Nine games into the new Championship season and Middlesbrough currently sit eleventh, three points adrift of this season’s target of the play-offs. The season thus far, like last season has some stark similarities, but also some polar opposites.
Last season ‘Boro started strongly, hanging around the top of the table until the New Year with some impressive displays, but injuries to key players Nicky Bailey and Rhys Williams plus suspensions got the better of us. The concession of stupid and late goals cost the club place after place as they ended up just outside the play-offs.
Good away performances and shaky home performances were commonplace. Performances against the teams in and around us were not good enough – the 3-1 victory away at Cardiff and the 2-1 victory at home to Southampton aside. In a season where we would have snapped someones hand off if they offered us 7th at the start, by the end we felt like we had thrown an opportunity away of gaining promotion back to the Premier League. The squad was too threadbare and could not cope with injuries to key players, a good first eleven but very little beyond.
That, along with suspensions meant ‘Boro ran out of steam as we reached the business end of the season, but it was definite progression from the disastrous Gordon Strachan era. Promotion may have been a little soon for what Tony Mowbray was trying to achieve, but the money that would have came along with the promotion would have allowed the club to strengthen a little more. ‘Boro probably would have come straight back down, but the parachute payments would have meant a squad could be built ready for another push.
Before the start of this new season, the squad had been added to and, in parts, strengthened. Options upfront added by the captures of Emmanuel Ledesma and battering ram Ishmael Miller alongside Marvin Emnes and Lukas Jutkiewicz. Scott McDonald also returned after positive talks with Mowbray.
Muzzy Carayol has made a blistering start, sadly cut short by injury, impressing in his wide role against Blackburn with an endless stream of brilliant crosses, including a perfect ball for Jutkiewicz’s second against Blackburn. Grant Leadbitter adds energy and steel to the midfield left by Barry Robson’s departure, while alongside him Josh McEachran’s ball retention and eye for a pass have added an extra dimension in the middle of the park also. Andre Amougou and the returning Jonathan Woodgate have added vast Premiership experience to a struggling backline and George Friend looks a useful addition at left-back. Add those to the emergence of youth players Luke Williams and Adam Reach and Middlesbrough look capable of fielding two completely different starting elevens, both with enough quality to win a game.
This season has had the aforementioned similarities and differences. So far this season – before last night’s Derby game – the home form has been impressive, with ‘Boro only being beaten once by a Leicester team growing in confidence after a slow start but the away form has not been so good with just one win, even if that was against then top of the table Blackburn with a fantastic showing, aside from a panicky last five minutes.
A direct flip from last season thus far, but the similarities come in the form of leaking stupid late goals and entirely preventable goals at that. A late goal against Leicester cost Mowbray’s men a point. A late goal conceded against Blackburn turned what was a comfortable and impressive 90 minute performance into five of sheer injury-time panic. Wonder goals from Luke Williams and Adam Reach helped the side to a 3-2 win against Burnley which so could easily have been 2-1 – late goals a factor once more.
Wednesday evening’s performance against Derby typified the current ‘Boro squad performance. Brief glimpses of what the team could play like if they click properly, but lacking cohesion for the majority. Frustration at stupid errors late on at the back. Still lacking a midfielder that can play a penetrating ball. The team seemed to be forever going sidewards or backwards when the ball was with the midfielders.
Jutkiewicz was winning everything, but with no Emnes or player of that ilk to play off him – like at Blackburn so effectively - the work is wasted. Jutkiewicz very rarely gets the decisions he should whilst playing as a target man, the referees seem to think he can’t be fouled if he is more than a match for the defenders he is playing against.
Middlesbrough also missed key players badly, Rhys Williams and Jonathan Woodgate would provide the calmness needed in the backline when entering the final stages of the game. Marvin Emnes is a loss, he is often frustrating but more than capable of moments of brilliance to turn a game. Mustapha Carayol would have been effective with the quality and quantity of balls he puts in the opposition area, food and drink for Jutkiewicz. Merouane Zemmama showed a glimpse of his ability when he played the ball for Jutkiewicz’s second goal against Derby, but his proneness to injury reared its head again as he pulled his hamstring in the build up to the goal. The substitute frustratingly being subbed off himself after less than twenty minutes.
The chopping and changing of the team through injuries and the probable theory that Mowbray is yet to know what his best eleven is, has led to four wins, four defeats, one draw and a decent Capital One Cup run thus far. Jutkiewicz is the player whom most of ‘Boro’s forward play will go through so its key he is kept fresh and given some support with a strike partner playing off him. Carayol is a big miss and the sooner he is back – which is not until new year – the better. At the back Woodgate and Williams could have the desired effect in helping the team shut out games without the need for panic.
It is possibly a bit early to look to the January window, but another winger to ease the burden which will probably be placed on Carayol would be nice, as would a central midfielder with a penetrating final ball. There is currently a lot of blood-and-thunder in midfield in the shape of Leadbetter, Nicky Bailey and Kevin Thomson, but too much onus on McEachran to provide a pass and some creativity.
If ‘Boro cut out the mistakes at the back the play-offs is achievable. If they dont, its going be a long hard slog in the middle of the table and, dare I say it, possibly lower. When Mowbray gets a settled eleven the team can put a run together, but we need to weather this early storm of unfortunate injuries and hopefully pick up some points on the road. A point at Watford would be good before we go into the international break, but ideally three points is needed to restore confidence. A defeat is not a good thing at anytime, especially before a few weeks off. The squad has got to stay strong and stop conceding silly goals.
UTB – until next time
Written by Craig Parr, We Are Going Up’s Middlesbrough blogger
Craig tweets at @CParr85