The Season So Far
It’s difficult to know Middlesbrough’s season could have been more frustrating, more disappointing and more full of regret. The Teessiders’ return to the Premier League was a welcome one after several years away, and their performances in the Championship seemed to indicate that this was a formidable side, capable of holding their own against established Premier League outfits and eventually going on to establish themselves once again. In reality, they never got going.
Former manager Aitor Karanka has rightly taken the brunt of the criticism for Middlesbrough’s above all boring campaign, and his departure in the middle of March was among the most inevitable and unquestionable in Premier League history. His dour side had been inexorably sinking towards the drop zone for months, unable or unwilling to score goals, and their relegation seems all-but certain.
Karanka decided very early on that the best way for his side to survive was to sit deep and to pack the midfield, and his absolute prioritisation of defensive solidity over striking strength, regardless of the scoreline or opponent, is the chief reason for Boro’s slide towards the Championship. Replacement Steve Agnew vowed to make them more attacking, but it seems to have been in vain – predictably, Boro score more goals but they leak more too, conceding four to both Hull and Bournemouth in recent weeks.
As far as Chelsea are concerned, in the middle of a title run-in, there’s no better time to play Middlesbrough at home. The visitors may well be fighting for their lives, but they simply don’t have the quality or the morale to spring a surprise.
The Final Few Games
…are all about saving face and making sure their relegation is confirmed as late as possible. With three remaining games against Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool, that hope looks rather forlorn. With 17th-placed Hull facing already down Sunderland at home, it’s only due to the schedule that Middlesbrough’s relegation won’t be confirmed until Monday night.
After that, it’ll be the usual depressing deluge of transfer requests as their bigger-name players seek Premier League football next season. The likes of Negredo and Valdés won’t be missed, but others such as Ben Gibson, George Friend and Adam Clayton would be. If they can keep hold of one or more of those players as well as Adama Traoré, Viktor Fischer and Patrick Bamford, their squad would be way too good for Championship level and a swift return is reasonable to expect.
Karanka’s preferred system was previously a generic, adaptable and surprisingly safe 4-2-3-1, but he increasingly moved towards a very narrow and rigid 4-3-3, and Steve Agnew has kept that template intact. Boro set up basically the same way as everyone else using that formation, with the full-backs advancing, the midfield three anchoring the centre, the wingers encouraged to come inside, and an all-round number nine holding up long passes forward and bringing others into play.
If there was a difference between this and other ‘safety first’ approaches before, it’s that Boro so consistently played so close to their own goal and so consistently demonstrated that they have no idea how to get up to the other end of the pitch. Under Agnew, they’ve moved further up the pitch, as promised, but they’ve done little to suggest this has made them any better or more effective.
A leopard can’t change its spots and Boro’s defensive aims remain their priority, and they’re relatively good at limiting their opponents’ ability to create chances: 14.1 shots received per game isn’t great but six teams have a worse figure, and eleven allow more shots on target per game – including Arsenal, West Ham, Stoke and Burnley. Based on their defensive figures, we shouldn’t be expecting Middlesbrough to go down. But, well, here we are.
The principle reason for this is their high level of organisation, and their defensive actions numbers are extremely admirable. 19.6 tackles per game is the highest number in the league, while 14.6 interceptions per game and 12.4 fouls per game are also high figures and demonstrate the effort they’re putting in off the ball. They’ve also made the fifth highest number of clearances in the league so far this season (29.2 per game), blocked the fifth most shots (3.9 per game) and won the fifth most aerial duels (20.5 per game). This is a well-drilled, generally effective defensive unit.
Middlesbrough are obviously, undeniably and painfully useless when they have the ball.
Despite averaging a decent-ish amount of possession (48.6%), they’ve done almost nothing going forward all year long. 9.3 shots per game and 2.7 shots on target per game are the Premier League’s least prolific attacking figures. Only Álvaro Negredo has averaged two shots per game this season. The only players to average more than one chance created per game are Gastón Ramírez, now unceremoniously dropped, and Stewart Downing, previously unceremoniously dropped. Frankly, what they’ve been doing with all that possession is anyone’s guess – they certainly weren’t using it to go forwards.
Plus, as previously stated, their move away from ultra-all-out-absolute-catenaccio-on-steroids defence has seen them lose their only quality – their defensive solidity – and concede more goals. Chelsea really shouldn’t have to work hard at all to make chances or score here – even more so as Brad Guzan will probably be in goal.
Víctor Valdés is a doubt with a rib injury and captain Grant Leadbitter is also likely to miss out. Besides that, it’s a familiar side.
As for Chelsea, rotation may be in order given the simplicity of the task at hand, but losing the title due to hubris would likely kill Antonio Conte stone dead, so we should expect the full-strength XI. Cesc Fàbregas will probably get a run out due to his speciality in prising open deep defensive blocks.
Four unanswered goals for the Blues and many more tears in the away end.