It was at the start of this season that I wrote about Middlesbrough and how I felt they stood a good chance of staying up in their first season back in the Premier League after an extended hiatus. Well, here we are, now half way through the campaign and Boro stand in reasonable stead to do just that.
Under Aitor Karanka, Middlesbrough have had a respectable campaign thus far; they have been resolute defensively and tough to break down. At this mid-point, they have a decent points haul and can reasonably expect to finish above a handful of teams who have been poor and look defensively vulnerable. However, the problem Middlesbrough have and one that could potentially be their undoing is goals. They lack a potent threat and are seriously short of pace in the area of the pitch where it probably matters most. In fact, Adama Traore is the only player with the speed to worry opponents and although he is lightening quick and has insane statistics in terms of successful dribbles, he is very raw. His final ball and decision still leave a lot to be desired and can negate the threat he provides with his pace and dribbling.
Karanka appears naturally cautious in his approach and whilst that makes Middlesbrough quite solid, it has restricted their attacking play, something that has been quite evident in their goals return.
For all Alvaro Negredo is a good striker, capable of being a regular scorer, he is too often isolated for long periods and becomes a passenger in the game. There aren’t players close enough to him to make his physicality an asset and that lack of pace in the attack means nobody can make up the ground quick enough when a clearance is made. It’s this lack of dynamism that inhibits Boro and could ultimately be costly if other teams near the bottom get their act together. Some of those who will inevitably be battling with Boro to avoid relegation do ship goals, but equally, they possess enough of a goal threat to gain vital points.
It’s clear Karanka is all too aware of the need to score more goals with the club signing striker Rudy Gestede from Aston Villa for around £6m. Other than be an alternative target man for Negredo, it’s difficult to see Gestede making much difference to the Boro attack and he certainly doesn’t address the lack of pace and fluidity in their attacking play. Gestede can be a handful for defenders in the box, but Boro rarely create that type of threat in the first place, so further January investment will be needed if Karanka wants to re-establish the club in the Premier League.
With Karanka sticking to the 4-2-3-1 formation, it’s the 3 behind the striker that are key and where Middlesbrough really need to improve in order to make more of the transitions in play. Gaston Ramirez has been influential since his arrival, but he doesn’t have game changing pace for counter attacks. Playing centrally, he can have a positive influence, particularly at home and against certain teams, but not so much against the better teams with Boro having to play on the break. To really compliment him and the system, it’s those wide attacking positions in need of attention and that should really be the highest priority this month.
The temptation is to look around the Premier League for recruitment, but it may be more prudent to explore France, Holland, Belgium or even Austria for an explosive attacking talent that the opposition may be unaware of and can really add another dimension to the attack. Southampton are a good example of this with their signings in recent years of Sadio Mane from RB Salzburg and Sofiane Boufal from Lille.
Wherever Middlesbrough decide to recruit from, if indeed they do, a potential match-winner should be a must. A game-changing player can be the difference between 1 point and a valuable 3; or sometimes even snatching a draw that can feel like a win. A player of this profile may cost somewhere in the region of £15m, but could ultimately be the difference between Middlesbrough playing Premier League or Championship football next season and in comparison, that’s a small price to pay for a club with progressive ambitions.