The Season So Far
It’s not been great, to be honest. Their recent draw away to Manchester City proved Middlesbrough to be a well-organised, dynamic and dangerous outfit capable of matching just about anyone, if not actually outplaying them. If they are to survive, they need to show the stubbornness, tenacity and ruthlessness they showed at the Etihad every week.
However, more often than not, the fare has been largely uninspiring and extremely unproductive. Manager Aitor Karanka has been roundly criticized for overly defensive tactics, with Boro’s enviable array of attacking options more-or-less straitjacketed by their own system. As good a result as the draw away to Man City was, the home defeats to Crystal Palace and Watford were absolutely dire. If they’re to survive, they can’t afford too many more performances like those.
The Season Ahead
There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s going to be a very difficult campaign for Aitor Karanka’s men, but there’s reason enough to think that Boro have enough about them to stay up – and not just because Hull, Sunderland, Swansea and West Ham are all absolutely abysmal at the moment.
The single most important factor when it comes to staying up is having the ability to score goals and thus to win games, and Boro have plenty of goal scorers and creators: the loan capture of Álvaro Negredo represents a huge coup and if the experienced Spaniard stays fit, his goals alone could keep them in the Premier League; Cristhian Stuani and Jordan Rhodes have happy knacks of hitting the back of the net; Viktor Fischer’s career has stalled somewhat, given the expectations of him a few years ago, but he has serious talent; Gastón Ramírez and Stewart Downing have the quality and the guile to create chances from next-to-nothing, while Adama Traoré has the pace and invention to create chances from seemingly less than nothing. There’s life in this beast.
Although 3-4-2-1 is rapidly taking over the division, the Premier League is increasingly home to generic, adaptable and surprisingly safe 4-2-3-1 systems, and Middlesbrough’s is no different. They set up basically the same way as everyone else, with the full-backs advancing, the double-pivot anchoring things, the wingers capable of coming inside or going outside, an all-round number nine and a tricky, creative number ten looking to slide the ball through for any one of the front three.
If there is a surprise in store, it’s that Middlesbrough like to mix it up a bit: although they generally play a safe and sensible passing game in midfield and enjoy a fair amount of the ball, they’re also fond of sticking it in the mixer and making life uncomfortable for the opposition: so far this season they’ve contested 38 aerials per game – the fourth highest number of any Premier League team.
Unsurprisingly, given Karanka’s past as a José Mourinho Assistant Manager, his side is, primarily, a decent defensive outfit: their average of 14.5 shots per game received, while not excellent by any means, is by far the lowest of the promoted teams, while their defensive actions numbers are very high indeed. 23 tackles per game is the highest number in the league, while 16.5 interceptions and 12.6 fouls are also figures which suggest a lot of effort and hard work.
They’ve also made the fourth highest number of clearances in the league so far this season (324), and blocked the fifth most passes (99). In short: this is a very aggressive, well-drilled, effective defensive unit, focused on and good at limiting the opposition’s attacking capability. Whether they have the quality to contain Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and company in this form remains to be seen, but they did recently draw away to Manchester City, so anything is possible.
As previously mentioned, Boro have a lot of attacking potential, even if at the moment this is more a list of talented forward players than it is a genuinely coherent attacking collective. Antonio Conte must assume that Middlesbrough have the capacity to bloody Chelsea’s nose. Thankfully, we can trust that he’ll prepare accordingly and have the team concentrating at all times during the game.
Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, Middlesbrough have been basically crap with the ball so far this season. Even though they’ve averaged enough possession (48.0%) so far this season to make chances, and have also shown some pretty passing in midfield at times, they’ve done almost nothing with their possession besides hold on to the ball and protect themselves.
8.9 shots taken per game is the league’s second lowest figure, 2.6 shots on target per game is the third lowest and their only seemingly reliable source of goalscoring chances is corners, which are obviously and extremely inefficient. If they hope to turn said list of talented forward players into a genuinely frightening, coherent attacking collective, they have to show far more attacking intent and come up with more varied attacking ideas, as many Boro fans have noted at great volume so far this season. At the moment, they’re simply too easy to play against.
Arguably, the reason their possession is so useless is that they play so many useless long passes. 75 per game is not an especially high number, but more of Middlesbrough’s have been aimed at the head than by any other team so far this season. Seeking an aerial battle makes sense when a team is especially strong in that department, but Middlesbrough aren’t: they’ve won the fifth highest number of aerial duels so far this season (201), but they’ve also lost the fourth highest too (217). They’re essentially trying to outplay their opponents by A) parking the bus and B) focusing their attacking game on something that they’re bang average at. Neither is a particularly good idea.
Aitor Karanka is sweating on the fitness of attacking left-back George Friend, who picked up a knee injury in training this week. Besides that, he has no significant worries and can look forward to fielding a strong XI.
Antonio Conte will presumably pick the same XI that destroyed Everton last time out, meaning many on Teesside will be clenching their sphincters and hoping for the best.
How can anyone bet against Chelsea in this form? Another comfortable victory, probably 2-0 or even more.