Middlesbrough on the up
Middlesbrough endured a rather rough 2019/20 campaign.
The inexperienced Jonathan Woodgate was eventually sacked by the club in June, following a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Swansea City.
This defeat left Middlesbrough sitting 21st in the Championship, and with just eight league games to play, the threat of relegation was looming.
However, Boro opted to replace Woodgate with a veteran manager, in the form of Neil Warnock.
In a very short space of time, with games coming thick and fast, Warnock managed to guide the North East outfit to a 17th-place finish, picking up four wins along the way.
Now, in 2020/21, after a brief pre-season and a bit more time with his squad, Warnock has transformed Middlesbrough into a cohesive, well set up unit that even the top sides in the Championship are struggling to break down.
Boro opened their campaign away to recently-relegated Watford. They eventually fell to a 1-0 defeat, though the signs were certainly there that Warnock’s Boro were on the up.
There was a similar story in the club's following league outing, as Warnock's men more than held their own against a Bournemouth side no doubt set to push for promotion.
Middlesbrough have since gone on to pick up points vs QPR, Bristol City, Reading, Cardiff and Coventry.
It is also worth noting that Boro are currently the only side to have secured points versus Reading this term, with the Riverside outfit having also handed Bristol City their first loss of the Championship campaign.
Super Paddy McNair
No player has epitomised Middlesbrough’s resurgence under Neil Warnock more than Paddy McNair.
The former Manchester United man linked up with Boro in the summer of 2018.
But, despite his clear quality, McNair found a regular starting spot tough to come by.
Under both Tony Pulis and Jonathan Woodgate, the Northern Ireland international was used in a variety of positions, including right-back, central midfield, right-midfield and at centre-back.
This lack of consistency clearly weighed on the 25-year-old, who, by in large, looked rather average for much of his time under the two aforementioned bosses.
Since Warnock has taken the reins, though, especially this season, McNair has looked a completely different player.
Despite being a central midfielder by trade, Warnock has opted, for the most part, to deploy the former Sunderland star as a centre-back in a back-three/five.
McNair has gone on to excel in this role, showcasing all of the key qualities required of a top centre-half in the modern game - strong aerial presence (put to the test last weekend vs Cardiff’s 6 ft 4 striker Kieffer Moore), ability to move the ball forward, and strength in the tackle.
McNair’s ability to deliver from corners, free-kicks and from deep in the opponents' half has also been incredibly useful for Boro this term, with assists on the part of the Northern Ireland international having proved central in securing valuable points vs both QPR and Bournemouth.
Amid such an excellent start to the campaign, Middlesbrough fans and pundits are, unsurprisingly, waxing lyrical about the midfielder-turned-defender.
One man doing so on a weekly basis, for example, is former Boro and Southampton midfielder, Neil Maddison.
Maddison notched 55 appearances for the Teesiders between 1997 and 2001, before joining home-town club, Darlington.
Maddison retired on the books of Darlington, and has since taken up the role of co-commentator for Boro fixtures on BBC Tees, where he is often full of praise for McNair.
And 101 have been able to speak to the former Southampton man regarding the midfielder, who Maddison labelled as 'excellent':
“Paddy has been excellent so far. Since that stint at the back last season he has kicked on. He has pace to burn and his awareness of what’s around him is top draw. He is also decent in the air and is a tough lad.
“His best position for me is at the back, I know he is a midfielder/forward but since he has been there he has been quality so why change it.”
Maddison was also quick to credit Neil Warnock for not only McNair's resurgence, but that of other Boro stars, too:
“Neil Warnock is all about man management and making you feel like you are untouchable. I would think that’s his best trait and you can see the difference in how some players are playing, Dijksteel is an example.”
Finally, with Middlesbrough now up to 7th in the Championship following a win over Coventry, Maddison voiced the opinion that his former side may surprise the masses in pushing for a promotion berth this season:
“I think if we are in and around the play offs in January then I could see him [Warnock] wanting to kick on from there.
“The squad is small but we have some top pros with some good young lads. Stay away from the injuries and we might surprise a few people.”
See also: Krasnodar vs Chelsea betting tips: Champions League preview, predictions & odds
AEK Athens vs Leicester City betting tips: Europa League preview, predictions and odds