With long-serving chairman Steve Gibson ploughing more money into the club Boro can’t afford to get things wrong this time around.
Intent was signalled by the marquee summer signing, with Gibson shelling out over £5 million to bring native Teessider Stewart Downing back to the Riverside from West Ham United.
Gaston Ramirez has arrived on loan from Southampton as another attacking reinforcement, Carlos de Pena and Kike Sola to give even more options while defenders Fernando Amorebieta and Tomás Kalas have joined from Fulham and Chelsea respectively.
Uruguayan international striker Christian Stuani from Espanyol and David Nugents arrival bolstered the attacking options.
So, there’s no doubting the ambition.
The summer signings have presumably had an impact on the wage bill, and a failure to win promotion could have implications financially.
For a club that has already endured several seasons in the bleak surrounds of the Championship Boro need to take the momentum of the first half of the season into the final straight.
That’s where manager Aitor Karanka can prove his worth. Its the former Real Madrid defender’s second full season at Boro. Having initially impressed the Riverside faithful by tightening up their leaky defence, his major task is now turning his side into a potent attacking force; perhaps by allowing his players a little more freedom than they’ve enjoyed so far. Middlesbrough need to be more inventive.
Karanka has so far favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation which is unsurprising given that he was José Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid.
The presence of the two holding midfielders – Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton – served to bolster a strong defence, but too often last season Boro were sterile in possession. They saw plenty of the ball, but a lack of movement and creativity in the final third allowed deep-lying defences to stifle them with relative ease.
The arrival of Downing should have helped Boro in this regard. Played so far as the central attacking midfielder, the England international showed his creativity in an excellent start to last season. Not only does he have top flight technique on crosses and dead balls, he’s also a mobile player capable of beating a defender for pace and skill. He adds a dynamism that Boro lacked when the comparatively static Lee Tomlin drifted out of games last season.
Similarly, the arrival of Christian Stuani should have helped Boro’s impotent attack. While Patrick Bamford was one of the best finishers in the division, he wasn’t the sort of physical, powerful forward that could bully top Championship defences. If he wasn’t running in behind, he struggled for chances.
Kike, has the opposite problem: he’s a slower forward who can hold off defences but lacks the clinical finishing that gets strikers to the top of the scoring charts.
Stuani is a happy compromise between Bamford and Kike: strong enough to hold off big centre-backs, powerful enough to beat them in the air, and sharp enough to put the ball into the back of the net. The statistics suggest reason for optimism, though it obviously depends him being played up front.
But it’s not just Boro’s summer signings who are making a big impact in their promotion push. More fundamental tactical tweaks could make all the difference too. Giving more freedom to one of their two holding midfielders would help overload opponents with bodies, and increase the odds of a cross finding its intended target.
Maybe even a switch to a 4-3-3 could prove fruitful, allowing two central midfielders to break forward ahead of a designated anchorman. That would probably allow Adam Forshaw to come in and play alongside Leadbitter (with Clayton at the base of the midfield) — something many Boro fans have been calling for since his arrival from Wigan last January. He’s the most naturally creative of the three midfielders, and his introduction would help them unlock the most stubborn of opponents.
It’s certainly not a perfect solution, and it’d force Stewart Downing to move out of his central role and onto the wing. However, it certainly offers Karanka another option; potentially increasing Boro’s attacking productivity without compromising their defensive solidity.
After last season, everyone now expects Boro to establish themselves as title contenders. That weight of expectation itself may not be a bad thing: there’s a real buzz and expectation around the Riverside. Thanks to the investments of Steve Gibson, it’s clear that Middlesbrough have one of the most talented and versatile squads in the entire division.
It’s now up to Aitor Karanka to illustrate his true managerial credentials and squeeze the best from it.