Middlesbrough's trip to Leicester is an early relegation six-pointer
Five points out of a possible twelve over the last four games may seem like a relatively low points return if Middlesbrough are to escape relegation this season.
However, with away trips to Arsenal and Manchester City and a visit of Chelsea, Karanka will be pleased with the team's points haul over the last 4 matches. The most satisfying aspect of the last four matches for the manager, fans and players will the performances.
Against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, they showed that they can compete with the teams challenging at the top of the table whilst the home win against Bournemouth demonstrated the ability to beat the teams around them. There's no doubt that every player, and the manager, struggled to adapt to the Premier League in the early parts of the season. This is understandable. Last season Middlesbrough were all too used to winning football matches, controlling possession and keeping clean sheets. But Karanka and the players deserve credit for learning from their errors and establishing themselves as a hard to beat Premier League team. Despite a string of impressive performances, football is a result business and inevitably results are the only factor which will ensure the Riverside Stadium will play host to Premier League football again next season.
Saturday presents Middlesbrough with the perfect opportunity to build on the performances of the last four games and take home all three points from the King Power Stadium. Leicester City winning the Premier League title last season was possibly one of the greatest sporting achievements in history and something which will rarely, if ever, be repeated. Even the most optimistic Leicester fan would agree that there was very little chance of the Foxes repeating the feat two seasons in a row, but even the most pessimistic fan would surely have expected the Premier League Champions to be performing slightly better than they have been in the opening 12 games of the seasons. Despite a very impressive Champions League campaign which saw them qualify as group winners, Leicester have struggled with their domestic form and as result find themselves just 1 point and 1 place above ‘Boro. This makes Saturday’s trip to the King Power stadium an early relegation 6-pointer and a game that both teams will feel like really can and should win.
With a vital three points at stake, what should Middlesbrough do to ensure they return to Teesside with the victory? Karanka has found a formula which makes Middlesbrough a strong defensive unit. But going forward, they’ve often struggled to create chances and haven’t consistently failed to convert those that they do create.
The inclusion of Traore has coincided with the last four impressive performances where he has started each game. At times Traore can be a little bit frustrating but there’s no doubt that he adds an extra dimension to Middlesbrough’s attack. The other side of midfield is the position which is definitely up for grabs.
Downing was Karanka’s preferred option initially, but the last few games has seen him slip ever so slightly out of favour. Ramirez was used on the left against Chelsea, however I think he’s most effective as a number 10. Waiting on the bench for his opportunity is young Victor Fishcer who has had very few opportunities to prove himself since joining from Ajax in the summer.
The Denmark international, who appears regularly for the national side, has no doubt got talent. From the brief cameos we’ve seen from him so far suggest he’s got pace and is comfortable on the ball. I’d play him on the left against Leicester. He’s had time on the sideline to watch how the team play and will be well aware he will need to take his defensive duties seriously. Once Fischer is given a couple of games to prove himself, like Traore was, he’ll become a vital part to the team and will provide an attacking threat down the left hand side.
There’s been much debate amongst fans about Negredo’s poor goalscoring form this season and the constant omission of Jordan Rhodes from Karanka’s first choice 11. The Scottish striker, who Middlesbrough signed for a fee of around 10 million in January, played a vital part in last seasons promotion push. With Nugent and Rhodes the only senior forwards at the club, it was no surprise Aitor opted to prioritise a central striker in his summer shopping.
The goal in the opening game of the season remains Negredo’s only goal in a ‘Boro shirt and has sparked calls for Rhodes to be given a shot upfront. The way Karanka sets up his team, there is more of an emphasis on the striker to work hard for the team and hold up the ball rather than score. At time this season, particularly against Arsenal and Manchester City, Negredo has been an isolated figure up front but has constantly worked hard.
Despite his work ethic and contribution to the team as a whole, Negredo’s goal return hasn’t been what we would have expected. There’s been suggestion that Rhodes has been treated badly by the management team amid constant reports that he has been angling for a move away from the Riverside Stadium in January: just 12 months after signing for the club. Personally, I don’t think Rhodes has been badly treated. I do understand he could have been given some more opportunities this season and feel sorry for him in this regard, but every footballer will go through a period where they struggle to work their way back into the starting 11.
Negredo is a Spanish international who has proved himself already in the Premier League, so Karanka can be excused for persevering with him. As Middlesbrough build on their improved performances and create more chances, Negredo will start scoring goals. Rhodes will get his chance and when he does, it’s up to him to prove to Karanka why he’s the best striker at the club. And in regards to the reports that Rhodes wants to leave, I’d take them with a huge scoop of salt. It’s easy journalism to say a player who isn’t playing wants to leave.