The Season Just Gone
Middlesbrough were probably the best team in the Championship last season and should have lifted the trophy. Always the side that best allied attractive football with effective football, only a late-season loss of composure allowed Burnley to steal the spoils, but Boro’s shocking lack of cojones still didn’t prevent them from securing automatic promotion – the least they deserved, even taking into account that they bottled it.
The Uruguayans Gastón Ramírez and Cristhian Stuani arguably stole the show, scoring and creating key goals throughout the season and, in Ramírez’s case, unsurprisingly appearing to be playing a division below himself. George Friend and Albert Adomah caught the eye, while the experience and quality of Stewart Downing, Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton meant that Boro always had an advantage in a division that no-one really enjoys, and everyone hopes to escape from. Thankfully, for everyone concerned, they did it after seven years of trying.
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 Burnley, Hull, Sunderland, Stoke 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 they have plenty of goal scorers and creators: the loan capture of Álvaro Negredo represents a huge coup and if the experienced Spaniard stays fit, he 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.
In the first five games of the season Karanka has already shown the ability to create a well-organised, dynamic and dangerous outfit capable of beating just about anyone, if not actually outplaying them. This stubbornness, tenacity and ruthlessness is exactly what they’ll need, and they appear to have it in abundance.
The Premier League seems to be 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 and enjoy a fair amount of the ball, they’re also fond of getting the ball off the floor and making life uncomfortable for the opposition: so far this season they’ve contested 42.6 aerials per game – by far the highest number of any Premier League team.
They’re a decent defensive outfit: 13.2 shots per game received is by far the lowest total of any of the promoted teams, while their defensive actions numbers are stellar. 23 tackles per game is the second highest number in the league, while 17.2 interceptions and 12.6 fouls are also impressive figures. They’ve also made the fifth highest number of clearances in the league so far this season (138), and blocked the seventh most passes (48). This is a very aggressive, well-drilled, effective defensive unit, used to limiting the opposition’s attacking capability.
As previously mentioned, they’ve got a lot of attacking potential, even if at the moment this is more a list of talented forward players than it is a genuinely frightening, coherent attacking collective. Spurs must assume that Middlesbrough have a sting in the tail, prepare accordingly and concentrate at all times during the game. Failure to do that would increase the probability of an encounter in which Spurs absolutely batter Boro but throw it away in a split second and lose.
To be frank, Middlesbrough have been basically total crap with the ball so far this season. Even though they’ve averaged a good amount of possession (51.9%) so far this season and shown some pretty passing in midfield in the process, they’ve done almost nothing with their possession besides protect themselves.
9.2 total shots taken per game is the league’s third lowest figure, 2.2 shots on target per game is the second lowest and their only seemingly reliable source of goalscoring chances is corners, which are famously inefficient. If they hope to turn said list of talented forward players into a genuinely frightening, coherent attacking collective, they have to show more attacking intent and come up with more varied ideas. 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. 79 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 would make sense if they were especially good at them, but they’re not: they’ve won more aerial duels than any other side so far this season (105), but they’ve also lost more than any other side too (108). They’re essentially trying to outplay their opponents by focusing the game on something that they’re bang average at, and that’s never a good idea.
Middlesbrough have a few injury problems coming into the game, with Cristhian Stuani and Adam Clayton facing late fitness tests and Grant Leadbitter and Jordan Rhodes both ruled out. Spurs will be without Harry Kane (collapse into floods of tears here) and Danny Rose, while Eric Dier and Mousa Dembélé are carrying knocks. It could be a game between two very unfamiliar sides.
Spurs should have enough firepower and just about every other kind of power to win this, but Harry Kane’s absence could destabilize the side to such an extent that Middlesbrough sneak a score draw. I’m saying 2-1 Spurs, but don’t be surprised if the second goal never arrives for Mauricio Pochettino’s boys.