Everyone involved with the club is more than aware that this season will be difficult and some games will inevitably end in defeat. But the home game against Watford was not one of these. This was a match we really should have been taking three points from if we’re serious about survival.
The frustration surrounding yesterday’s defeat was heightened further as Watford looked very average. They executed a typical away performance; defend, break up play and score with the first shot on target. From their perspective it wasn’t pretty but they got the job done and head back to the capital with three points in the bag and a huge leap away from the early relegation scrap which Middlesbrough have found themselves in.
Fan post-match reaction following the stinging from the hornets has been greater than that in recent memory with everyone providing a theory as to what went wrong. It’s difficult to pin the blame on a single reason Middlesbrough have started the season so poorly with a number of factors equally contributing to an underwhelming first 8 games.
The overriding opinion amongst the majority of fans is Karanka’s 4231 system and cautious style of play is the primary reason for both yesterday’s defeat and the lack of results so far this season. In the Championship the 4231 provided Boro with a defensive basis allowing the team to control possession and dominate matches.
Despite not providing many goals or free flowing football it proved successful in promoting Boro to the Premier League. The top flight requires a different set of tactics in order to survive. Last season some supporters continued to demand a 442 system. Stubborn Karanka stuck to his beliefs and rightly so. Playing 442 is not going to be the magic fix that suddenly changes our fortunes. Two strikers will provide an attacking force but by sacrificing a midfielder we run the risk of getting dominated and overrun in midfield. The benefit of two strikers is weakened if we’re unable to win the ball in midfield.
Sometimes too much emphasis is placed on formations and systems. Let’s not forget that for large parts of the Watford performance Middlesbrough controlled the match, losing only to a spectacular effort following a sloppy clearance. In the system we looked comfortable but failed to provide that attacking flair or spark. I can see the benefits of a 442 and understand the desperate plea from fans for Karanka to adopt this system.
But for me I do like 4321, but we need the correct players on the pitch to execute it effectively. Forshaw was arguably man of the match against Watford and alongside him De Roon looked comfortable if not a little underwhelming. But the pair did a decent enough job of breaking down any rare watford attacks and moving the ball out wide.
In this formation the wide men are the absolute key to success. For Middlesbrough it’s the weakest part of the team. Local lad Downing returned to his hometown club last summer with the intention of helping Middlesbrough get back to the big time. He did that. Well, he was a member of the a team which got promoted, but how much impact did he have? It’s no secret that Downing didn’t perform to the standards expected from him. He’s already said he found the Saturday-Tuesday game schedule a struggle, which, is a little bit understandable. But back in the weekly Premier League and he hasn’t faired much better. Even as a youngster Downing wasn’t blessed without lightning pace so i wasn’t expecting him to be flying down the wing taking full-backs on. But Downing’s pin-point accuracy from his left-foot delivery is what made him a special player. He seems to have lost this. Time after time his delivery from both set pieces and open play hits the first man. Even more frustratingly, Downing continuously comes into the central of midfield leaving no option on the left and a real lack of balance in the team. In this system, Downing should be relishing the opportunity to stay out wide, collect the ball and provide accurate crosses to Negredo: a player who’s currently starved of service.
If Downing can perform to the standards he is capable of then he’s the best left midfielder we have. But currently he’s a passenger. Downing’s lack of effectiveness is even more evident as the same problems exist on the right hand side. This is the position where fans and Karanka completely disagree.
Stuani is not a bad player. If anything he’s proven his worth as the most inform striker currently at the club. But Karanka doesn’t see him as a striker. Never has and never will.
Nothing Stuani has done in his time at the club suggests he has any qualities which define his as a wide player. He’s not the quickest, doesn’t have skill and lacks quality in his crossing. It’s a massive square peg in a tiny round hole. There’s potentially room for one ineffective winger, but having two is the root of our unimaginative and uncreative performances.
Regardless of system, Stuani and Downing are not performing in their positions.
I don’t believe we need to change formation or go out all guns blazing against teams, but we need players on the pitch who can provide creativity and are able to turn possession into goals. If those players were on the pitch yesterday, 4231 would have provided us with the three points. There’s no doubt we have these players and sooner or later they needed to be given a chance to shine because unfortunately the current 11 are not performing. I’m of course talking about Fischer and Adama. From their minimal game time so far this season, both have shown signs of potential, pace and creative flair which is so desperately lacking. They must be given a chance sooner or later. Adama, Fischer and Ramirez behind the striker would turn 4231 into a dynamic, creative and attacking system whilst still retaining solidity and control in midfielder.
I can understand the frustration, but I think calls for Karanka to be sacked are a little unfair.
He’s done such an amazing job for the club so far in winning promotion and completely changing our look as a side. I’ve not doubt he’ll find the formula eventually that sees us to safety.
Besides, if Karanka was to go who are the serious contenders to replace him? I can’t think of many. There’s a lot of talk about systems, but 4321 has proved successful for many teams in this league, we just need the correct players to play it and at the moment those are sat on the bench. Let’s not be mistaken those. The starting 11 against Watford was full of top quality international footballers who should have had enough to win the game. So whilst calls for a new system are understandable, the players also need to step up their game.
Finally, some sections of fans need to stop the anti-Valdes agenda which seems to be developing. I heard fans blaming him for the defeat yesterday, unjustifiably jeering him every time he didn’t come to collect the ball. I wouldn’t say he’s set the world a light or has really proved much so far but he isn’t the root of Middlesbrough's bad form.