Behind Enemy Lines: Middlesbrough

MILLWALL were beaten for the first time this season at Fulham on Wednesday night.

The Championship new boys – relegated from the Premier League last season – showed why many feel they will be near the top this season.

It was by far and away Millwall's toughest test of the season so far, and one which they will want to put behind them as quickly as possible and move on.

In a further blow to Neil Harris, Jiri Skalak went off injured meaning the Lions could be without two wingers this weekend with Jed Wallace suspended.

The Lions are again on the road this weekend – facing their furthest away trip of the season. They head north to face Middlesbrough who got their first win of the season against Wigan on Tuesday night.

Alex Grace spoke to Middlesbrough fan Dana Malt from The Boro Breakdown Podcast this week.

Twitter: @Boro_Breakdown

Why do you support Middlesbrough?

It's a family thing. My older sister was a massive Boro fan and then she fell out of love with football, so I suppose I just picked up the baton.

It perfectly aligned with the type of kid I was – I was never a 'girly girl' and the type of things that stereotype entails just didn't interest me.

I got into playing football with my classmates in primary school and it was just natural that I progressed into going to the games.

What has been your favourite season following Boro?

I got my first season card in the season we were relegated under Gareth Southgate, so admittedly there hasn't been an awful lot of peaks.

For me, though, the 2014-15 season is one looked back on with nothing but fond memories.

I took it for granted at the time, but Boro were fantastic to watch. That was the campaign where things really blossomed under Aitor Karanka, and he created a team to be proud of.

Teesside became disconnected from its football club in what I call the dark ages of Gordon Strachan, and the subsequent downfall of club legend Tony Mowbray. Karanka brought people back, he got the town invested again.

Taking Liverpool all the way to a seemingly never-ending 14-13 penalty shoot-out in the third round of the League Cup, beating Premier League champions Manchester City on their own soil, ending several hoodoos and finishing the year at Wembley. It was a season of highs and lows – but one I thoroughly enjoyed.

And the worst?

Last season under Tony Pulis. The football became monotonous and predictable and, in turn, the fans became empathetic. The match-day excitement was zapped from our systems and it should never get to the point where fans don't care anymore.

What have you made of Boro's start?

It's been a mixed start for us, which is what I expected. We've rather coughed and spluttered in the last two-and-a-half league games after a promising opener against Luton and impressive first half against Brentford. This is a team that is used to nothing but defence first, so for Jonathan Woodgate to coach that out of them will take time.

In flashes we've looked more potent going forward, but the decision-making in the final third needs fine-tuning before we can say we've made real progress.

The defence has suffered slightly as a result of the new attacking approach, but I would expect Woodgate, a top centre-half in his day, to iron that out once he sharpens the tools up front.

Woodgate was appointed in the summer, what are your thoughts on him?

Woodgate wasn't initially my first choice, but it became more and more apparent as weeks went by that it was his job to lose.

Boro have tended to overpay for ageing players and will no longer receive parachute payments, so the intention from the hierarchy was to essentially buy for potential and integrate the academy – a route Woodgate is familiar with having been a scout at Liverpool and an assistant with our under-18s.

I like him, he's frank but he seems to have that balance between honesty and good man management. He needs time to build at Boro – and I hope he gets it.

What are your expectations for the season?

Mid-table. It's too soon to expect us to be gunning for promotion. A new manager and a new system requires time, trust and patience. I firmly believe we will get there, but this is a transitional season – I want to see progress, and underlying positives to take further into the rebuild.

Do you think you can achieve it?

Yes, I think that's where we are now. Our squad is thin and we're playing a high press style of play. Once injuries, suspensions and fatigue come into play, form will start to turn sour. If it all goes rosy, we could have a late push at the play-offs, but I'm not holding my breath.

Jed Wallace was a transfer target for Boro last January

Former Millwall midfielder George Saville hasn't start in the league yet – what's the situation there?

The Saville situation is a strange one – it's been almost 12 months and Boro fans are still left with more questions than answers. We've been unable to see exactly what type of midfielder he is and exactly what he offered at Millwall.

I've always maintained the stance that he'll come good, but with Paddy McNair and Lewis Wing ahead of him in the pecking order it's important that when he does get his chance, he takes it.

He didn't play because he didn't suit Tony Pulis's prehistoric football. Any player with an attacking bone in their body (with the exception of Adama Traore) were thwarted under his defensive approach and Saville was an unfortunate victim of that.

But under a more attacking, forward-thinking brand of football he should surely show the Middlesbrough faithful why the club paid the fee they did for him.

I don't think his chance is too far away. Fatigue will play a part for Boro this season and that's when he'll not only have to step up, but ensure that he makes that starting spot his own.

What have you made of Millwall's summer business?

Millwall are always a difficult team to face – we've choked under the pressure of facing them a few times, so we'll have to match them physically otherwise we could be in for a long afternoon.

I chuckled when I saw they had signed 6ft6 Matt Smith – a very Millwall-esque signing! But he will be a handful even for the brick wall that is Daniel Ayala.

Connor Mahoney is a fantastic signing, he was heavily linked with a move to Middlesbrough before his transfer to Bournemouth. He will no doubt be a threat against us on Saturday, and I'll be keeping an eye on your play down that flank.

What are your thoughts on Millwall boss Neil Harris?

A fantastic servant to your club both on and off the pitch, he's done well to implement the feisty Millwall way that we've come to know over the years.

I can't help but feel, though, that if you want to take the next step it could be time for a fresh face in the dugout. It reminds me of when Boro had club icon Tony Mowbray, not in terms of style of play of course, but that Mowbray laid the foundations for future success, but he couldn't quite get there himself.

In the end, his departure was what enabled Boro to kick on.

If you could sign one Millwall player who would it be and why?

Jed Wallace. I remember we were circling around him when we signed George Saville. We needed a winger then, and we still need one now. A potent threat on the wing, he's quick, direct and hard-working. He ticks a lot of boxes of the type of player Jonathan Woodgate is looking for.

Will you be at the game on Saturday?

I will, yes

What is your predicted Middlesbrough starting XI and formation?

4-3-3: Randolph; Bola, Ayala, Shotton, Howson; Clayton, Wing, McNair; Fletcher, Assomablonga, Johnson.

Finally, a score prediction?

 If we were at The Den I'd be a lot less confident, but given that we're aiming for two successive victories to get things up and running I'm going for 2-0 Boro, with Paddy McNair and Britt Assombalonga scoring.

Graphic: @ShedCreative