After a pretty dismal 2-0 defeat away at Stoke Middlesbrough FC fell into the relegation zone for the first time this season. There was a sense of inevitability about it as insipid performance after insipid performance was bound to catch up with Boro eventually. Middlesbrough are now three points away from safety and without some pretty radical changes pretty quickly it looks like Boro may be dropping straight back into the Championship. So for a season that started out with so much promise just what has gone wrong? Well I will go through three key areas and hopefully that will shed some light onto why Middlesbrough are in so much trouble.
Aitor Karanka’s tenure as Middlesbrough boss has certainly be a memorable one. From a play-final defeat in his first full season, to a dramatic walk out followed by automatic promotion in his second Karanka’s reign will live long in the memory of all Boro fans. This season however it is clear he has run out of ideas. His defence first strategy worked wonders in the Championship, making Middlesbrough incredibly hard to beat. Sure the attack was not as potent as many would like but Boro would usually find a way to break down Championship defences.
In the Premier League it has been a different story however. While Boro have maintained their defensive solidity, having the 5th best defence in the league, the attack has been nothing short of laughable. To have only scored 19 league goals this season is simply not good enough. While you can certainly blame the quality of Middlesbrough’s players (more on that in a bit) it is not like Boro are missing loads of chances. The problem is next to no chances are being created, making it very difficult to get anything out of a game.
In terms of formation the 4-2-3-1 was Karanka’s preferred one in the Championship. It was very effective and had some success in the Premier League as well. Against the big teams Boro switched to a pretty negative 4-1-4-1 which I was fine with as a point was realistically the best we could hope for against these high quality sides. The problem is that the manager would continue to use this against the smaller sides as well and for me this meant we had even less bodies in the box and created even fewer goal scoring opportunities.
We know Karanka himself is a pretty stubborn character, which again is not always a bad thing. However over the past month or so his criticism of the fans and the board has certainly not helped his cause and it looks like he may well have fell out with some key players. If Boro stand any chance of staying up this season then I’m afraid Aitor Karanka has got to go.
Let me start off by saying that I think some players have been pretty good this season. Ben Gibson has been excellent this season and thoroughly deserves his move to a top six club. Victor Valdes too has been great and has probably got close to his form at Barcelona. There have been some solid performers in Fabio, Clayton and De Roon as well and even Stuani has not been awful this season. Far too many players have gone missing this season and I will talk about recruitment in a minute but senior players like Stewart Downing and even Grant Leadbitter yesterday have shown none of the leadership qualities that Boro desperately need in a relegation battle.
Reliable players like George Friend and Dani Ayala have seen their seasons blighted by injury but one player that cannot be ignored is Gaston Ramirez. The Uruguayan was instrumental in Boro’s promotion push last year and the club effectively threw him a Premier League lifeline. In the first half of this season he was inconsistent at best but his performance against Stoke was nothing short of pathetic. There has been plenty of ill feeling towards Gaston since the January transfer saga but he needs to earn his move away and playing like he did on Saturday he will certainly not get a move to another Premier League Team.
A lack of fight on the part of certain players coupled with a lack of quality has really hurt Middlesbrough’s chances of survival this season. Now whether this is down to the players themselves, a lack of motivation from the manager or poor recruitment is wide open to debate.
Firstly lets talk about the lack of recruitment in one key position – attacking midfield. It was quite clear in the summer that Boro could do with a new a couple of established Premier League wingers and instead we got projects that could develop into good players in a few years. In January it was clear we needed a winger and with all the talk of Bojan, Snodgrass and Jese Rodriguez we signed no one. Considering the appointment of Victor Orta, a transfer guru supposedly, the recruitment in this key position has been shocking.
But what about the singings Boro actually made? Well brace yourself and have made a list and given all the summer and January signings a star rating out of 5.
Bernardo Espinosa (free transfer) Has mostly been terrible apart from against Man United but was signed on a free. **
Victor Fischer (£3.8 million from Ajax) Probably the biggest flop of the summer has contributed nothing has really underwhelmed. *
Marten De Roon (£12 million from Atalanta) Has taken a while to adapt but popped up with a few good goals. Clearly overpaid however. **
Victor Valdes (free transfer) Few early mistakes but has been pretty great since then. ****
Antonio Barragan (£3 million from Valencia) Probably just a make weight in the Negredo deal started ok but poor form and injury have not helped him. **
Gaston Ramirez (free transfer) few very good games here and there but recently very poor. Didn’t cost a penny at least. **
Brad Guzan (free transfer) fairly capable stand in cannot complain too much. **
Fabio (£2 million from Cardiff City) has been very solid when he has come in and cost relatively little. ***
Adama Traore (undisclosed from Aston Villa) got loads of potential but is obviously not ready for the Premier League just yet. **
Rudy Gestede (undisclosed from Aston Villa) looked okay when he has played but clearly not the answer to Boro’s problems. **
Patrick Bamford (£6 million from Chelsea) impossible to rate he has barely been used. N/A
Adlene Guedioura (undisclosed from Watford) been okay but not really Premier League standard. **
Alvaro Negredo (loan from Valencia) clearly a classy player and has done well to score as many as he has considering lack of service. ***
Calum Chambers (loan from Arsenal) solid centre back, less impressive at full back. ***
So out of Boro’s 14 signings I would only give four of them *** or above and two of them are loan signings. This simply is not good enough. Now whether this is the players fault, the managers fault or the recruitment team’s fault something has to change pronto or Boro will be back in the Championship next season. I am always reluctant to call for a manager’s head but I feel its time to say to Aitor Karanka ‘Thanks for the memories but its time to go.’