HAVING spent most of last week trying to sign a couple of new strikers, Neil Warnock might well be instructing his recruitment team to start looking elsewhere this weekend. On the evidence of this chaotic start to the season, the Middlesbrough manager needs to concentrate on improving his defence.

Boro claimed a first home win since Boxing Day and successfully booked a place in the second round of the Carabao Cup as they edged a seven-goal thriller with Shrewsbury Town. Given their failings in front of goal last season, the sight of the Teessiders scoring four goals in a game for the first time since January 2019 was a pleasing one. However, the concession of three goals to League One opposition was alarming, suggesting Warnock desperately needs to make further defensive reinforcements in the next few weeks.

While Daniel Ayala, Ryan Shotton and George Friend have all left since football went into lockdown, only Grant Hall has arrived to bolster the backline. If tonight’s display is anything to go by, he will not be able to shore things up on his own.

There were plenty of positives as Boro got their season off to a winning start, not least via the relentless running of Marvin Johnson, who scored one goal and set up another before the half-time break, and the sharp finishing of Ashley Fletcher, who claimed a goal in either half. With Marcus Tavernier also opening his account for the campaign, Boro looked bright and dangerous when they were on the front foot.

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The less said about their frailties at the other end the better, with Shrewsbury carving out a succession of chances despite not having played a competitive match since March. The visitors’ three goals were all well-worked, but Boro’s offside trap failed on more than one occasion and Shrewsbury’s forwards were afforded far too much time and space in the final third. If the Shrews can cause this kind of trouble, what on earth might Watford be capable of when the Championship resumes on Friday?

A certain amount of ring-rust is inevitable, and the fact tonight’s game was in the League Cup rather than a league fixture means excuses can be made. Nevertheless, for all that there were positive signs, Warnock will not want too many nights like this as the campaign unfolds.

The Boro boss is well aware of the need for further reinforcements – the weakness of the home side’s bench underlined the lack of depth within the current squad – but as he watched on from the technical area last night, barking out instructions at an otherwise silent Riverside, the Boro boss will have been pleased with his side’s resilience, an attribute that was not always in evidence last season.

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Boro have made a nasty habit of losing to lower-league opposition in the League Cup in recent seasons – Crewe Alexandra and Burton Albion are the last two teams to have knocked them out of the competition – and it looked like being a case of more of the same when Shrewsbury opened the scoring with a 13th-minute bolt from the blue yesterday.

In fairness to Boro’s players, there was precious little they could have done about Scott High’s opener, with the Shrews midfielder picking up the ball from Shaun Whalley, shuffling it onto his right foot, and cracking a superb 25-yard strike that arced over Dejan Stojanovic before nestling in the top left-hand corner.

The home side were more at fault a couple of minutes later when Rekeil Pyke nipped ahead of Anfernee Dijksteel to nod Scott Golbourne’s cross narrowly over the crossbar, but for the rest of the first half, it was Boro who became increasingly dominant.

Johnson was the architect of their revival, pouring forward down the left-hand side and claiming a goal and an assist as he maintained the strong form he was displaying towards the end of last season. Even at this stage, the decision to award the 29-year-old a new contract looks an astute one.

Admittedly, there was a large slice of luck to his equaliser, which owed much to a horrendous goalkeeping error from Harry Burgoyne. Johnson’s first-time volley from Lewis Wing’s cross should really have been saved, but while Burgoyne got both hands to the shot, he fumbled the ball into his own body and it rebounded almost apologetically over the line.

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The Shrews keeper tried to atone for his error by clawing the ball to safety, but it had clearly crossed the line and referee Michael Salisbury rightly awarded a goal.

Ten minutes later, and Johnson was turning provider as his slick low cross enabled Fletcher to open his account for the campaign. Johnson got himself into an excellent position as he broke into Shrewsbury’s final third, and having edged ahead of his marker, Fletcher was left with the simple task of steering home a first-time finish from the edge of the six-yard box.

The action was fast and frenetic all night, and Boro claimed a third goal eight minutes after the interval as Burgoyne committed another howler. Having been forced to the right edge of his 18-yard box, the Shrews goalkeeper scuffed a poor clearance straight to Tavernier, who immediately shuffled the ball infield to Wing.

With Burgoyne scrambling back towards his goalmouth, Wing showcased his long-range shooting prowess with a 40-yard effort that struck the base of the left-hand post. Having followed up diligently, Fletcher was able to bundle home the rebound to claim his second goal of the night.

Game over? Not quite. Seven minutes later, and Shrewsbury were threatening a revival as they claimed a second. Assombalonga inadvertently took the ball away from Stojanovic as he flicked a Shrews corner into Jason Cummings’ path, and having moved the ball onto his left foot, the midfielder caressed a fine finish into the corner.

It was like a basketball game with the game careering from end of the pitch to the other, and while both managers will have been impressed with their side’s attacking play, the less said about the standard of the defending on display the better.

A fourth Boro goal arrived in the 65th minute, with Tavernier swooping on a loose ball after Shrewsbury’s defenders failed to clear a free-kick before drilling in a fierce strike that beat Burgoyne via a hefty deflection.

Even that wasn’t that though, with Shrewsbury’s adventurous approach enabling them to make it 4-3 with 17 minutes left. Golbourne pierced a hole in the Boro defence, and Pyke beat the offside trap to slot home.