Are Defensive Signings the Key to Boro's survival?
Middlesbrough are back in the Premier League after too many years away.
Boro, relegated to the Championship on the final day of the 2008-09 season, returned to England's top flight on the back of the defense, scoring only 63 goals but finishing with a +32 goal differential. Aitor Karanka's squad boasted the best defensive record this season, allowing just 31 goals in 46 games. And the boss has looked to strengthen the defensive foundation ahead of the Premier League campaign. First by allowing Dmaia Abella to leave the club, then turning his attention to the transfer market.
The next of what should be many summer signings for the newly promoted Middlesbrough is reportedly Liverpool's long-time defensive stalwart Martin Skrtel. The imposing Slovakian centre-back is best known for his physical play and bald head, but suffered an ignominious fate in 2013/14 when he scored four own goals in a single term. Boro had a bit of trouble with own goals last term; Ben Gibson and George Friend each put one past their own goalkeeper in Boro's march to promotion. While fantasy Premier League managers may care more about that stat than real-life boss Karanka, there are questions hanging over the collective head of Boro's back line. The biggest of those is if they can retain Premier League status on the back of their defense.
In each of the past two season's the Championship's best defensive record belonged to Boro, and of the 2014-15 promotion sides, none came close to matching Boro's 37 goals conceded - Norwich (48), Bournemouth (45), Watford (50). However, the EPL performances in 2015-16 for the promoted sides doesn't provide much hope that sound Championship defense can simply rise to the occasion unaided. Norwich (67 conceded) dropped back to the Championship while Bournemouth (67) rode a bit of luck in posting a worse goal differential (-22) than relegated side Newcastle (-21). Only Watford (50 conceded) was able to replicate their defensive success and that record is certainly down to opponents respect for the explosive attacking talent of the Hornets' front line (91 goals in 2014-15; 40 goals in 2015-16).
Boro can't count on much help from the forward line. 31-year-old David Nugent lead the club in both goals (9) and assists (7) in 2015-15. 26-year-old Jordan Rhodes did finally complete a protracted move on 1 February. But Rhodes, who hit 10 in 25 for Rovers before his move, scored just six in 18 during the run-in. Without a high-octane attack, Karanka is right to pursue defensive upgrades, and it is almost certainly the more stable and economic path to pursue.
This becomes more evident with a quick look back to the 2013-14 campaign, when of the best defensive records were promoted. Burnley (37) and Leicester (43) each made difficult work of survival. Burnley going straight back down in 2014-15 (-25, with 53 goals conceded - 5th worst that season) while the Foxes famously staved-off relegation in 2014-15 but allowed 55 goals, more than all but two clubs that season.
The 2012-13 Championship season also saw the best defensive record fail to earn promotion (Brighton & Hove Albion; 43 conceded) but the best of the rest - Cardiff City (45) - was promoted only to yo-yo back to the Championship for 2014-15. Cardiff posted the fewest points, the second worst defensive record (74 conceded) and second worst goal differential (-42) in the EPL during the 2013-14 season. That 2014 summer window by Cardiff is one to study as they splashed the cash on an untested 20-year-old forward from Denmark. Andreas Cornelius cost a reported £8 million and made just eight appearances, scoring no goals, before departing Wales. In the defensive end the club did sign then 21-year-old Steven Caulker, fresh from a loan spell with Swansea City. He scored five goals and was tireless as only a 21-year-old can be, but he was just one man. The other defenders signed that window were John Brayford (Derby County), Maximiliano Amondarain (free) and Kevin Theophile-Catherine (Rennes). The former two failed to make a League appearance between them that season while the later played 28 times and abruptly returned to France.
Recent history suggests Skrtel cannot be the only new addition if Boro are to stay up. Headlines linking the club to Fernando Llorente, and the signing of 21-year-old Viktor Fischer, are certainly newsworthy, but the possible free transfer of Sporting Gijon defender Bernardo Espinosa should be greeted as welcome news. While Bernardo is recovering from a knee injury, the free transfer permits Karanka the flexibility to pursue another defender while adding a skilled and experienced squad player to the mix. An ideal scenario would be to snatch one of the possible departures from Manchester City (both Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy have been linked with an exit this summer) and confirm Ritchie de Laet as a permanent move.
While it may seem harsh or a dismissal of the play of this squad to champion so many new faces, there must be questions asked of the massive leap forward from Emilio Nsue at right-back and the lingering effects of George Friend's significant shoulder injury. Promotion should provide impetus to bring in competition for those places just as Skrtel and Bernardo will push Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson in the heart of the defense.
-John Wallin writes for www.playtogga.com, the best fantasy Premier League platform and mobile app on the market. With live draft games and weekly Perfect XI challenges, Togga's game is free to download and play. Scoring in 18 different statistics, all powered by Opta, the leading provider of sports data.