While most of us are still celebrating the fantastic performance against Crystal Palace last week, we must now address the challenges of our next away game against Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium.
Despite their problematic position in the table, Middlesbrough is quite a different entity to the Crystal Palace team which we faced last week. While Boro have found problems with goal scoring this season, they boast a fairly impressive defensive record (22 goals conceded) for a team placed only four points above the relegation zone.
They are a club with a very experienced and extensive management group under the leadership of Aitor Karanka, and have a number of impressive players, including Alvaro Negrado, Grant Leadbitter and former West Ham favourite Stewart Downing.
Our fabulous win last week was largely due to some of the changes that Slaven Bilic made at half-time, the most prominent being a change to a 4-4-2 formation having played with three at the back and Andy Carroll as a sole striker in the first period.
After such an emphatic second half performance, I suggest that we try our best to repeat what we did so well.
In doing so, I favour starting with a modified 4-4-2 formation (below), with Mark Noble sitting slightly behind Pedro Obiang in the midfield holding positions and Manuel Lanzini pushed up further a little to the right of Sofiane Feghouli in the attacking midfield positions.
These slight changes in the positional angles of the four midfielders are designed to encourage incisive diagonal passing, which proved so lethal against Palace. By contrast, placing the midfielders into more static square formations tends to encourage too much right-angled and vertical passing. I feel this has been one of our major problems for much of the season.
The choice of two strikers working in tandem, together with an attacking midfield playmaker just behind, was also instrumental in maintaining a constant menace on Palace’s goal.
I have chosen to start with a back four, with both full-backs pushed up somewhat further than normal, in close proximity to the holding midfielders. This tends to encourage effective counter-attacking with both full-backs keen to attack down their respective flanks.
The starting players are much the same to those who were employed so effectively last week. Randolph should start in goal with Cresswell, Ogbonna, Reid and Byram starting at the back.
Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble should start the game in the rear of midfield, with Lanzini and Feghouli playing in familiar roles as attacking midfielders.
Although capable of playing effectively as an outright winger, I have suggested retaining Michail Antonio in the role of striker, which he seems to be adjusting to with increasing comfort and effectiveness. In addition to his collection of headed goals, there has been recent evidence to demonstrate his willingness to use either foot to add to his impressive goal tally.
On the basis of his last performance, Andy Carroll is the obvious choice to partner Antonio up front.
That said, in Bilic’s position, I would issue some specific functions to a number of our more dynamic and creative players.
I’d like to see Antonio remaining in the upper third of the park as much as possible; this is where he is most effective and surely we have learnt by now that he is not a natural defender.
In addition, he should feel free to drift out to the sort of wider positions similar to those leading up to Andy Carroll’s goal. By moving quickly into a wider position he will drag central defenders out of their natural positions, allowing our other attacking players a little more time to set up for an effective strike on goal.
Manuel Lanzini should ideally stay in a fairly advanced central position in order to explore the best way in which to ignite an attacking move.
We should expect to see Aaron Cresswell continue his frequent overlapping moves from out wide, but also encourage some central incisive moves as well. The same should apply for Sam Byram, who showed a real keenness to apply the same sort of attacks down the right flank. Sofiane Feghouli showed some real flair in dribbling and should be encouraged to move centrally on occasion, in addition to his duties out on the right flank.
Pedro Obiang had a sparkling game last week, demonstrating his capacity to move forward with the ball, in addition to his superb tackling and accurate long passes. Likewise, Mark Noble is noted for his strong shooting, but in order to preserve his energy, I would prefer to see him remain in a fairly central midfield position.
Ogbonna and Reid should strive to get forward for set positions, although they will have their work cut out in their normal defensive roles. As always, we should look to settle quickly into a nice rhythmic passing pattern, and try and grab the all-important goals within the first 30 minutes.
Another fine performance could give us the much needed confidence to launch on a long run of successful results for the rest of this season, with the hope of setting up a very positive template for a strong position next season.