Born to Be Wilder: why Middlesbrough can still gatecrash the Championship Promotion Party!

26.01.2022 12:34:12 Craig Simpkin

Chris Wilder is a master at the art of self-promotion.

Not in the sense that he hypes himself up to the hilt, the complete opposite is true, in fact. No, the 54-year-old is instead an expert at getting football teams promoted, and enhancing his own standing in the game in the process.

Rewind to 2008, and Wilder is appointed the manager of Oxford United, who at the time, due to mis-management at board level it should be said, are languishing in the National League.

In less than 18 months, Wilder transforms a team in the doldrums into a winning machine, and by the end of the 2009/10 campaign the U’s are promoted back to the professional ranks via the play-offs.

His next assignment is at Northampton Town, who are in the relegation zone in League Two come January 2014. Not only does Wilder keep the Cobblers up, he then leads them to promotion in his first full season in charge, despite crippling financial woes at the Midlands club.

Boyhood club Sheffield United came calling then, and you probably know the rest. Two promotions in three seasons took the Blades from bottom of League One to the Premier League, and they finished ninth in their first term back in the top-flight….their highest return in 30 years.

Of course, this being football things have a habit of turning sour, Wilder left by mutual consent in March 2021, and six months later he resurfaced at Middlesbrough, with one aim in mind, yet another promotion.

Lo and behold, after barely two months in the job Wilder has guided the Boro to a formline of W6 D2 L2 and the north east outfit are up to eighth….knocking on the door of the play-off places.

So can Wilder sign off yet another season with a promotion party? 

 

Reasons to Be Cheerful

When Wilder took charge at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough were something of a rudderless ship, a team without a clear identity on how they wanted to go about winning football matches.

Their new manager, on the other hand, has a very clear idea on how he likes his sides to play, a philosophy that has carried him from the depths at Oxford to the Promised Land with Sheffield United.

Often there can be a settling in period where a new manager struggles to get his methods across to his new charges, but Boro have hit the ground running under Wilder – in a matter of weeks, they have climbed from fifteenth in the table to a high of sixth. They are now down to eighth following defeat to Blackburn Rovers last time out, a contest which the Expected Goals data suggests they could and should have won comfortably. 

As well as putting points on the board, Wilder has transformed the energy in the dressing room. Defender Dael Fry confirmed to The Guardian that the ‘p’ word is on the tip of the tongue of the players and fans alike. “Everyone’s really excited,” he said. “The atmosphere around the place is absolutely fantastic, everyone’s buzzing, everyone in the town’s talking about promotion.”

When you look at some of the Championship’s rankings, you can see why the Boro look to be an excellent bet for a play-off berth:

  • xG for – 5th
  • Shots on target – 6th
  • Big chances created – 8th
  • xG against – 24th
  • Goals conceded – 4th
  • Clean sheets – 7th
  • Saves per match – 23rd 

As we can see, Middlesbrough are creating plenty of goalscoring chances but they aren’t conceding many at the other end, in fact nobody has relented to fewer quality chances according to the xG numbers. And look at saves made: Joe Lumley is one of least busy goalkeepers in the second tier.

Efficiency at both ends of the pitch is usually an indicator of success to follow, and for the most part Middlesbrough are delivering numbers that hint strongly at a top-six finish.

 

Reasons to Be Fearful

One of the things that advanced statistics like xG and Big Chances tells us is how good a team is at creating goalscoring opportunities. They don’t reveal how effective a team is at putting the ball in the back of the net.

For that, we look to the basic ‘goals for’ column of the league table and in that Boro have been found wanting. Ranking fifth for xG, remember, the Boro sit just fourteenth for goals scored in the Championship thus far.

What does that mean in layman’s terms? Basically, the likes of Matt Crooks, Isaiah Jones and Andraz Sporar are combining to create stacks of chances, but there isn’t a reliable goal-getter in the ranks to put them away.

Further concerns come when we consider that around 30% of Boro’s league goals this term have come from set pieces and penalties. There’s absolutely no harm in being effective at free kicks and corners, but you’d like to see a much higher ratio of goals to come from open play. Bournemouth, for context, have netted 80% of their goals from more ‘sustainable’ open play positions.

Wilder is a modern manager who is a known believer in such statistical waymarkers, and so it’s no surprise that he has brought in Brighton frontman Aaron Connelly on loan. The 21-year-old notched two in two for the Seagulls in the League Cup, is a full Republic of Ireland international and has scored in the Premier League, he could be just the tonic for goal-shy Boro.

The manager will also be wary of Boro’s below par away record. A run of W4 D4 L5 on the road equates to about 1.23 points per game, that’s not going to be enough to retain a top-six tilt. There can be many reasons why a side struggles on their travels, but evidently 11 goals scored in those 13 games is nowhere near enough.

So clearly there are issues that need to be addressed if Middlesbrough are to return to the Premier League, but if nothing else they have a manager in Chris Wilder that is well versed in taking care of business.

 

 

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