'The Corridor of Uncertainty'

Can Karanka’s Boro Take Chance to Progress?

If ever a game was destined to finish 0-0 then surely it is this one. Both Boro and Watford are struggling for consistency and form, firmly locked in that strange grey area of the middle-to-lower end of the Premier League, unsure whether to dream of the elusive win that closes the gap on Bournemouth or ponder the disappointing defeat that allows Jermain Defoe to drag them closer to the bottom three. It is, as ever, all about fine margins but from Boro’s point of view the trip to Vicarage Road is as presentable an opportunity to win a top-level game away from home for the first time since August as they are likely to get between now and March.

There appears to be an air of anxiety, a sense of general uncertainty, around Watford this season. Walter Mazzarri, patrolling his technical area like a crumpled Alec Baldwin, has tried a series of formations and systems, frequently switching from a back three to a four, over to a five and then back again. He is currently dealing with something of an injury crisis and Alvaro Negredo has scored the same number of league goals as Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo combined. There are definitely weaknesses for Boro to expose. The game will be played amidst a backdrop of huge sadness after the passing of Watford legend Graham Taylor but Boro, as a collective, must keep a clear head.

Boro’s performance in the corresponding fixture at the Riverside in October, which Watford won 1-0, was so bad that it marked the end for Aitor Karanka’s favoured 4-2-3-1 set-up in favour of a 4-3-3 system. It seemed unlikely, at that point, that Boro would go on to record a better set of results than Watford between then and the return meeting. In the twelve league games since Watford won on Teesside, they have won three, drawn twice and lost seven. Boro have won three, drawn four and lost five. Both teams have scored 10 league goals but Watford have conceded 23 to Boro’s 11, which highlights where Watford’s most pressing issues currently lie.

One charge often levelled at Karanka’s Boro is that they are too predictable. With over half of the league campaign now gone, and with each team having a much clearer idea as to how the opposition sets their team up, this game is perhaps a good opportunity for Karanka to try something new in terms of team shape. Boro appear to have the personnel to play a 3-5-2 system, with Fabio and Friend providing the width and Ramirez playing off Negredo. The central midfield three would remain in place and Ramirez would be allowed to operate a little more freely than he would if deployed on the left. A team of Valdes; Fabio, Chambers, Espinosa, Gibson, Friend; Clayton; De Roon, Forshaw; Ramirez; Negredo is surely worth a look. Karanka’s perpetual pragmatism coupled with an injury to Ramirez means any change of shape at this stage is unlikely, though it is a potentially interesting option for Karanka to mull over in future.

Regardless of the formation he chooses tomorrow, Karanka has enough quality within the ranks to expose Watford’s weaknesses and win the game. And with home fixtures against West Ham and West Brom on the horizon, and an FA Cup 4th round tie at home to Accrington Stanley sandwiched in between those two games, it is tempting to wonder what would become of Boro’s season should they leave Hertfordshire with three points in the bag.

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Middlesbrough 1-1 Stoke City

There is plenty of satisfaction to be taken from the way Boro attacked, particularly in the first half, and the way they restricted Stoke, a seasoned Premier League outfit with three successive top-half finishes behind them, to so few clear sights of goal. The members of the team who were making their first appearances in the top-flight of English football acquitted themselves well, with the performances of Friend and Adomah catching the eye before fatigue set in during the final quarter of the match, whilst Adam Clayton appeared to become more accustomed to the more nuanced demands of a midfield battle played at Premier League level as the game progressed.

The game itself felt like a series of carefully choreographed short and simple passing moves regularly punctuated by the referee blowing up for the kind of minor infringement that goes unpunished in the second-tier – where the more robust nature of the physical contact on show can cancel out the more subtle brushing of arms, shoulders and shins that resulted in several free-kicks going against us here – but this is something that Boro will have to get used to if they are to build on what is a promising start to the season. There did appear to be several ‘soft’ free-kicks awarded against us but that is how the game works at Premier League level. Stoke were simply a vastly experienced and well-drilled top-flight outfit who knew how to take advantage of the occasional moments of naivety in Boro’s eagerness to win back possession of the ball.

It is also tempting to wonder whether Marten de Roon’s presence in the middle of the field would’ve offered Boro a firmer platform from which to deal with Glenn Whelan finally venturing past the halfway line in the second half, easing Stoke’s over-reliance on the imposing Giannelli Imbula to dictate the tempo of their play in the process, though Adam Forshaw can be pleased with his afternoon’s work and it was heartening to see his appetite for the ball was as strong as ever despite the higher quality of opposition.

There was an intriguing sense of balance about the team – Boro named five left-footed players in their starting eleven, more than any of the other 17 teams to have played so far this weekend – and the clever movement and intelligence of players such as Stewart Downing, whose ability to retain possession and drift inside to allow Friend to carry on his role as an auxiliary winger will surely prove vital for Boro this season, and Gaston Ramirez caused genuine moments of uncertainty within the Stoke backline, whilst Alvaro Negredo is quite clearly the best striker to turn out for Boro since Mark Viduka.

The nature of the game at the top level – the sense of a more mechanical, more structured operation playing out beneath the surface of the actual spectacle – is quite clearly very different from what we have become used to over the past seven seasons but this is hopefully where the quality of the club’s recruitment, alongside the two years of hard work that Karanka and his staff have dedicated to building a team that can operate at Premier League level, will be most keenly felt. The season may only be one game old but the feeling that keeping Alvaro Negredo and Gaston Ramirez fit is crucial to our chances already looms large. As well as Boro played on Saturday, it is worth remembering that Stoke were incredibly sluggish at times in the first-half and the addition of one or two more quality attacking players to our ranks before the end of the month would be most welcome.

Perhaps the novelty of finding yourself absorbed in a game such as this one – a game with little goalmouth incident to speak of, and the constant manipulating of the laws of the game leaving little or no room for a sense of rhythm to develop – will wear off as the season grinds along but those fleeting moments of quality attacking intent; the simply beautiful close-control, speed of thought and body shape of Xherdan Shaqiri when attempting to manufacture a half-yard of space for himself, the ability of Alvaro Negredo to time his battles accordingly and take his only sniff of goal with the minimum of fuss, as well as the subtle tweaks in shapes and systems that momentarily create a yard of room for an attacking player before it is snuffed out by the opposition – mean there is plenty to suggest that this campaign will be an enjoyable one.

We will have to be patient at times. We will have to accept that there are more teams with a greater depth of players capable of producing moments of high-quality football more often than ours can – a consequence of the vast wealth afforded to those clubs who’ve been in the Premier League longer than Boro – than we have been used to at Championship level but there are plenty of grounds for optimism ahead of the trips to Sunderland and West Brom, particularly if this set of players can turn in performances of this nature on a regular basis.

Proactive Pressing is Key For Boro

Two home wins in four days means the dream of a league title is still very much alive for Boro as the dust begins to settle on Aitor Karanka’s impassioned comments regarding Boro’s support this season. If the meticulous Spaniard was looking for a reaction from both players and supporters then he has certainly got one ahead of Friday night’s televised trip to Norwich City. Hopefully Karanka will make a trend of such provocative pre-match posturing in the future, starting with his views on Mark Page and his penchant for trampling all over any outbreak of spontaneity on the terraces by delving deep into his collection of cassettes and lobbing something terrible all over a goal celebration.

Do we really need to hear ‘Chelsea Dagger’ when Pat Bamford has just slammed another one into the old onion bag? Of course we don’t. If Mark Page didn’t play The Fratellis when the Boro scored a goal then the only people who would remember The Fratellis would be The Fratellis, and I’m more than comfortable with that. Even Jo Whiley would admit to being comfortable with that. We have the Red Faction making a tremendous old racket and the north stand is finding its voice again. We do not need somebody trying to orchestrate and prompt an atmosphere where one already exists.

As for the football itself, the team set the template for Tuesday’s particularly vociferous atmosphere inside the stadium by starting the game at a very high-tempo and pressing Wolves as high up the pitch as they possibly could. It was an aesthetically pleasing first-half performance and the game should have been done and dusted by half-time. It was an example of the sort of football the Teesside public will always respond most enthusiastically to and when it works as well as it did on Tuesday you wonder why the lads aren’t encouraged to play in such a fashion much more often. The careful, considered and meticulous approach – the patient reliance on sound defensive organisation before the taking of a chance and the crisp post-goal counter-attacking that inevitably follows – has worked very well for Boro too this season but when you take into account the effect the higher-octane stuff has on the atmosphere inside the stadium it is surely something that we could see more of in future.

It could well be that particular style of play that is key to picking up the win at Norwich on Friday. Boro seemed confused as to what to do when faced with Bournemouth on their own patch and the game was effectively over within fifteen minutes. Things were much closer, the line much finer, at Watford on Easter Monday but once the team had fallen behind they never looked like being much of a threat and made very hard work of getting into Watford’s half of the field. A performance akin to those produced at Dean Court and Vicarage Road this Friday night would be bitterly disappointing after such a good one against Wolves.

The intensity shown throughout Tuesday’s win has to be the template for the remaining games if the team are to turn what has been an excellent season so far into one of the best in living memory and now is the time for Aitor Karanka and the team to be bold, brave and decisive. The feeling is that they will need to be if they are to return to Teesside with the dream of automatic promotion intact for at least another seven days.

Promotion or the FA Cup? Or BOTH?

The grinding wins against Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City on freezing cold days and nights in January ending with the team perched nicely in the top two of the division feel like the perfect prelude to an FA Cup fourth round tie against the current champions of England, Manchester City, on their own turf.

It is a daunting prospect but hope is offered in the shape of Manchester City losing 2-1 at home to Wigan Athletic at the quarter-final stage of last season’s competition as well as their recent squandering of a 2-0 lead at home to Burnley, whilst even Gus Poyet’s “rubbish” Sunderland side managed to score twice at the Etihad Stadium on New Year’s Day. Throw in a potentially destabilising mid-season jaunt to Abu Dhabi for a meaningless kickabout with Hamburg, as well as the fact that of the forty-four teams in the top two divisions only Southampton have conceded fewer goals than the Boro this season, and you have several ingredients to suggest that Karanka’s Boro can unsettle the champions on their own patch and return to Teesside with a positive result under their belt.

At this stage of a campaign which is fully geared up towards winning promotion, there are those people who worry about the number of games the players will have to play if we are to progress in the FA Cup but it should be pointed out that the promotion-winning team of 1991/92 played 60 games with a smaller squad than the one Karanka currently has at his disposal. Bruce Rioch’s team of 1987/88 played 57 matches en route to winning promotion to Division One via the play-offs and Bryan Robson’s 1997/98 side played 55 games as we won promotion and reached Wembley for the third time in two seasons.

Of course, the demands on the modern-day player are very different to those of twenty or so years ago but the modern-day player doesn’t have to play a third of the season on mud and you could also add that, when things are going well, a tightly-knit group of players such as the current Boro squad will relish playing in as many games as possible and are less likely to feel a knock or a niggle in the coming weeks than they would be if we were coasting along in the middle of the table.

The circumstances surrounding a game such as this one also affords Boro fans the opportunity to think back to successful promotion campaigns of yesteryear and the games that immediately spring to mind aren’t necessarily the run-of-the-mill league matches that ensured promotion but the games that brought about memorable cup runs. Back in 1991/92 it is the Rumbelows Cup semi-final meeting with Manchester United and a mud-splattered Jamie Pollock that stand out, or knocking First Division Manchester City out of both cup competitions, or the pitch invasion that greeted Wilko’s winner at Hillsborough and Ripley’s wonder-goal against Peterborough United. Even the final league game of the season against Wolves at Molineux had the air of a cup tie about it.

1997/98 evokes memories of Steve Baker’s master-class in man-marking at Anfield and Marco Branca’s debut goal in the return leg at the Riverside, whilst the games that possibly best define the spirit of the Rioch era are not only the play-off ties against Bradford City and Chelsea but the cup meetings with Everton and Aston Villa.

It would be churlish to suggest that promotion is not the main aim for Boro this season but there is nothing to say that we have to sacrifice a good run in the cup in order to achieve it, as Boro teams of the past have shown that it is eminently possible to do both.

With those things in mind, why would any Boro fan not want the club to have a real go at the FA Cup this season?

Aitor, We Need to Talk About Winning

Sheffield Wednesday(2-3), Reading(0-1), Blackpool(1-1). If Boro are serious about winning promotion back to the Premier League this season then aren’t these the kind of games we need to be winning?

If your glass is half-full then the Boro are three points off the top of the table; a side unbeaten in five league games; a side that pushed a Liverpool team that cost over £100m to assemble as far as it was humanly possible to push them at Anfield; a side that kept the points total ticking along despite a poor performance against a spirited Blackpool on Tuesday night.

If your glass is half-empty, however, then the Boro have dropped daft points at home to teams we need to be beating if we want to go up, including the league’s bottom side in Blackpool; we are a side that expanded far too much energy on dragging Liverpool’s reserve team to penalties in a meaningless cup game; a side that is already teetering on the brink of ‘we can’t afford to lose any more games at home’ territory.

I’d say my glass with two-thirds(ish) full as things stand but then it always is. However, even I can see that if we are indeed serious about automatic promotion this season, and the summer transfer activity suggests that the chairman is as serious as he’s ever been in that respect, then we really do need to start winning home games on a much more regular basis than we have been since relegation in 2009.

We go into Saturday’s game against Fulham knowing that a win would send us into the forthcoming international break in incredibly healthy shape, though anything other than three points means a fortnight-long hangover full of questions about whether the season is already over. The team that starts against Fulham really does need to start with, and maintain, a high level of intensity if we are to really push ourselves on. If the team cannot maintain a high level of intensity over 90mins, then they have to show enough mental strength to grind out the results and turn draws into wins and defeats into draws despite not playing as well with the ball as they might.

Unfortunately, though, that hasn’t happened often enough at the Riverside in recent seasons and too many teams have departed Teesside with too many points, with any serious thoughts of winning promotion going with them. We need to transfer some consistently good away performances under Karanka into consistently good home ones if we are going to win the league this season(there, I’ve said it) and we need to do it soon.

With that in mind, here is Boro’s home record since relegation and how it compares to those sides who went on to win automatic promotion.

2009/10
1 Newcastle P23 W18 D5 L0 F56 A13 +43 59
2 West Brom P23 W16 D3 L4 F50 A19 +31 51
11 Boro P23 W9 D8 L6 F26 A22 +4 35

Newcastle and West Brom dropped just 13pts between them when playing against sides that finished the season in the bottom-half of the table. Newcastle didn’t register a loss at home all season, dropping 6pts in draws against QPR(13th), Derby County(14th) and Ipswich Town(15th). West Brom lost at home to Crystal Palace(21st) and drew against QPR(13th) and Barnsley(18th).

Boro dropped 10pts at home, losing to Watford(16th) and Plymouth Argyle(23rd), and dropped 4pts in draws against Crystal Palace(21st) and Coventry City(19th). After beating Ipswich Town 3-1 on September 12th, Boro recorded just one home win(2-0 against Derby County) until the 3-0 victory over Scunthorpe United on Boxing Day, a run of one win from eight home games.

2010/11
1 QPR P23 W14 D7 L2 F43 A15 +28 49
2 Norwich P23 W13 D6 L4 F47 A30 +17 45
12 Boro P23 W10 D7 L6 F37 A32 +5 37

QPR dropped just 7pts at home to sides that finished in the bottom-half, losing at home to Watford(14th) and recording draws against Bristol City(15th) and Derby County(19th). Norwich City managed to drop 13pts to bottom-half sides, with Watford(14th), Crystal Palace(20th) and Portsmouth(16th) all leaving Carrow Road with 3pts, with Doncaster Rovers(21st), Preston North End(22nd) and Coventry City(18th) all leaving with 1pt.

Boro recorded a slightly better home record than promoted Norwich City, surprisingly enough, dropping 12pts to the Canaries’ 13. Boro lost games against Ipswich Town(13th) and Bristol City(15th), whilst Preston North End(22nd), Portsmouth(22nd) and Barnsley(17th) all left Teesside with 1pt. The draw against Preston was the only time we dropped points against a side that finished in the bottom-six of the table and it is reasonable to suggest that if Tony Mowbray had arrived to replace Gordon Strachan sooner, or the season had lasted another month or so, then we could well have pinched a play-off place.

2011/12
1 Reading P23 W14 D5 L4 F36 A18 +18 47
2 Southampton P23 W16 D4 L3 F49 A16 +33 52
7 Boro P23 W8 D10 L5 F22 A21 +1 34

Reading dropped just 7pts to sides that finished in the bottom-half of the league, losing against Barnsley(21st) and drawing against Millwall(16th) and Crystal Palace(17th). Southampton also dropped 7pts, with a defeat against Bristol City(20th) and draws against Ipswich Town(15th) and Portsmouth(22nd).

Boro, in stark contrast, managed to drop 22pts at home to sides that finished in the bottom-half and failed to win against any of the relegated sides at the Riverside. Burnley(13th) and Leeds United(14th) left the Riverside with 3pts apiece, whilst Doncaster Rovers(24th), Bristol City(20th), Crystal Palace(17th), Peterborough United(18th), Millwall(16th), Ipswich Town(15th), Coventry City(23rd) and Portsmouth(22nd) all left Teesside with 1pt.

Frustratingly, this is the closest we’ve been to a top-six finish since relegation, and yet we only won four home games before Christmas and four after, one of which was the final home game of the season against Southampton(2nd). If only we could’ve turned a few of those draws against the bottom-six sides into wins…

2012/13
1 Cardiff P23 W15 D6 L2 F37 A15 +22 51
2 Hull City P23 W13 D4 L6 F35 A22 +13 43
16 Boro P23 W13 D3 L7 F38 A27 +11 42

Cardiff City dropped 7pts to sides that finished in the bottom-half, losing at home to Peterborough United(22nd) and drawing with Ipswich Town(14th) and Barnsley(21st). Over the course of the last five seasons, Hull City are the only side to win promotion after losing more than four home games. Bottom-half teams to leave Hull with maximum points were Peterborough United(22nd), Blackpool(15th) and Sheffield Wednesday(18th), whilst Bristol City(24th) claimed 1pt.

It is also worth adding that Hull City are one of just three teams to achieve promotion with fewer than 80pts since Aston Villa(78pts) in 1987/88(Boro also recorded 78pts and went on to win promotion with a play-off victory over Chelsea – and that season there were 44 league games played as opposed to 46). The other sides to win promotion with fewer than 80pts are Stoke City(79 pts – 2007/08) and Derby County(79pts – 1995/96), whilst in 1994/95 Reading also achieved 79pts but had to settle for a play-off place as the Premier League was being reduced from 22 teams to 20, meaning only Boro went up automatically.

Going back to 2012/13 for a moment, well Boro actually recorded their most productive season in terms of home form since relegation and still only managed to finish in 16th place, the lowest we’ve finished since coming down. Boro lost against Bristol City(24th), Barnsley(21st) and Millwall(20th) as a highly-promising season descended into post-Christmas chaos, whilst Peterborough United(22nd) left Teesside with a draw.

2013/14
1 Leicester P23 W17 D4 L2 F46 A22 +24 55
2 Burnley P23 W15 D6 L2 F37 A14 +23 51
12 Boro P23 W10 D9 L4 F35 A19 +16 39

Leicester City didn’t lose a single game to a bottom-half side on their own patch last season as they took charge of the division and only dropped points by way of draws against Leeds United(15th), Watford(13th) and Yeovil Town(24th). Burnley were similarly ruthless at Turf Moor, remaining unbeaten against bottom-half sides whilst only dropping home points in draws with Bolton Wanderers(14th), Watford(13th) and Sheffield Wednesday(16th).

Yet again it was a case of too many draws at the Riverside for Boro, with Blackpool(20th), Sheffield Wednesday(16th), Huddersfield Town(17th), Watford(13th) and Leeds United(15th) all taking a point away from Teesside, though only Millwall(19th) managed to beat us on our own turf.

Again, as with the 2011/12 campaign, too many points were dropped through drawn games at the Riverside and, ultimately, it cost us. You cast your mind back to lethargic draws against Blackpool and Sheffield Wednesday under Mogga, the turgid 1-1 with Huddersfield, the time we battered Leeds but just couldn’t score, Curtis Main’s sitter at the fag end of a 0-0 with Wigan Athletic, Darius Henderson picking the ball up and hurling it past Dimi Konstantopoulos in the 1-1 with Forest and you wonder how things might’ve been different.

If we look at Boro’s most recent promotion campaigns, the benchmark for this Karanka team to aim at would probably be Lennie Lawrence’s 1991/92 team, certainly in terms of where we are as a club, as the finances on offer to Bryan Robson were greater than those afforded to both Lennie and Karanka(which isn’t to say that Lennie’s team and the current one aren’t/weren’t well-funded, just that the Robson era signalled a radical change in approach from the club in terms of spending money on players).

1991/92
P23 W15 D6 L2 F35 A13 +22 51

Boro didn’t lose a single game at Ayresome Park until April 4th 1992, when Watford beat us 2-1. We then lost the next home game against Barnsley before winning the remaining four, with said defeat to Barnsley(16th) being the only time Boro dropped points to a team that finished outside of the top-half of the table over the course of the whole season.

It is also worth remembering that Boro made the semi-finals of the League Cup and the fifth round of the FA Cup, which added an extra twelve games onto a forty-six game league season, making the consistent home record and subsequent promotion to the Premier League all the more impressive.

1994/94
P23 W14 D5 L4 F40 A19 +21 47

Boro lost just once to sides that finished in the bottom-half of the league courtesy of a 2-1 reverse against Southend United(13th), whilst Sunderland(20th) and Oldham Athletic(14th) left Ayresome Park with a point apiece, meaning Boro dropped just 7pts to lower-half teams over the course of the home campaign.

1997/98
P23 W17 D4 L2 F51 A12 +39 55

The Boro team of 1997/98 should really have won the league title when you consider how much it cost to assemble, though a superb run to the League Cup final softens the blow of ‘only’ finishing second. We lost just two games at the Riverside all season, with Stoke City(23rd) beating a team that contained Ravanelli and Merson 1-0 in the second home match of the campaign and Sheffield United(6th) also leaving Teesside with maximum points(incidentally, the combined attendance of those two fixtures was 60,112). We then went the rest of the season unbeaten at home, with the next home defeat coming against Liverpool in the Premier League on Boxing Day 1998.

If Boro are to achieve automatic promotion this season then we can’t really afford to lose many more games at home, with recent history suggesting that four home defeats is most likely the limit. The away form is generally very good under this manager, it has to be said, but it would be made even more pleasing if we could start to find some real consistency at the Riverside Stadium, on our own patch, and echo the great Lawrence and Robson promotion-winning teams of the relatively recent past.

And, just for good measure, this is Karanka’s record at the Riverside since talking over:

P20 W10 D5 L5 F27 A18 +14 35

Karanka’s team have lost once to teams who ended the season outside of the top-half of the table, losing 2-1 at home to Millwall(19th). Leeds United(15th) are the only other bottom-half team to take a point away from the Riverside during Karanka’s tenure though, obviously, his tenure only covers roughly two-thirds of last season and a season that is currently in progress.

Record since relegation prior to this season:

P115 W50 D37 L28 F158 A121 +37 187

187pts from 345 available.

Including this season:

P120 W52 D38 L30 F167 A126 +41 194

194pts from 360 available.

100 Players Since Relegation

Another summer brought about yet another rebuild for Boro and nudged the club ever closer to fielding the hundredth different player to turn out for the club in a league game since relegation in 2009. Twenty players were allowed to leave the club in the summer months, thirteen of them with varying degrees of first-team experience and seven of them youngsters unable to break through into the senior set-up.

Aitor Karanka wasted little time in stamping his authority on the squad when taking over last season and that has continued into this summer, with twelve players arriving at the club either permanently on loan. Over the coming weeks it is almost certain, barring serious injury to one of the new recruits, that one from Jelle Vossen, Yanic Wildschut, Ryan Fredericks, James Husband and Jamal Blackman will become the one-hundredth player to play a league for the club in since August 2009 upon making their Boro debut.

As it stands the club has used ninety-eight players since relegation and while this may seem like relative small-fry when compared to Fulham, for example, who have used over fifty players since Felix Magath was appointed manager in February of this year, it is safe to assume that that figure of ninety-eight would’ve been much higher had it not been for the difficulty in shifting out several of the high-earning players sighed by both Southgate and Strachan.

As well as that, there is a clutch of young players who’ve made a first-team debut and then skirted around the edges of the squad for several years afterwards; Adam Reach, Seb Hines, Richie Smallwood, Cameron Park, Luke Williams and Andy Halliday are perhaps the most notable examples. The club have fielded 18-20 debutants each season since relegation and you do wonder how long that lack of continuity can continue.

Perhaps most eye-catching statistic for Boro is with regards to the strikers turning out for the club over the past five years and the success, or lack of it, that they’ve enjoyed in front of goal. Boro have fielded twenty different strikers since relegation, including Luke Williams, Kike, and Patrick Bamford, though they have scored a total of just one hundred and thirty-six goals between them in that time.

Of those strikers, only Scott McDonald(2010/11 and 2012/13), Marvin Emnes(2011/12) and Leroy Lita(2010/11) have reached double figures in a single season, though Albert Adomah(2013/14) and Adam Johnson(2009/10) have contributed double figures from attacking midfield positions. Considering how much money the club have invested in their striking options over the past five years, for them to only return double figures on four occasions stands out as being particularly poor.

With all of these statistics in mind it seems clear that what the club needs now is a period of sustained continuity. Aitor Karanka has been backed on a quite incredible level by Steve Gibson and it is imperative, with Financial Fair Play and a stadium that stands almost two-thirds full for league games on a regular basis, that Karanka shapes his recruits into a successful second tier side with an eye on the mid-to-longer-term. Boro cannot go on fielding around 18-20 new players each season and expect to achieve promotion because the logistics of the division render that nigh-on impossible these days.

It is an exciting time for the club with so many new players on the scene, and there will be a lot to be optimistic about if Karanka can settle everything down and get the lads defending like they were during the second-half of last season, but the need for this particular rebuild to work is particularly pressing for Boro’s long-term aspirations and prospects.

Over to you, Señor Karanka.

THE NUMBERS:
98 players have turned out for the club in league football since August 2009.
22 players from the academy set-up have made at least one league appearance.
23 different nationalities have been represented.
56 players have scored at least one league goal for the club since August 2009.
17 different nationalities have scored at least one goal.
136 league goals have been scored by Boro strikers since relegation.
31 players have signed on loan since August 2009.
4 loan signings have gone on to make their moves to Boro permanent.
23 players have signed for the club on a free transfer.

GOALKEEPERS:
Danny Coyne, Shay Given, Carl Ikeme, Brad Jones, Dimi Konstantopoulos, Jayson Leutwiler, Tomas Mejias, Connor Ripley, Paul Smith, Jason Steele.

FULL BACKS:
Damia Abella, Joe Bennett, George Friend, Jonathan Grounds, Justin Hoyte, Tony McMahon, Kyle Naughton, Stuart Parnaby, Frazer Richardson, Andrew Taylor.

CENTRAL DEFENDERS
Daniel Ayala, Matthew Bates, Andre Bikey, Christian Burgess, Andrew Davies, Ben Gibson, Maxi Haas, Seb Hines, Robert Huth, Matt Kilgallon, Stephen McManus, Kenneth Omeruo, Emanuel Pogatetz, Chris Riggott, Sean St.Ledger, David Wheater, Rhys Williams, Jonathan Woodgate.

MIDFIELDERS:
Julio Arca, Nicky Bailey, Jacob Butterfield, Nathaniel Chalobah, Adam Clayton, Didier Digard, Willo Flood, Faris Haroun, Grant Leadbitter, Malaury Martin, Josh McEachran, Bryn Morris, Gary O’Neil, Isaiah Osbourne, Barry Robson, Richie Smallwood, Mickael Tavares, Kevin Thomson, Joszef Varga, Josh Walker, Dean Whitehead.

ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS:
Albert Adomah, Sammy Ameobi, Muzzy Carayol, Kieron Dyer, Jonathan Franks, Andrew Halliday, Adam Hammill, Adam Johnson, Tarmo Kink, Emmanuel Ledesma, Alex Nimely, Emilio Nsue, Jay O’Shea, Cameron Park, Adam Reach, Lee Tomlin, Luke Williams, Mark Yeates, Merouane Zemmama.

STRIKERS:
Jeremie Aliadiere, Patrick Bamford, Marcus Bent, Kris Boyd, Marvin Emnes, Caleb Folan, Danny Graham, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Kei Kamara, Kike, Chris Killen, Dave Kitson, Leroy Lita, Curtis Main, Scott McDonald, Ishmael Miller, Lee Miller, Bart Ogbeche, Tuncay.

*There are several players who have featured in a match-day squad of eighteen without making it onto the field of play; Dave Atkinson, Ryan Brobbel, Mark Kitching, Adam Jackson and Paul Weldon. Jordan Jones, Bradley Fewster and James Husband have made appearances in the cup competitions but are yet to feature in a league fixture for Boro, whilst Andre Bennett was an unused substitute in a League Cup tie at Oldham Athletic. A further five players – Jamal Blackman, Ryan Fredericks, James Husband, Jelle Vossen and Yanic Wildschutt – are awaiting their league debuts for Boro.

THE GOALS:
McDonald(37), Emnes(24), Lita(21), Robson(18), Adomah(12), Leadbitter(12), Carayol(11), Johnson(11), Jutkiewicz(11), Ledesma(8), Boyd(6), Graham(6), Haroun(6), Main(6), Bates(5), Miller I.(5), Williams R.(5), Aliadiere(4), Ayala(4), Bailey(4), Kink(4), O’Neil(4), Tomlin(4), Wheater(4), Williams L.(4), Arca(3), Butterfield(3), Franks(3), Friend(3), Hines(3), Kamara(3), Killen(3), Kitson(3), Martin(3), McMahon(3), Ogbeche(3), Reach(3), Smallwood(3), Taylor(3), Zemmama(3), Dyer(2), Hoyte(2), Kike(2), McManus(2), Tuncay(2), Ameobi(1), Bennett(1), Bikey(1), Chalobah(1), Flood(1), Gibson(1), Grounds(1), Halliday(1), St.Ledger(1), Whitehead(1), Woodgate(1), Yeates(1)

Evolution, Not Revolution

Blimey, that was a bit good wasn’t it? As opening days of the season go, you’d be hard pushed to come up with something as satisfying as the one we witnessed on Saturday afternoon. Boro oozed class, composure and style as they brushed aside a powderpuff Birmingham City side with consummate ease. On the face of it, a 2-0 win at home to a team that only escaped relegation to the third tier on the final day of the previous season might not seem like much to get excited about but it was the overall quality of the football on show that will live long in the memory. It was some of the most aesthetically pleasing we’ve seen at the Riverside in years.

It was no fluke, either. What happened on Saturday was the latest chapter in the evolution of Aitor Karanka’s Boro team, a continuation of the process that started at the midway point of last season and began to gather momentum as the campaign drew to a close. With Karanka now having had two transfer windows and a full pre-season to reshape the playing-staff and further develop a style of play, the team is unrecognisable from the one he inherited last November. The foundations have been laid and the progression of the team is abundantly clear.

The core of the team is in place. Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo will head balls out of our penalty area all day long. Omeruo’s reading of the game elevates him above anything else in the division and bringing him back for a full season could be pivotal to our chances of challenging at the top of the table. George Friend has matured into a fine second tier left-back who knows when to defend and when to attack and Dean Whitehead’s experience in front of the defence is invaluable, particularly when he puts in performances of the sort of quality he did on Saturday. With Leadbitter alongside him, and such a solid unit behind the two of them, there is a balance about the set-up of the side that bodes well for the future.

The team being so solid at the back allows Lee Tomlin to play the no.10 role with freedom, imagination and panache; his performance at the weekend was unarguably his best in a Boro shirt and some of his touches on the ball were quite simply exquisite.

All of this work, though, would be rendered almost meaningless were it not for a proper no.9 to knit it all together. Kike brings several qualities to the side but what stood out on Saturday was that he plays with his brain; he is clever, he looks equally adept with either foot, he is strong and looks as comfortable nipping in behind a defence as he is playing with his back-to-goal. It has been a while since we have seen a striker put in a performance of such quality. It is only when you watch a player of Kike’s quality play the lone-striker role that you realise just how starved we have been of quality up front over the past six or seven seasons.

So the team is almost there, it is merely a right-back away from being complete. The hope now is that we can add some much-needed depth to the squad, with the central-midfield positions lacking a touch of power and variation and Kike seemingly the only senior striker in Karanka’s thoughts. If we do manage to add they bit of extra quality then the future is even brighter than I thought it was before 3pm on Saturday gone.

This could well be our season, Brian. It really could.

England, South Korea and Rodriguez x2

After weeks of build up, discussion and intense speculation regarding which of the bright young hopes would win the battle and be selected to showcase their talents on the biggest stage of, early on Saturday evening we finally had our answer; Alan Irvine had been appointed Head Coach of West Bromwich Albion on a twelve month rolling-contract. In other news, Costa Rica dismantled a creaking Uruguayan defence with consummate ease in Fortaleza and England suffered a 2-1 defeat to ten catalogue models and Gabriel Paletta on the edges of the Brazilian jungle.

Given that the tournament itself has started so well, with some scintillating counter-attacking football on show throughout, the holders being absolutely walloped by a rampant Dutch side and an incredibly flamboyant 3-0 win for Colombia against the Greeks, the concern ahead of England’s first foray into the competition was that we’d play our unique brand of Dave Bassett-ball and leave the place smelling like the bus station toilets. Encouragingly, though, those concerns never materialised and the England side went on to put in what is probably their best display of attacking football in a major tournament since the 3-0 win over Denmark in 2002.

Despite losing a tight game 2-1, the list of positives to emerge from the match itself is fairly lengthy; the attacking players, generally speaking, carried the sort of confidence and youthful exuberance they display so regularly at club level onto the international stage seemingly without fear. There was a nice variety about the team, with plenty of pace and positivity on show and a handful of good chances created against a well-seasoned tournament team such as Italy, and you’d think a performance of similar quality against Uruguay later in the week will be enough to bring about a victory. And whilst there are several problems to address; the left-back being exposed so often, Steven Gerrard’s penchant for wasteful Hollywood balls showing no signs of abating, the Wayne Rooney Conundrum – anyone who saw the Uruguayan team collapse against Costa Rica could be forgiven for thinking that Oscar Tabarez has more to keep him awake at night going into that game than Roy Hodgson does.

Tonight sees Group H get started and with that comes the chance to see Fabio Capello’s Russia in action against a South Korean team engaged in a period of transition under coach Hong Myung-bo, who skippered the side to a fourth-placed finish on home soil in the 2002 tournament. We’ll also get to see ten good Belgian players plus Marouane Fellaini taking on Algeria in Belo Horizonte and, after those two games have been completed, we’ll have seen each and every team in action at least once so any predictions made from now onwards should be a little bit more informed perhaps.

Steering clear of the usual suspects such as Brazil, Germany and Argentina and whatnot is difficult but the way Colombia sauntered past a notoriously stingy Greek side, with James Rodriguez pulling the strings just behind the striker, suggested that they could go very deep into the tournament despite not having Radamel Falcao available for selection. Miralem Pjanic, of Bosnia Herzegovina, played with real class and composure in the middle of the middle of the field against Argentina on Sunday night and Ricardo Rodriguez, relentlessly tearing up and down the left-hand side for Switzerland against Ecuador on the same day, stand out as two players worth keeping an eye on as the competition progresses.

But it never feels like a proper World Cup until South Korea have taken some part in proceedings so tonight will see the tournament start for real; with Ki Sung-yeung orchestrating the midfield and Park Chu-young spearheading the attack I can sense a narrow win for Korea on the horizon, especially if Capello does for the Russian team what he did for the English one in South Africa four years ago, so if you have a spare pound coin nearby then 1-0 to Korea might be worth looking into.

A Few Things We Might See in Brazil

Marcel Desailly sweating profusely in a lilac shirt whilst trying to fit as much analysis into forty-three seconds as possible, ranging from what was said in the French dressing-room prior to the 1998 final kicking off to what was said in the French dressing-room during the half-time break of the 1998 final.

A grainy shot of Geoff Hurst in the corporate seats.

Jim Beglin exuding an air of authority whilst talking about the standard of the Chilean first division.

Shots of the FIFA bigwigs’ wives sitting in the corporate seats whilst Peter Drury feverishly tries to cobble together an insight into what they might be thinking about.

Gary Lineker orchestrating the seamless transition from a post-match debate concerning ‘England’s Brave Young Lions’ into an emotional montage set to a Kasabian album-filler after a disappointing second round exit to Colombia.

A grainy shot of Pele in the corporate seats.

Mark Lawrenson using the term ‘Keystone Cops’ when analysing a pulsating counter-attack move that sees Cameroon fall behind to Croatia in the third minute. He will later compound this by using the term ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ to describe the Croatian goalkeeper after he drops a routine catch just moments after making a truly smashing save from a thirty-yard pile-driver.

Honduran, Costa Rican, Japanese, Iranian and South Korean players being patronised to within an inch of their lives by an ever-irritating Clive Tyldesley. Apart from Shinji Kagawa, obviously.

A grainy shot of Bobby Charlton in the corporate seats.

It becoming clear after just six or seven minutes of the Iran v Nigeria game that John Motson’s research isn’t as thorough as it was in the seventies because he hasn’t quite worked out how the internet works yet.

Mick McCarthy using a derogatory term you haven’t heard since the mid-eighties when talking about the Algerian goalkeeper’s decision to punch clear a corner, only to see said punch hit one of his own defenders on the back and leave the South Korean forward with the job of tapping it into an empty net.

A grainy shot of Geoff Hurst sweating profusely in the corporate seats.

Alastair McGowan being interviewed on a balcony somewhere near a designated fan zone, doing impressions of Roy Hodgson and Gary Lineker whilst Gabby Logan and several others crack themselves up with laughter in the studio.

Ian Wright to react so enthusiastically to England scoring the opening goal against Uruguay that the director of ITV feels compelled to show us said reaction during the half-time break. Peter Reid will then say something inconsequential about it.

A grainy shot of Diego Maradona sweating profusely in the corporate seats.

James Corden popping up in the studio completely unannounced and laughing hysterically as the pundits around him decide that the Greece v Japan game isn’t worthy of any half-time analysis.

An online campaign to replace Jonathan Pearce with Barry Davies at the earliest opportunity will gather gentle momentum after Pearce persists in pronouncing the names of the Brazilian players in a Portuguese accent.

A grainy shot of Bobby Charlton sweating profusely in the corporate seats.

Football pundits debating the impact of socio-political and/or socio-economic policies in various regions of Brazil after a 0-0 draw between Ecuador and Greece. Robbie Savage will be present and the debate will feel like it lasts a lot longer than it actually does.

Several pundits spending several minutes discussing England’s scientific approach to dealing with the prospect of playing against Italy in the jungle, with the idea that the best way to acclimatise to the conditions in Manaus was by having the players train in their winter coats at the end May being thoroughly dismantled by Kevin Kilbane.

Middlesbrough 3-1 Barnsley

It’s always good to start things off in an honest fashion isn’t it, so that’s what I’ll do I think; I’ll start off in an honest fashion. I really wasn’t too fussed about going along to this one, what with the season being done and dusted and Barnsley needing a win and most of the lads spending the last two games in Crete, or Kos. That’s where they go to now isn’t it, Kos. Which is fitting really, Kos, because today’s opponents were Barnsley and Barnsley is famous for the bloke who wrote ‘Kes’, the book about the kestrel, which sounds a little bit like ‘Kos’. So everything tied in and made a bit of sense in some respects.

Anyway, despite not really being up for it it was actually one of the first games I’ve left feeling positive about the Boro for a good while as it seemed to be nothing more than an honest game of football with some goals in it. The quality wasn’t great and Barnsley were poor, probably the worst team I’ve seen at the Riverside this season, but both teams were being honest about things – as if they both knew their respective limitations and tried to play around them as much as they could.

Boro started slowly but got better as the half wore on, forcing Luke Steele into several saves before the referee wrapped his lips around his whistle to signal the end of the first period. Dean Whitehead made several strong tackles and interceptions and gave it to a teammate with the minimum of fuss whilst Ken Omeruo didn’t break sweat, and Adam Reach had a decent strike on goal and had a knack of finding a fair amount of space down the left. It wasn’t spectacular, not by any stretch, but it was better than I was expecting as I mulled the possibilities whilst drinking a cup of coffee this morning. Barnsley, for their part, relied solely on launching the ball up to Chris O’Grady every time they had it and struggled to work out that it was coming straight back at them each and every time. Then again, when your midfield has Liam Lawrence in it I suppose you can forgive their defenders for trying to bypass it as often as possible.

Given that we’d finished the first-half the stronger of the two teams it was absolutely no surprise to see the Tykes take the lead via a good old thwack of a strike from that big massive defender, the spectacularly named ex-Sunderland reserve Jean-Yves M’Voto, a truly magnificent specimen, who spent the afternoon defending like Sol Campbell with his shoes on back to front. To be fair to him he won pretty much everything he went for, but that’s because he’s just so big. Too big, if you ask me. Anyway that seemed to wake us up quite considerably and we equalised courtesy of a splendid little strike from Lee Tomlin within two minutes. It was a big goal for us at just the right time because you get the feeling that things could’ve turned a little bit sour if we’d had to endure twenty minutes of watching the lads trying to break down Barnsley down without success.

Another patchy period followed, with Butterfield surprisingly replaced by Chalobah, a change that came a little bit too early for my liking in all honesty, but as the game wore on Barnsley had to push everyone forward as they chased the goal that would keep them in the division. The gaps appeared and Boro broke through a few times before Danny Graham tucked away a relatively scruffy goal as the clock struck ninety. It was no more than we deserved really because we were much the better side on the day, though we do need to remember that the standard of the opposition was incredibly poor at times. Tomlin then popped up with another splendid goal at the death, the bitter death, as Boro wrapped it all up and sent me home for my home-made Pajeon in a very good mood, a very good mood indeed.

As I said earlier on, I don’t think we should get too carried away with this particular win because we were sloppy on the ball at times, wasteful in front of goal and in-and-around the Barnsley penalty-area in general(though Luke Steele had a good game for them), and we’ve probably got through it by virtue of being marginally better than a relegated team, but it’s satisfying to sign off from the Riverside with a relatively comfortable win from a relatively enjoyable game of football. It was also good to see Adam Reach get a game, though he was perhaps a little too tentative at times(I don’t expect him to be Alan Moore at Notts County in ’93 but I’d like to see him take on his man more often). Ben Gibson did well filling in at left-back, Dean Whitehead put a good performance in and steadied the middle of the field as he went along and we coped with losing our two central-defenders to injury with the minimum of fuss. All I things considered I think it was a good day across the board, though I’ll not really be sorry to see the back of the season as a whole in after next Saturday’s tepid 1-1 draw at Huish Park.

Konstantopoulos 6, Varga 6, Omeruo 7, Woodgate 6, Gibson 6.5, Whitehead 7.5, Butterfield 6.5, Adomah 5.7, Tomlin 7.6*, Reach 6.5, Graham 6.5, Ayala 6, Chalobah 6, Hines n/a.