I think it’s worth making a few key points clear before this article analyses the failings of Sunday and the lessons learnt going into the visit of high-flying Liverpool to the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday.
Firstly, I’m 100% behind Aitor Karanka and still feel he’s the correct man to not only keep Middlesbrough in the Premier League, but to help us progress further as a club. There’s been criticism of his style and tactics so far this season, with many people suggesting they want us to ‘get at teams’. I understand this criticism, as we can be a frustrating team to watch. But surviving relegation has got to be the aim this season, and trying to play attacking football wouldn’t necessarily yield a better points tally.
There’s no doubt he got it wrong against Southampton, but let’s not forget the fantastic performances against the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Bournemouth. Karanka is only a young manager and like many of the players in the squad, he’s learning and adapting. I’m just as frustrated with the performance on Sunday and the lack of attacking intent. If you’re calling for Karanka’s head, well that’s your opinion, but who would seriously replace him?
Since the disappointing 1-0 defeat to Watford in October, Middlesbrough have collected a very impressive 9 points from 6 games including difficult away trips to Arsenal, Manchester and a home six-pointer against Hull City. The improvement in form and performances meant that optimism was high ahead of the trip to the Southampton: a side who have had a stuttering start to the season following another summer of rebuilding.
Middlesbrough were the better team in the first half and carved out the best chance of the first 45 mins as Victor Fischer rounded Forster only to see his effort cleared off the line. The second half was possibly the worst 45 minutes of football the team has played so far this season. The midfield 3, who have formed a formidable combination, were unusually sloppy in position and really failed to start any attacks.
Victor Fischer and Fabio provided an outlet down the left hand side and tried their best to make something happen when they had the ball, although this wasn’t often enough. The real issues for Middlesbrough were down the right hand side in pairing of Stuani and Barragan. The injury to Ramirez meant that Karanka was forced into making a chance to the side which beat Hull City 1-0 on Monday night. Scrolling through Twitter briefly before the game it was obvious who fans wanted to start on the right side of midfield: Adama Traore.
Since bursting into the starting 11 at the Emirates almost 2 months ago, Adama Traore has transformed how Middlesbrough play and has offered a different dimension to the attack. There’s no way that he’s the finished article yet, but his pace and power is enough to frighten even the best full backs.
I can understand why he was left on the bench against Hull. The Tigers packed 11 men behind the ball which wouldn’t leave any room for Traore to run into. But without Ramirez on Sunday, who was a huge miss, it seemed the most natural replacement would be Adama Traore. I think it’s unfair to criticise Stuani, however. The bottom line is, he isn’t the type of player who is able to effectively play as a wide midfielder. With Stuani in the team, we lack pace, balance and any real attacking intent.
As the second half progressed, it was evident that the equaliser was not going to come. The most frustrating aspect of the disappointing defeat was that Southampton were very average and the three points were there for the taking if we wanted them.
If Negredo is fit on Wednesday, then he’d return for Rhodes. Rhodes didn’t have any service on Sunday which meant it would be unfair to judge him just on that performance, but Negredo helps to link up the play and is a vital part of making Karanka’s system work. Ramirez has showed why Karanka put his faith in the Uruguayan and has returned this faith by being arguably Boro’s most influential player this season. His absence was costly on Sunday and he should also return to the starting 11 on Wednesday if he is fit and available. With those two on the pitch, we’re capable of causing an upset.
Fixtures against Southampton and Liverpool were always going to be difficult and I’ve always said that anything from these two games will be a bonus. If we beat Swansea on Saturday, then the table will make for much healthier reading again.