On paper, there’s reason to be optimistic about Middlesbrough’s chances of survival. Two points and places clear of the drop zone, with 13 to play in the league and boasting a defence that’s proved tighter than both Arsenal and Manchester City. In Steve Gibson the club also possess the country’s most level headed owner, there’s no chance of going full Wolves and inexplicably installing a tearful Terry O’Connor as manager for the run in.
There is, however, a less than rosy flipside. No one has won fewer games nor scored fewer goals, whilst Aitor Karanka’s relationship with the Riverside faithful remains tetchy at best. The weekend’s FA Cup win over Oxford highlighted just how dependent the club are on the impressive Chambers/Gibson partnership at the heart of defence. Injury to either man now could prove terminal.
The Smoggies are also looking vulnerable due to that great footballing unquantifiable – momentum. Just as the Reds have faltered, now 8 games without a win, the likes of Hull and Swansea have found an extra gear just at the right time.
The ultimate reason to fret, however, is Boro’s fixture list. A final five weeks that sees them face Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool means that, realistically, they’ve only got 8 left games to bag the 17 points that should be enough to squeak safety. Leaving themselves with any more than three points to claim from that final stretch, for a team so painfully goal-shy, would be an almighty gamble.
With Aitor Karanka in charge, a man who graduated with honours from the Mourinho school of percentage management, this season can be viewed as a long series of hugely conservative gambles, from which he’s still currently just about in credit.
From the wilfully obdurate style of play, a slavish dedication to playing one up top - even in games they’re chasing at home - and a thrifty recruitment policy that’s seen them plump for unproven names or those whose stock has fallen considerably (with predictably mixed results) they’ve erred on the side of stubborn caution throughout.
Even in January, when the need for top flight quality in attack was glaringly obvious, the names Rudy Gestede, Patrick Bamford and Mikael Soisalo will have tested even the most ardent believer’s patience. Saisalo, a promising Finish teen, is unlikely to see any game time whilst Bamford and Gestede’s records simply do not add up at this level.
The former, despite a glorious year on loan in 2014, is now at his 5th Premier League club yet is still chasing a debut goal in the top flight. The latter, likewise, has two failed cracks at the PL under his belt, whilst the goal scoring touch even eluded him in the Championship this term, having notched just 5 goals in 32 run outs for former club Aston Villa. When you consider how sparce the service to Boro’s forwards is, no team creates fewer shooting opportunities per game (6.3) in the entire division, the need for strikers with a genuine x-factor becomes even more apparent.
Despite the mounting worries and hedged bets, one factor remains crucial. Whilst their final month is torrid, their next nine games feature half a dozen huge six pointers, starting with a trip to Crystal Palace this weekend. That crunch match is followed by Sunderland (h), Swansea (a), Hull (a), Burnley (h) and Bournemouth (a).
Middlesbrough’s run-in starts now, with wins utterly imperative. They are well beyond the point where they can simply draw their way to safety. Their manager’s low risk, low reward policy is now redundant.
If Karanka is to succeed, he must betray his instincts, shift the focus of his gambles and start taking some pro-active risks. Middlesbrough’s fate remains squarely in their own hands, the fear is the manager will sit on them. Continuing to do so will mean Boro’s survival bid, one that’s looked quietly confident for so long, is dead in the water by mid-April.
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