Talking Tactics | Middlesbrough v Swansea City
Swansea City capitalised on Norwich and Bournemouth dropping points over the weekend to move to within two points of top spot with a 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest on Sunday as they continued their good form post-international break.
Since domestic duties resumed, the Swans have now picked up seven points from three matches as they keep pace in the promotion push.
Next up for the Swans, though, is a tough test. Middlesbrough may have won only one of their last five league matches to leave them 10th in the table, but only Swansea (eight) have conceded fewer goals than Boro (nine) in the Championship in 2020-21.
Of course, Steve Cooper would love nothing more than a repeat of the 3-0 win at the Riverside in this fixture last season, but that will be easier said than done against this solid Middlesbrough side.
However, Swansea have the upper hand in their recent head-to-head meetings, which bodes well for this midweek encounter. The south Wales side are unbeaten in their last five clashes with Boro, winning the last three, and wins in these sorts of games could prove crucial if they are to secure a Premier League return.
Boro may be solid defensively, but they have struggled in front of goal on occasion having failed to score in three of their last five league matches. Swansea will hope to add to their recent woes in the final third and it may prove to be that the experienced Kyle Naughton plays a key role for Cooper's side.
The 32-year-old has started eight of 14 league games this season and comes into the clash with Boro on the back of his best rated performance of the campaign having garnered a WhoScored.com rating of 7.17 in the win at Forest on Sunday.
Against Neil Warnock's side he'll need to keep his wits about him in order to ensure Boro create little in their quest to return to winning ways.
Indeed, one of Boro's WhoScored.com strengths is 'creating scoring chances', so it's vital that any key passes played by the home side's creators are cut out by the backline in order to deny the attackers the opportunity to go for goal.
However, Naughton's positional awareness has seen him develop statistically calculated WhoScored.com strengths of 'concentration' and 'ball interception', with his average of 1.3 interceptions per game the fourth best of all Swansea players this season.
Not only could this mental attribute be crucial to keeping the Boro attack at bay, but it could allow Swansea to spring rapid counter-attacks.
A WhoScored.com weakness of Warnock's side is 'keeping possession of the ball', with Boro's average possession (45.6%) and pass success rate (63.7%) both ranking 21st in the Championship, and it's Naughton's under-rated but excellent distribution that could help punish Boro.
Another of Naughton's WhoScored.com strengths is 'passing', and for good reason too with his pass success rate of 80.3% the second best of all Swansea players. It's evident that his qualities both in and out of possession have contributed towards Swansea's watertight backline, and these strengths will need to come to the fore if Naughton and his defensive team-mates are to keep Boro's joint-top scorer at bay.
No Boro player has scored more league goals than Britt Assombalonga (three) in 2020-21, and his goalscoring exploits have seen him develop a statistically calculated WhoScored.com strength of 'finishing'. Assombalonga has scored in back-to-back league outings as he begins to gain a head of steam, and denying the 27-year-old the opportunity to go for goal is of paramount importance for the Swans.
Naughton, though, is an experienced defender with enough nous and intelligence to understand how to try and keep Assombalonga and the Boro attack at bay and help secure another three crucial points as Swansea aim to keep pace with the Championship leaders.