In drawing with Blackburn this weekend, Middlesbrough not only gave away crucial points, they once again failed to record a victory, a run that goes back nearly one month now.
At the turn of the year they very handsomely led the league after recording a string of victories without conceding.  Since then they have gone W1-D1-L3 a good deal less than title form. Given their extremely talented squad, this is a disappointing return; below expectation.

Since the end of the clean sheet record they appear to have gone lame.

Adam Clayton and Dani Ayala have continued their fine form and it felt that we learned a lot more about Boro’s lack of creativity and goals than anything else.

When it goes your way….

For Middlesbrough, when you’re a team having a season for the ages and your defence keeps 9 clean sheets in a row, it’s certain that things are going your way.

Boro spent the first half of this season winning matches more by shutting out than prolific scoring. The defence was particularly effective at repelling shots or goals but low rates of shot conversion at the other end and the form of the front four was just enough to propel them towards the top of the league. Going into the tricky section of their fixture list, starting with Ipswich at Portman Road at the beginning of December, they were converting more shots at a higher rate which had effectively powered their W11-D3-L4 standing.

During the tougher looking games since–including matches against Brighton, Derby, Burnley as well as Ipswich – Boro are converting their shots with only a marginal decline. This has helped them go W6-D2-L2 but the biggest factor powering the run has once again been their save rate for in these games they only have conceded 3 times in 10 matches, a clean sheet rate of 70%. Spin that out to all shots and Boro’s opposition since December have been converting under one in twenty against a usual league average of around one in ten.  All these rates tend to fluctuate through a season and rarely sustain for too long at either extremely high or low levels. For Middlesbrough, so far, large parts of them have.

When you can base a season for the ages on year long high clean sheet rate but breeze through your schedule without creating as many chances as your rivals, it’s clear that things are going your way.

For now Middlesbrough’s chance creation rate places them 14th in the Championship but come the season’s end, who knows, new aquisition’s have been brought in to address this achilles heel.

Can you use Leicester as a blueprint for another team’s future? An example of how each team should dare to dream and that anything is possible?

That lazy comparison is something we would love to get used to.

In Clayton and Ayala Boro have the Championship’s defensive equivalent of Vardy and Mahrez, they have been brilliant, to find one break out player of the year candidate? That is a pleasant benefit to enjoy, but to have two? Yep, things are going your way.

The continued fitness of the key men in the squad is of paramount importance, as it is for any team, but whoever replaces them is par for Boro’s Championship level. Having maintained a steady team, and been free from injury, this is yet another aspect in which things have gone Boro’s way.

But what of the other promotion chasing clubs in this league? These teams would usually be on the sharp end of Championship title runs. Surely, they couldn’t all show vulnerabilities together, in the same season? Money has been spent by not only Derby County but Burnley, Hull, and even Brighton. With such investment surely one or more of these teams could manage a sustained run at the title?

  • Derby could be imploding again like last Championship season.
  • Brighton have suffered injuries and dropped of the pace
  • Sheffield Wednesday continue to be stuck in transition
  • Chaos for Queens Park Rangers

Leaving Hull and Burnley as the main challengers. For the league to be so compressed points-wise has become a usual event, and here we are again;

Yet when things are going your way…

Nothing here is intended to denigrate Middlesbrough’s achievements, If Boro were backing up this run with top notch shooting or expected goal numbers, there would be every reason to expect automatic promotion, but they aren’t.

Is it “anti-taka” – would half the league adapt their style by gluing a couple of sprinters onto an eight man defence? One suspects not.

There has been much pleasure gained from Boro’s ascent to the top of the table. The last two seasons have provided a top team that had in recent years become largely predictable but the true praise for them can be reserved for Karanka’s skill in improving them; not to their current status at the top, but from being a genuine lower half team a few season’s ago to legitimate Premier League contenders this.  For that is likely their true level; with this team, with fitness, with a slight element of surprise, this team is an above par team in the league, their shots and expected goal numbers peg them as lower tier contenders, but If they start next season and find themselves in the bottom half of the Premier and a mile behind the top Six, they will still have found a significantly improved level.

When everything doesn’t go your way…

Fans may agree or disagree but the slight slump that Middlesbrough have found themselves in has been repetitive and familiar.

I talk a lot about the low quality of shots during Karanka’s reign, but regardless, they have taken a good volume of them: The on target rate is comparatively good at around 47%, which doesn’t reflect the lack of success but where the silliness occurs, where things haven’t gone Boro’s way, is creating them and converting them. The positive side is that they have conceded very few shots, for volume, they have been superb at suppressing the opposition.

The trouble starts when you refer once again to how many shots have been converted and chances created, No wonder home fans are frustrated; they are witnessing it right now and in front of their very eyes.

While these figures are not fabulous, to endure it to this degree is unfortunate and extremely incongruous with the excellent repression of shots. Despite the good goalkeeping and excellent individual defensive displays, a chance creation rate this low just will not sustain in the long term.  Repression of opposition shots is an important trait to aspire towards as it is reflective of team quality, an ability to get the ball in the net is far more beholden to fate.

The positive takeaway from all this is that most aspects of Karanka’s methods are working and project positively for the future. Some recent personnel tweaks and more in the summer, with obvious weaknesses up front, could well create some solidity where for now we see just mediocrity.

You could make Comparisons with the aspects of Andre Villas Boas’ project at Tottenham: good shot volumes, suppression of opposition and poor conversion rates tick all those boxes. However, where Villas Boas’ stubbornness eventually saw his tenure fall apart, we hope Karanka would be able to maintain enough charm to design a team capable of competing in the Premier League next year. This season the unexpected and unforeseen qualities of Leicester were built from far lower bases. If they can do it then why not Boro? If only things could go their way…


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