Should Clayton and Ayala return against Arsenal
There’s no doubt Middlesbrough’s return to the Premier League hasn’t started in the way fans would have hoped or expected following a pre-season of impressive transfer business adding to an already strong squad.
The manager, players and tactics have all come under criticism as the Riverside faithful try to pinpoint the reasons behind poor results. An October trip to the Emirates would have initially seen as a ‘free hit’ with anything other than a defeat regarded as a bonus. But the poor start to the season makes it a match ‘boro could really do with getting something from.
Getting anything from the game will be a difficult task as Arsenal continue their impressive start to the season and even without a suspended Granit Xhaka, Arsene Wenger will be confident of another three points. If Middlesbrough are to get anything from the game they’ll have to put in their best defensive performance of the campaign so far and eradicate silly defensive mistakes. Karanka will have been working throughout the week to put together a plan to stop Arsenal and come away from the Emirates with a vital point. So how should Middlesbrough line up and what should their approach be against Arsenal on Saturday.
Much has been said about Victor Valdes in the first 8 games of the season with many pinning the blame on his shoulders for the below-average opening to the campaign. For many the frustration with Valdes has been born out the perceived ‘mistreated’ of Dimi due to the former Greek international not getting his chance in the Premier League. I can understand this. But placing Teesside’s love for Dimi on hold for a moment, you’ll see that Valdes hasn’t done anything wrong. I’d fully expect to see the former Barcelona man in between the posts on Saturday providing more big-game experience to the team.
Arguably the shining light so far this season has been Ben Gibson. The local hero has adapted comfortably to the Premier League and will be one of Karanka’s first names on the team sheet for the Arsenal test. The biggest decision is who will partner him with the recent first choice defender Chambers not able to face his parent club as part of the loan agreement. Barragan’s performance’s in this role at the beginning of the season may tempt him to put him in this position again. Personally I would reinstate Ayala back into the team to add some much needed no-nonsense defending against an Arsenal team in top form.
At right back I would bring back Nsue despite his disappointing performance in his last game against West Brom. Nsue has the speed to help nullify the rapid Arsenal attack of Sanchez, Walcott and Iwobi. Whilst Barragan does have some qualities, Watford’s Isaac Success showed that dealing with pace and trickery is not one of them. With an Arsenal attack which is full of quick players like Walcott, Sanchez and Iwobi i’d be more comfortable with the speed of Nsue to help nullify Arsenal’s attacks and provide an outlet going forward. The same thing could be said for the left side of defence as Fabio looks to make his first Premier League start since joining the club. Despite some questions being raised about Friend’s ability to step up a division, i’d start him against Arsenal. His ability to carry the ball forward is often underrated and this will be vital to relieve pressure and take Middlesbrough up the pitch. Friend is a leader and if he is able to remove mistakes from his game he’ll start to recreate some of his form from last season.
Arsenal’s ability to keep and pass the ball will be something Karanka will be aware of and will have worked hard during the week to create a system and tactics which help to disrupt Arsenal’s flow as much as possible. Even with first choice midfielders Xhaxa and Cazorla missing the match, Arsenal still have a strong midfield. The only way Middlesbrough will get anything from the game is with a solid midfield who fight hard to win the ball back and follow the movement of the interchangeable Arsenal front line and Midfield.
At the heart of the midfield I would start Adam Clayton. The midfielder, who has arguably the player of the season last year, will tighten up the midfielder and bring some steel into the middle of the park. Alongside him would be summer signing De Roon. He hasn’t set the world a light so far this season, but then again who has? His stature and physical style of play next to Adam Clayton will provide Middlesbrough with a solid base in midfield. Slightly in front of them would be Adam Forshaw. The midfielder has been consistently impressive so far this season and is really relishing the opportunity to get a long awaited run in the team. The only issue with playing Forshaw as part of a defensive midfield duo is that he isn’t a defensive minded player which leaves gaps for the opposition. By playing in front of De Roon and Clayton, Forshaw will be given the license to bring the ball forward with his speed and comfort on the ball.
The final third is where Middlesbrough are leaving much to be desired. There’s no doubt ‘Boro will be forced to defend for large periods of the match. However, without an outlet we will inevitably concede regardless how of well we defend. With the midfield 3 providing defensive cover and a base to win the ball back, I’d start with Downing and Fischer out wide. I’ve been critical of Downing since his return to the club due to his lack of quality on the ball and his constant desire to drift into midfield. However, Downing does do the defensive duties well and if he provides the quality of delivery he is capable of then he could be a threat. On the right it was a close call between Fischer and Adama, both of which are yet to be given a real chance to show their worth. Whilst Adama will provide a threat from the bench, I feel Fischer has more quality on the ball to capitalise on any rare opportunity which comes our way. Leading the line I would start Jordan Rhodes due to his work rate and ability to hold the ball up.
The match against Arsenal will be one of the hardest of the season, but if Middlesbrough defend well there’s always a chance of getting something. Karanka doesn’t need to go all out attack, but he must start with some players on the pitch who are able to bring the ball forward otherwise we could be in for a really long afternoon.