Sheffield United: Fussy and seemingly intent on over-elaborating, The Blades are beaten by Neil Warnock's Middlesbrough
The pre-match conversation had revolved around the mutual respect which exists between the rival managers and the queues on petrol station forecourts, as journalists from one of the competition’s rights holders attempted to ride the social media zeitgeist.
There was no shortage of talking points or subjects for discussion afterwards, as Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough inflicted a surprise defeat on his former club Sheffield United courtesy of strikes from Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair.
Warnock, who spent seven-and-a-half largely successful seasons at Bramall Lane before departing 14 years ago, was understandably delighted with the result. Not least, thanks to the hosts’ disappointing start to the Championship campaign, because his position has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks.
Across the technical area, Slavisa Jokanovic cut a much more frustrated figure than his famous predecessor. Arriving on Teesside unbeaten in five, United were supposedly making progress in their push for promotion. But this was regression as, for reasons the Serb clearly found difficult to fathom, they reverted to the careless, wasteful and ineffective football which saw them fail to win any of their opening five under his tutelage. A late attempt from substitute David McGoldrick apart, United seemed intent on over-elaborating when opportunities appeared set to present themselves too.
Whether they were lured into it or simply failed to follow orders, the strategy the visitors adopted played straight into Middlesbrough’s hands.
Watmore’s performances this season have been emblematic of the malaise supposedly surrounding a Middlesbrough team which entered the match hoping to avoid a fourth defeat in five games. But he sprung to life in the ninth minute of a contest; lifting the ball over a despairing Robin Olsen after combining with Marc Bola. The decisive nature of the finish contrasted sharply with the hosts’ work during the opening stages of the contest. And, much to Jokanovic’s obvious annoyance, the work United produced directly afterwards although Iliman Ndiaye did produce a delightful piece of skill to pluck George Baldock’s pass out of the air before hitting the near post with an angled shot following a cheeky ‘show and go’.
It proved to be a rare moment of quality in an otherwise ragged first-half performance, as McNair doubled Middlesbrough’s lead in the 37th minute. Andraz Sporar and Matt Crooks worked the ball into United’s area and, after being teed-up by the latter, the Northern Ireland international drilled a low drive beyond Olsen. Those supposedly tasked with protecting the Swede appeared dishevelled, disoriented and seemingly unable to win any second balls.
A change of personnel and shape during the half-time interval, with McGoldrick replacing Oliver Norwood as he returned from injury, was designed to shake United out of the stupor which had handed Middlesbrough control of the fixture.
It worked. But only to limited effect, with United failing to trouble Olsen’s opposite number Joe Lumley until the closing stages when McGoldrick’s attempt from range forced him to produce an acrobatic save.
Middlesbrough: Lumley, Fry, Tavernier, Sporar (Ikpeazu 73), Peltier, Howson, McNair, Watmore (Olusanya 77), Bamba, Crooks, Bola. Not used: Daniels, Hall, Payero, Siliki, Jones.
Sheffield United: Olsen, Baldock, Stevens (Norrington-Davies 67), Egan, Davies, Fleck, Norwood (McGoldrick 46), Osborn, Ndiaye (Hourihane 76), Gibbs-White, Sharp. Not used: Foderingham, Basham, Brewster, McBurnie.
Referee: James Linington (Newport).