A summer of excitement, signings and anticipation for the new seasons is almost coming to an end as the season’s opener against Mark Hughes' Stoke inches ever closer.
Karanka’s new look side will kick off their Premier League return in front of a sell out Riverside as, hopefully, as successful but cautiously optimistic season gets underway. Whilst Gibson, Karanka and even the most optimistic Boro fan would snap your hand off to survive relegation by even the smallest of margins, there’s a strong sense of positivity across Middlesbrough’s strong delegation of Twitter fans, or the majority at least, that Boro will hold their own this season and ‘do a Watford’. Okay, this isn’t a term that’s really used that often, but the newly promoted Hornets bagged themselves a 13th place finish last term and looked at home in the Premier League. If Boro can follow a similar mould, Middlesbrough fans could be spared the nail-biting relegation scrap in April and May. Scrolling through the feed of Middlesbrough fans on Twitter, there’s a few questions which the topic of conversations are seeming to circulate around, questions fans will hoping to have been answered by 5:45pm on Saturday afternoon.
‘Will Karanka play 4-4-2?’
Some sections of fans grew frustrated last season at Karanka’s defiance over his 4-2-3-1 formation and lack of willingness to go 4-4-2. Karanka’s reign, and success, has predominantly stemmed from building a team which had a solid base and foundation. Karanka’s first 12 months in charge was spent drilling this mentality into his players, making the team hard to break down and beat.
Last season saw the true reward for this hard work as this solid foundation gave the attacking player's confidence and allowed them to experiment going forward. This 4-2-3-1 formation fit perfectly to Karanka’s playing style. It was solid and allowed the team to counter attack. Whilst Rhodes was at time an isolated figure, and being the lone target man limited his goalscoring, he worked tirelessly to bring others into play. Gaston Ramirez was an outstanding signing for the second half of the season and without him, promotion may not have been possible. The Uruguayan took the opportunity to reignite his stuttering career and by joining the club permanently over the summer for free, he looks to an absolutely incredible piece of business. Ramirez has a point to prove in the Premier League and i’d fully expect him to be on the teamsheet against Stoke.
Karanka has a wealth of Strikers at his disposal with Negredo, Rhodes, Nugent and Stuani giving the option of a 4-4-2 if and when he chooses to use it. But, if it isn’t Broke, don’t fix it. Only time will tell, but the players know the 4-2-3-1 system, it got us promoted and it’s solidness lends itself perfectly to the Premier League.
‘Who will be in goal against Stoke’
The battle for the number 1 shirt has been a huge talking point since the arrival of Valdes and more recently Guzan. In literal terms, the announcement of the squad numbers crowned Dimi winner of this high-calibre battle, but that still doesn’t really give us any solid confirmation that the Greek-Stopper will be in the between the posts against Bojan and Co on Saturday. Apart from an odd mistake, Dimi was faultless last season and played a massive hand in Boro’s Premier League promotion push. Mejias lack of real challenge to Dimi meant that the signing of a new Goalkeeper this summer was inevitable. However, I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams could predict the goalkeeper in questions would be Valdes. A huge signing, but a signing which gives Karanka an even bigger selection headache. Just incase the decision wasn’t difficult enough, Brad Guzan arrives at the club adding even more competition.
So, who get’s AK’s backing as Boro’s first Premier League goalkeeper in 7 long years. The reaction from fans towards Dimi against Real Sociedad is a demonstration of his popularity amongst the fans and a reminder that whatever the decision made by the manager, his heroics of last season will not be forgotten. If Dimi starts on Saturday, even for sentimental reasons, and performs well it would be difficult for him to be dropped. But, I think Valdes will start against Stoke and if he performs to the level he is capable of, it could be difficult for Guzan and Dimi to get a look in.
‘Who will play out wide’
The wide areas were a position Middlesbrough looked shortest last seasons, with Adomah the only real out-and-out winger at AK’s disposal. The debate over Downing’s best position continues, and whilst he may feel his most effective role is a number 10, the local lad played most of his football last term out wide. Ramirez’s performances last year suggest it’s vital for him for to be a regular feature as Middlesbrough’s number 10 this season, meaning Downing’s best chance at a starting position will again be out wide. Downing had a hit and miss season and at times often flattered to deceive. But he is still a player with quality and will be backing himself to show that he is still a player of Premier-League class. Adomah is another one who had a hit-and-miss seasons at times, but his work ethic, non stop running and willingness to drive the ball forward makes him a real asset to the team. For me, he is a guaranteed started against Stoke, as his quality on the ball, along with his energy and pace adds another dimension to our counter attacking style.
Bringing competition on the wing is Middlesbrough’s new Danish wonderkid Viktor Fischer.The youngster, once scouted extensively by the best clubs in the world before his injury, has all the ingredients needed to be a Premier League success. He’s pacey, got tricks and has a deadly final ball and strike. Although he’s got raw potential, the Stoke game may come to earlier as Karanka works hard to instil a defensive element to his game. But he’s only young, and whilst i’m dying to see him tear defensive apart, it may be that we have to be patient with him. Another player who will be hoping to break his way into the squad is the forgotten figure of Adam Reach. Reach, who has been at the club since a boy, has spent the best part of two seasons on loan at various clubs. He’s enjoyed a successful pre season, and whilst Middlesbrough have received offers for the player, for now he remains part of the squad. He’s always had huge potential and he’ll be hoping that this is the year he can truly convince AK he should be given his Premier League dream. Stuani was used last seasons as a makeshift winger and i’d predict most of his appearances this season will come off the bench. I still feel it’s a position which we could still strengthen, but there’s much more variety than last year.
‘Rhodes, Negredo or Nugent’
Presuming my last suggestion of a 4-2-3-1 formation is correct, then only one of Boro’s striking options will start against Stoke. Rhodes was Boro’s big January move and brought much needed firepower to a previously non firing forward line. Rhodes didn’t repeat his goal scoring form which attracted the club to him in the first place, but played the crucial lone striker role perfectly last season sacrificing his natural goalscoring game for the benefit of the whole team. Rhodes slotted perfectly into Karanka’s and will be hoping his impressive pre-season form will get his name on the team sheet for the season curtain raiser. Unlike Rhodes, Negredo has played in the Premier League before. He was only at Manchester City a year, but during a 5 month period at the Etihad he was virtually unplayable. His power and lethal finishing make him a defender’s nightmare. His Premier League career was over swiftly and he’ll be hoping the last 12 months at Valencia is forgotten fairly swiftly also. But class is permanent. If Karanka can get Negredo back to his best, the Middlesbrough could have a 15-20 goal a season striker on their hands. Then there’s Nugent. The experienced forward will provide strong competition to Negredo and Rhodes, but will mainly provide a different option from the bench.
‘Has Karanka got twitter’
Yes. @Karanka. Enjoy!
My Starting 11 VS Stoke:
Valdes; Nsue, Baptiste, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, De Roon; Adomah, Ramirez, Fischer; Negredo.
What do you think the starting 11 should be against Stoke?