Middlesbrough: Where did it all go wrong?

At the end of a long Premier League campaign, that old footballing cliché comes along and states that the table doesn’t lie. It’s a well-worn phrase but in this case it’s also true so would it be hard to argue that Middlesbrough deserve their fate? Relegation was emphatic; Boro were second from bottom and 12 points from a safety that never looked likely. The stats are there but somehow, there is a feeling that Middlesbrough, unlike Sunderland and Hull City who drop down with them, could have done so much better.

Facts don’t lie

The numbers are damning and Boro had just 28 points at an average of just 0.74 per game and that tally would have seen them drop in each of the last five Premier League seasons. The clear issue for Boro is identified in the goals columns; they had let in just 53 and you have to climb up to West Brom in 10th place to find a team who had conceded fewer. Goals for makes for less happy reading on statistics site WhoScored, with just 27, and no side, even Sunderland at the bottom, had a worse tally.

There have been some notable results, too, with the club drawing twice, both home and away with the mighty Manchester City while claiming another point against Arsenal at the Emirates. But, according to research from online bookmaker Betway Insider, Middlesbrough were the biggest underachievers in the Premier League: that is to say, they simply didn’t win enough games when the odds were actually in their favour. Draws against Arsenal and Manchester City were impressive and in ten games against the teams closest to them, Sunderland, Hull, Swansea, Watford and Burnley, they picked up 15 points. That’s eighteen points in total in 13 matches at a ratio higher than their overall average so, the issue comes with an inability to beat mid-table teams.

Who’s to Blame?

Much of the criticism for Boro’s drop back to the Championship was levelled at former manager Aitor Karanka, who was sacked in mid-March when the club’s fate was essentially sealed. The Spaniard was said to be too conservative in his style of play while clashes with a number of players undermined the overall confidence on the pitch. It’s also said that his micro-managing of Adama Traore, who switched flanks to be within shouting distance of the technical area, unbalanced the nature of the team. While much of that criticism is valid, the players must share the blame. Traore’s speed and ball control may have appeared to dazzle but TV pundits often pointed to the lack of an end product. Unfortunately, the stats bear that out and, after 16 games this season, the former Barcelona man had scored no goals and produced just one assist. The strength lies in Traore’s dribbling but a pass completion rate of 69.9% is poor and the only conclusion that can be drawn from these figures is that Middlesbrough have a luxury player on their hands.

Blunt in Attack

A tally of 53 goals conceded is a fairly admirable one but 27 at the right end of the pitch is dismal so who is culpable here? The leading scorer with just nine league goals is Alvaro Negredo, while midfielders Marten De Roon and Cristhian Stuani follow with four apiece. They’re not records to excite any potential buyers but those involved could point to a lack of service with Traore a likely culprit again. On the subject of goals, some Boro fans are confused by the treatment of Patrick Bamford. A loan star in 2014/15 with 19 goals in 44 matches, he was finally purchased from Chelsea in January 2017 but only made six substitute appearances before scoring his first Premier League goal in his first start against Southampton in May. Is this another measure of Karanka’s ultra-cautious nature?

The next step for owner Steve Gibson is to make a permanent decision on the manager role and whether caretaker boss Steve Agnew stays or is replaced. Whoever is in charge this summer will then have to negotiate an important transfer window before 2017/18, and the quest to return to the Premier League, begins. If and when that goal is completed, there are certain lessons from the current campaign that could help prevent another instant drop.