Sunderland v Boro - Three key battles
I read an article the other day which seemed to suggest that Middlesbrough FC fans admitted that the newly-promoted team looked really tired in the latter stages of the season opener against Stoke.
It went on to suggest Moyes’ preparation for the game should focus on ‘tiring the poor Middlesbrough players out’. Whilst the loss of De Roon did mean that the team lost a little bit of an engine in the middle of park, it needs to be said that Middlesbrough were up against a very good Stoke side and were able to match them in both quality and fitness for the most part of 90 minutes.
Fitness and stamina is paramount to Championship success and this season they’ll be fitter than ever before. There’s no doubt both managers will have been working on their tactics to get something from Sunday’s derby, but what are the key battles which will determine the outcome of the game?
Defoe Vs Barragan & Gibson
The foundations of Middlesbrough’s promotion success were built on the toughest and tightest defence in the country conceding just 31 goals in 46 hard fought games. Middlesbrough’s quality over other teams was there for everyone to see last season and they felt that even with a mistake, although not often, they were still able to overcome any challenge they were faced with on their quest to the promise land of the Premier League.
Whilst the quality of the team has improved, they quickly found out on Saturday that in this league mistakes are costly. A cheap free-kick on the edge of the box and some missed chances meant that Boro had to settle for a draw, which was still a fantastic result on top of a very impressive performance. Middlesbrough handled Stoke’s star forward line of Bojan and co well on Saturday and limited the amount of opportunities which came their way.
But on Sunday they face what will be one of the toughest tests of the season in Jermain Defoe. The 33 year old still has the movement and speed to out fox any defender, even 40 million man John Stones. Barragan had an impressive debut in an unfamiliar position against Stoke and we’d expected to see him line-up against Teesside’s own Ben Gibson against out Wearside Rivals on Sunday and he’ll need to have an equally impressive derby-debut this weekend. Depending on how ambitious Moyes is prepared to be, Sunderland don’t tend to offer much of an attacking threat. But Defoe is capable of single handedly winning any game, and Gibson and Barragan will need to keep concentration levels at 100% for 90 minutes to stop the clinical finisher.
The battle for the middle
Sunderland actually looked fairly comfortable against Man City who lacked any real purpose or punch in their possession play. Pep attempted to overload the midfield with narrow full-backs, but this wasn’t really successful in crowding out John O’Shea and Jack Rodwell.
In a tense derby, the key battle will be in the centre of midfield. Whichever midfield is able to be strong in the tackle to win the ball and distribute the ball will have the upper hand in winning the game. This is where I think Middlesbrough have the edge. Adam Clayton looked at home against Stoke, breaking up the play and bringing the ball forward to set the attackers away on the front foot. He’s a leader on the pitch and if Sunderland line-up with O’Shea and Rodwell again then Clayton will fancy his chances of dominating the midfield. The midfield battle would become even more interesting if the injured Lee Cattermole was able to line-up against his former club.
De Roon’s injury on his debut leaves Karanka with a decision to make on who will partner Clayton. Adam Forshaw, a talented player who deserves more opportunities, will have given his chances a huge boost with a solid performance against Stoke and will add energy and pace to the midfield. The second option would be Julien De Sart. The Belgian youngster was clearly signed with the future in mind, but with Leadbitter and De Roon sidelined, he may be given his Premier League debut following a very impressive pre season.
Whoever plays they’ll be required to break the play up and quickly turnover possession and lead a counter attack. Controlling the central midfield is an area Boro mastered during their promotion push and the early signs against Stoke would suggest that Karanka’s knows this a strength for the team. A vital part of Middlesbrough midfield unit of course it Gaston Ramirez. The attacking midfielder has real quality on the ball and gained national praise after an incredible performance against Stoke where he was involved in everything that was good about Middlesbrough’s attacking play. He also has incredible work rate and desire to win the ball, making him a vital asset to the team. If Middlesbrough can win the midfield battle, then Gaston Ramirez will provide us with that skilful and attacking edge over the home team.
Watmore to the right of me, Adnan to the left
A potential strength of Sunderland, again depending on the ambition level from David Moyes, is the Mackem’s wingers. Adnan Januzaj’s arrival from Manchester United adds some real quality to the Sunderland squad if need can reach his potential. But with not much game time, it’s yet to be seen whether he’ll be chucked in from the start or come from the bench. The Belgian winger no doubt has quality and should he enter the pitch, George Friend or Emilio Nsue will need to be at their very best to stop the young winger who has a point to prove at this level. In addition to this, Lens and Watmore could provide some creative flair to the Sunderland attack as Moyes looks to get a win in his first home game as the Black Cats boss.
On the reverse of this, Middlesbrough also have some wide options at Karanka’s disposal. Adomah was highly criticised by some fans after his performance on Saturday. If I were to put any criticism on the shoulders of Albert, it would be regarding his final ball and his inability to play the correct ball on a number of occasions. But other than this, I thought he had a good game and there’s still more to come from him. In a team that lacks overall pace, his runs with the ball moved the team up the pitch quickly and his cross set up Middlesbrough’s only goal of the game. I’d expect him to start on Sunday. I’d also suggest that Karanka will play Downing again. There was lots of expectation when Stewy made his homecoming last summer as the ex-England international return to Teesside after a strong season at West Ham. But last season he didn’t really seem to match this expectation. Maybe the expectation was placed at achievable levels, or maybe he was actually below par. On Saturday he was better, but I’m still not sure how long we’ll see his name on the team sheet if his performances don’t improve.
New signing Fischer will be waiting in the wings and pushing to make his competitive debut on Sunday. The young Dane will add a different dimension to Downing and will provide more of an attacking threat. Karanka’s style would suggest that Downing will start to ensure that Boro keep themselves in the game, but as the game goes on Fischer may be crucial to bagging three points. Besides, if Sunderland’s master plan of ‘tiring the poor lads out’ then Karanka will be forced into making changes.
Sunday will be a tight game with both managers not wanting to give anything away. Regardless of the result, it doesn’t define the season, but I’m predicting Ramirez to inspire Boro to a 2-0 victory.