Football’s a funny old game. No matter how well equipped a team looks for the season ahead they’re always just a handful of bad results away from a crisis.
However, seldom does a side look destined for a spell in the third tier and yet just four months on look like genuine challengers for promotion to the top flight. That’s the position Middlesbrough find themselves in and it’s all down to one man.
When Neil Warnock was drafted into the Riverside in late June, the Teessiders found themselves teetering perilously above the Championship drop zone.
The summer prior Boro had embarked on an ambitious appointment when rookie boss Jonathan Woodgate was afforded a foothold in the management game, though the move backfired and Boro had won just one of their previous 12 games by the time the Warnock panic button was pressed.
Four wins from the remaining eight games saw Boro safe - but in truth we shouldn’t really be too impressed by that at this point, that’s just what Warnock does, right? Plays boring football and scrapes points. Hardly the stuff every football fan dreams of.
Well, you might not be impressed by that, but you should certainly be impressed by the Boro that have emerged for the 2020/21 campaign.
In this most unprecedented of football calendar years, with less than two months between the two seasons Warnock has transformed Middlesbrough's squad from a group of lethargic, unimaginative, error-strewn individuals, into a team of energetic, creative, well-drilled players.
Since a narrow opening day defeat to promotion favourites Watford, the Teessiders are unbeaten in seven, conceding just five goals all season.
So what’s he done that Woodgate couldn’t? How has a team that made just four summer additions gone from relegation material to genuine contenders?
When Middlesbrough’s official Twitter account tweeted a picture of the Boro boss handing a birthday cake to Anfernee Dijksteel prior to the clash with Coventry – both with smiles as wide as the River Tees – many will have been left scratching their heads. Where’s this no-nonsense tyrant we’ve been told about? This guy doesn’t look like the fella we’ve seen in those funny videos screaming at his team at half-time?
Of course, Warnock isn’t afraid to express his ‘dissatisfaction’ at a player where necessary – his touchline displays are testament to that – but his ability to put an arm round a player and build confidence is unrivalled, and his man management has played a huge role in Boro's progression.
Take the aforementioned Dijksteel for example (or Virgil van Dijksteel as he now known on Teesside). Under Woodgate he looked a shambles, being stuck out at right-back and told to sink or swim in his first season in the second tier.
However, Warnock clearly recognised his physical attributes and potential, opting to play him on the right of a back three where he would have more support, and under a manager who trusts him and has clearly instilled confidence he’s flourishing in the role.
Dael Fry has been touted for many years as a future Premier League defender, yet last season found himself making uncharacteristic errors, lashing at clearances and being caught out of position.
Woodgate’s solution to the problem? Give him the captain’s armband and highlight his errors further. Warnock’s solution? Give him more protection in midfield, stop trying to play football out from the back when you don’t have the players capable of it and go back to basics. All of a sudden Fry looks back to his best and will undoubtedly be a top-flight defender in the coming years.
While Boro’s defensive solidarity has been key to their improvement, their build-up play has also been key to their early-season form. However, it’s not that the Teessiders have scored bucket loads of goals and suddenly look lethal every time they go forward, but the way they attack is markedly improved.
With Marcus Tavernier and Djed Spence in wing-back roles, the side looks well balanced and possesses plenty of pace in the wide areas, while maintaining a solid shape in the centre of the pitch so not to be picked off on the counter as they found themselves susceptible to on numerous occasions last season.
The summer addition of Sam Morsy in midfield has been another huge plus, with the former Wigan man’s forward thinking and ability to break through the lines meaning Boro’s midfield no longer looks flat and one-paced.
In truth there are a number of reasons why Middlesbrough have experienced such a dramatic upturn in fortunes, ranging from quality work in the transfer market to having a boss who knows the league, but whatever you pinpoint as the main reason, you can be sure Neil Warnock is at the heart of it.