Why were Middlesbrough relegated? Style, lack of goals and Karanka loyalty
Middlesbrough's relegation was confirmed on Monday, their 3-0 defeat to Chelsea ending their season-long stay back in the Premier League. So where did it all go wrong? Here are five reasons why Boro have fallen straight back into the Championship.
1. Sticking with Aitor Karanka for too long...
This relegation will not do much to diminish Steve Gibson's status as one of the best chairmen in the country. In an era when too many clubs are being ruined by owners who either do not care or are simply incompetent, Gibson should be celebrated for rebuilding his hometown side after taking over 31 years ago. However, it was perhaps Gibson's loyalty to manager Aitor Karanka that meant Boro were relegated without much of a fight. While the patience in modern football is a scarce resource, Gibson arguably showed too much of it in sticking with the Spaniard, even though it was fairly clear around January that things were not working out.
Change is always a risk, and dismissing a manager who had built up so much goodwill by getting the team promoted was always going to be tricky, particularly when Gibson and Karanka seemed to be personally close. But it was clear that Boro, while not actually in the relegation zone until early March, were only heading one way from the turn of the year. Perhaps this is simply hindsight, but had they made a change earlier, as Hull, Swansea and Crystal Palace did, then they might have survived.
2. ...then appointing his assistant afterwards
Even taking into account the delay in making a change, there was still time for Boro. When Karanka departed they were in the relegation zone but only three points adrift with 11 games to play: fresh ideas, an unfamiliar face and renewed enthusiasm could have galvanised the team and made survival a realistic prospect. But as it was, Gibson appointed Karanka's assistant, Steve Agnew, in his place, a curious decision because it is counterintuitive to suggest a regime is not working, then to leave that regime's junior partner in charge.
Agnew brought a little more energy into Boro's play in the early games, but ultimately it wasn't enough: the ideas were not sufficiently fresh, the face too familiar and enthusiasm not renewed. He managed one win and three draws from his nine games, meaning that on a points-per-game basis, he's actually done worse than Karanka. It all smacked a little of the season when Wolves dismissed Mick McCarthy but gave his right-hand man, Terry Connor, the job: far from inspiring the team to better things, they disappeared without a trace and finished bottom of the league.
3. Failure to strengthen in January
The transfer window is a time of great gambles but presents an opportunity to shake things up, to add fresh blood and new competition within the squad. Crystal Palace brought in Luka Milivojevic and Mamadou Sakho to shore up their defence; despite Hull selling Jake Livermore and Robert Snodgrass, arrivals like Kamil Grosicki and Andrea Ranocchia have inspired them to improve; Swansea signed Martin Olsson, Tom Carroll, Luciano Narsingh and Jordan Ayew.
Boro's window was atrocious: Patrick Bamford has barely been able to get into the team, Rudy Gestede has scored just one goal and Adlene Guedioura was an inconsequential afterthought. "Teams in our position are signing players for £14 million," a frustrated Karanka said when the window shut. "We are signing players that didn't play in the Championship." Not the most inspiring battle cry for the new arrivals perhaps, but he certainly had a point.
4. Karanka's style of play
Even last season, when Boro gained automatic promotion, you could hear rumbles of discontent in the stands when a game went too long without them scoring. That was because Karanka's style of play was cautious, to say the least.
Karanka certainly favoured a slow, deliberate passing style that was intended to dominate possession and grind teams down. And while that worked in the Championship, in the Premier League the slow build-up simply allowed teams to mass their ranks and prevent Boro's comparably paltry creative talents from piercing a hole in their defence. That at least in part led to their most basic and most important problem.
5. Not scoring enough goals
Ultimately, goals were the biggest issue. As with last season, their defence was strong -- indeed, no team in the bottom half of the table has conceded fewer than them thus far -- but at the other end they found the net just 26 times.
Unless they can score in their remaining two games, only the desperate Derby County team of 2007-08 and the almost as bad Sunderland of 2002-03 will have managed fewer in a 38-game Premier League season. Goals are not a guarantee of survival, but since 1995 the lowest total a team has managed and still stayed up is 29.
This is in part down to the style of play, but ultimately the fault lies with the forwards. Alvaro Negredo's total of nine is respectable in a struggling side, but their other strikers -- Gestede, Bamford and Jordan Rhodes (sold in January) -- combined for a grand total of one between them.
Winger Cristhian Stuani and midfielder Marten de Roon managed four each, Gaston Ramirez two, but beyond that no other player scored more than one. Adama Traore, a wildcard of a winger who made 27 appearances, has yet to score a goal and has managed just one assist. With that sort of "firepower," they barely stood a chance.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.