This time last year, Boro were locked in an ultimately unsuccessful chase for Daryl Murphy, a forward who, at the age of 33, has only passed the 15-goal mark once in his career. Now, Aitor Karanka can take his pick between Álvaro Negredo and Jordan Rhodes to lead the line.
This transformation has been extraordinary, and fans are right to be inspired. But two years of being one of the best teams in the Second Division has bred confidence and eventually cockiness, a cockiness which is no longer justified a division above.
Negredo, Víctor Valdés, Marten de Roon and the rest are potentially great signings, but Boro are far from alone in having stars seemingly above their station. This business is being done up and down the league, from Manchester City snapping up Germany’s hottest young talent in Leroy Sané to Southampton bringing in Bayern Munich youngster Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Bournemouth spending big on the former Next Raheem Sterling in Jordon Ibe.
Boro’s stars shine blindingly in the context of a newly-promoted Championship club, but in the supergalaxy that is the 2016/17 Premier League, they fade into relative normality. Middlesbrough have signed a Champions League winner? Stoke City have four.
This is the sort of context that many fans on Social Media seem to be forgetting and, without wishing to rain on the parade before it even begins, this sort of overconfidence could have a derailing effect on the whole season when – not if – things start to go wrong.
The mentality shift from winning every other week to trying not to lose has to be undertaken quickly, and patience will be needed in spades. An overreaction to a difficult spell last season almost derailed the promotion campaign and cost Aitor Karanka his job, and Boro simply cannot afford such instability to take hold again.
At the end of October, Boro will face Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester City in the space of five games. Four of their last six opponents are Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Goals will be shipped, pride will be shaken and points will be dropped.
Overconfidence and inflated expectations before the season could translate into a toxic atmosphere in the stands – or worse, no atmosphere at all – which in turn could reopen old wounds from the nadir of Charlton and send Boro into a tailspin.
On the face of things, Boro’s opening three fixtures look relatively simple. However, the opening-day clash with Stoke looks likely to see Bojan Krkić, Marko Arnautović and Xherdan Shaqiri running at an 18-year-old Dael Fry on his Premier League debut. The second match, against Sunderland, is away to a side who played well enough after Christmas last season to bag their manager the England job. The third sees Salomón Rondón, the archetypal ‘Typical Boro’ big man up front waiting next to pacy predator Saido Berahino for a chance to run at an inexperienced defence.
Boro are in the middle of an exciting project, and the last seven years have shown that top-flight football is something to be savoured. But to run into the season blinded by optimism could see things quickly take a turn for the worse.
- Sam France