Middlesbrough’s versatility in defence has made them a most formidable unit and they have proved that in Daniel Ayala’s absence over the last five months.
Boro have had to deal with Ayala’s injury and have been able to cope without him. Granted, the team could be classed as weaker without the presence of the centre-back – like any team in the Premier League would be – but Boro have enough options to cope and they will need to prove this as the race for relegation heats up.
Ayala and Gibson is considered by many to be one the best centre-back pairings Boro have available and statistics will support that in recent seasons. Throughout the 2015-16 campaign, Boro conceded just 31 goals in the league, which was four better than both Tottenham and Manchester United and the best record in England’s top four leagues. Boro have carried on their impressive defensive form into 2017, having conceded just 27 goals this season. Only Chelsea, Spurs and Man Utd better that record (with 16, 17 & 21 goals conceded respectively) while every other team in the division has conceded 27 goals or more. Ben Gibson has been at the heart of that defence during both seasons.
However, Ayala’s injury is not the major blow it could have been. Boro dealt with it well in the summer window as Calum Chambers stepped in well to provide more than adequate cover. The 21-year-old was thrust into the Boro limelight but all things considered, he didn’t look too far out of place. Quite the contrary actually because Middlesbrough conceded just 0.88 goals per game with him in the side and went on to pick up four victories and three draws as they kept their heads above the dotted lines.
Even when options seemed a little limited last season, Boro held up well with George Friend, Ben Gibson and Ayala all performing to their usual high standards to carry the team through to their goal. Aitor Karanka has already been dealt a few dilemmas this season but he has generally come up with the goods keeping Boro out of the drop zone. Middlesbrough have suffered a slight dip in form since Christmas, going seven games without a victory, following a solid 8-game run collecting 11 points, but what is most noticeable is the fact that they can still avoid defeats. It is more of a concern in attack, which poses the biggest challenge for Karanka.
However, at this stage of the season, Boro now have further options available as Fabio has started to establish himself as a good option. He is consistently solid and as far as attacking options go, he’s not bad at all. But what could be the most exciting prospect is seeing Adama Traore improving his passing, crossing and final ball, which has brought some level of threat more recently.
Going back to the defence, Chambers looks assured and comfortable on the ball and is better suited to the role of Central defender but if Karanka decides to use the 21-year-old at Right Back he still has tried and tested alternatives with Espinosa and Ayala now in the frame. It’s a comfortable position to be in defensively and there’s not many in the league who can boast similar flexibility.
Boro certainly do have options in defence – defensive formations and personnel – and that is why they must be considered one of the best defensive units in the Premier League.
They must now prove that with results in the next two months, with every game going to be close. Clean sheets and a tight ship will be imperative as Boro try to get the best out of Traore, Ramirez, Negredo and co to supply the essential badly needed goal that wins the game.