Aitor Karanka needs to make Middlesbrough take more risks
Aitor Karanka must pick up a bruised and battered Middlesbrough side, sore from a pitiful 1-0 defeat against Watford.
An away trip to Arsenal is definitely not what you'd choose next but the fact of the matter is that Boro will be -- and should be -- scrapping and battling for every last point in the Premier League. No matter who the opponent, what counts is that the team spirit is there and that there is at least some energy and purpose to the performance.
While the attitude and ability of many of the players has been called into question, most eyes are focused firmly on the manager. Unsurprisingly for a former Spanish league defender, the Basque boss likes to build his team from the back. Having a tight defence was key to Boro's promotion aspirations last season and successfully propelled them into the Premier League - only losing twice at home in the process.Things couldn't be more different this season where, eight games in, only one win has been recorded, a 2-1 victory away at Sunderland in August. Riverside Stadium is no longer a fortress, not an imposing venue for teams to come to as it was in the Championship -- and the problem lies intrinsically with the team's setup.
It has been sufficient for teams facing Boro to simply turn up and perform at a mediocre level -- as long as they place sufficient pressure on the back four, the defence will cave eventually and the opposition will come away with a win through very little exertion. It's telling that the Teessiders haven't yet suffered a truly thumping defeat this season, with most defeats coming by a one-goal margin -- teams only need to score a single goal past the Reds and that should be enough to seal the deal.
Karanka's central midfield pairing, the engine room that rotates between Marten de Roon, Adam Forshaw and last season's ever-present Adam Clayton, are good at what they do. But their presence simply encourages the defence to sit deeper and invite pressure from the opposition. This in turn leads to a huge disconnect between the central pair and the playmakers, often Gaston Ramirez, Cristhian Stuani and Stewart Downing, who end up pulled back behind the ball, leaving a hungry and unsupported Alvaro Negredo looking frustrated in the other side's half.
It's not as if the Boro boss wasn't criticised for his formation even in the year that brought promotion -- often the football was sluggish and laboured, with players capping their inventiveness in favour of a more cautious approach. He struggled to respond to this with his blind faith in a system that, to be fair, when it works well, is incredibly effective. But Premier League teams have the wherewithal to break through it, and survival in the top flight cannot be assured by defence alone.
Boro desperately need some more movement and firepower going forward, as most of the searching and wayward punts that we have seen this season are easily snuffed out. Fans cry out for two up front, pairing Jordan Rhodes with Negredo, but Karanka is loath to lose the width in his midfield five. Dynamic winger Adama Traore is subconsciously willed onto the pitch from the bench and, although his pace takes things up a notch, the wastefulness of his final product renders his presence almost worthless.
For Boro, January can't come soon enough as there are not enough creative attacking options to help them deal with the quality of the Premier League. Karanka may well bow to pressure and change the structure of his side but if the calibre of players remains as it is then it would likely fail to make any real impact.
Boro's number one challenge at Arsenal will be to see if they can go for it; be a bit daring, break free of their self-imposed shackles and try to have a go. On paper it's certainly a game that nobody expects them to win, so why not try something different instead of playing for a last cause? If they are planning to defend their way through Saturday's game then it will surely come at a cost, plunging them into the relegation places and six games without a victory.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady