struggled on Thursday night, and while he is yet to prove his defensive capabilities against top-class attacking talent, Coulson could be the answer at left-back.


Woodgate switched formation on a number of occasions during his reign, alternating between a flat back four and a system with three centre-halves and wing-backs.

Since taking over on Teesside, both of Warnock’s starting line-ups have featured a flat back four, but Boro’s pre-match warm-up at the KCOM Stadium saw the defensive unit alternate between a four and five, suggesting the new boss is willing to be flexible.

With Harold Moukoudi available, Warnock has the personnel to switch to a five tomorrow, and with his defence having creaked in the closing stages at Hull, it could be a case of ‘safety in numbers’ for the Boro boss. It could also be argued that Djed Spence, Johnson and Coulson are all better playing as wing-backs.


Spence’s return has been one of the bright spots of Warnock’s two games in charge, but the youngster picked up a nasty dead leg that forced him off at the start of the second half at Hull. He has a chance of making it tomorrow, but Warnock will have to come up with a Plan B in case he is absent.

Jonny Howson is the most obvious replacement as the veteran midfielder has spent a big chunk of this season playing at right-back and dropped back into the role in the closing stages at Hull. He is a reliable enough defender, but his lack of pace means he is inevitably a much different proposition to Spence.

Are there any other alternatives? It is hard to think of any like-for-like replacements, although if Warnock was really being bold, could Ravel Morrison play as an attacking wing-back in a system with five at the back?