There was no doubting Middlesbrough’s greatest strength when they gained automatic promotion from the Championship last season.
Though they scored just 63 times across their 46 fixtures – fewer than 20th-placed Fulham – they gave away a mere 31 goals, which was the lowest second-tier total in a decade.
So why is it that a defence that delivered 22 clean sheets in 2015/16 managed only one in seven Premier League outings, giving up ten goals in the other six games?
And more alarmingly than the figures, how have Dimitri Payet, Son Heung-min and Seamus Coleman been able to weave through the Boro backline barely challenged in three matches this season?
The short answer is that it isn’t the same defence, with three of the back five that started against Tottenham and West Ham arriving on Teesside this summer in Victor Valdes, Calum Chambers and Antonio Barragan. Only Ben Gibson and George Friend have retained their places.
However, while ripping apart your most resilient unit seems like a strange way to secure Premier League survival, and the early results are certainly discouraging, the statistics say that Aitor Karanka will have his rearguard-reinforcing attempts vindicated come May.
Of the 30 clubs to arrive at English football’s highest level between 2006/07 and 2015/16, six were so bold as to make precisely three players who weren’t part of their Championship-escaping effort among their five most frequently selected goalkeepers or defenders in the top tier.
Five of that sextet finished above the drop zone for a staying-up rate of 83%. As a comparison, 50% of the sides who stuck with what they had went back down, 80% who made one tweak lived to see a second season and 50% of those who replaced two were relegated.
So three is the magic number – no more, no less (Tony Mowbray outrageously tried four at West Brom in 2008/09 and wound up bottom) – with the most successful upheaval overseen by Alex McLeish at Birmingham in 2009/10.
Despite a reputation for caution much like Karanka’s, he was brave enough to ditch his goalkeeper and both centre backs in favour of Joe Hart, Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, and the Blues soared all the way to ninth.
Will Middlesbrough follow the 2012/13-era Reading as the second exception to the rule?
Lets hope not. #UTB