The Season So Far
While no-one could possibly claim to have been surprised by a fairly miserable, lower mid-table campaign with one eye permanently kept on the bottom three, there’s definitely a feeling among the Middlesbrough faithful that this season has been singularly frustrating. Results have been less than encouraging, the football exasperatingly dour and the manager has been inexplicably stubborn.
Indeed, Aitor Karanka has taken the brunt of the criticism for Middlesbrough’s boring campaign and is currently the favourite to win the Premier League sack race. His relatively dour side has been inexorably sinking towards the drop zone in recent weeks, winless in six league games going back to December 17th and carrying notable passengers who seemingly can’t get dropped.
The likes of Álvaro Negredo and Victor Valdés have done little to justify their considerable wages, while the more youthful and exciting Adama Traoré and Viktor Fischer have been sidelined for far too long, while Karanka chooses to pack the midfield and prioritise – entirely – defensive solidity over striking strength, regardless of the scoreline or opponent.
As previously stated, Karanka’s time seems to be coming to a close. His relationship with the Riverside crowd has never been worse, with the Spaniard going so far as to blame the home fans after their most recent home defeat, 3-1 against West Ham. Karanka felt that instead of supporting his players, the crowd lost patience and demanded long-ball football, basically forcing Boro to play in a way that they don’t know.
As far as Spurs are concerned, there’s no better time to play Middlesbrough at home. As far as Karanka is concerned, there are few worse games to play right now than Tottenham away.
The Season Ahead
For Karanka, it’s all about getting through this difficult spell and keeping his job. For Middlesbrough, it’s all about avoiding relegation. These two may not be compatible aims: lose here, and lose heavily, and Karanka’s time may be up. The Boro squad is arguably nowhere near as bad as their league position suggests and there will be a sizeable queue to take over should Karanka leave.
Karanka’s preferred system was previously a generic, adaptable and surprisingly safe 4-2-3-1, but he has increasingly moved towards a very narrow and rigid 4-3-3. 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’s a difference between this and other ‘safety first’ approaches, it’s that Boro so consistently play so close to their own goal and have so consistently demonstrated that they have no idea how to get up to the other end of the pitch. Many Boro fans have long since identified this basic flaw in their play, but their manager has yet to change the plan in any meaningful way, nor to admit that there’s a problem to begin with.
Their defensive aims are their priority and Boro are generally good at limiting their opponents’ ability to create chances: 14.0 shots received per game remains the lowest total of any of the promoted teams by some distance, with only 4.1 hitting the target per game – a comparable figure to Arsenal, for example.
The key reason for this is their high level of organisation, and their defensive actions numbers are extremely admirable. 19.7 tackles per game is the highest number in the league, while 15.5 interceptions per game and 12.1 fouls per game also demonstrate how hard they work. They’ve also made the third highest number of clearances in the league so far this season (29.7 per game), blocked the fifth most shots (4 per game) and blocked the eighth most passes (8.6 per game). This is a well-drilled, generally effective defensive unit.
Middlesbrough are obviously, undeniably and painfully absolute crap with the ball.
Despite averaging a decent amount of possession (49.6%), they’ve done almost nothing going forward. 9.1 shots per game and 2.4 shots on target per game are the Premier League’s lowest attacking figures. None of their players has averaged two shots per game this season. The only player to average more than one chance created per game is Gastón Ramírez, and he’s been unceremoniously dropped.
They spent money on forwards Rudy Gestede and Patrick Bamford in January, but with no half-decent supply line these are pointless purchases. With no move, however slight, away from all-out-defence, there’s no half-decent supply line. Adama Traoré is about as eye-catching as they come, but he’s just one man and he can’t do everything by himself.
If Aitor Karanka loses his job soon, he can only have himself to blame. The tools to make Middlesbrough a far more watchable, more effective attacking outfit are in place, but his overt commitment to Mourinhoball has cost him just about every ally he has in the stands. With results dismal and morale so low, it seems like a matter of time before managerial change comes.
With Calum Chambers and George Friend ruled out by injury, a makeshift back four will be in place for Saturday’s game. Spurs can feel very confident of having success against what would usually be a more resilient outfit. There shouldn’t be any surprises in attack.
Despite the absences of Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose weakening Spurs’ lineup considerably, the home side must be massive favourites here. The malaise at Middlesbrough runs deep and at the moment one early goal seems enough to see Boro fold. Get one and Spurs may just get many.