Champions League weeks are a bit hectic, so today you get three days’ worth of game day content smashed into a day. Yay! Anyway, Middlesbrough is another team without an SBN blog, but we were able to track down an SBN’er who is also a Boro fan to chat with us about this weekend’s newly promoted opponent.
So without further ado, I give you my questions to Jack Sargeant, and, as these things tend to go, he gives you his answers:
TSF: Middlesbrough, a founding member of the Premier League, is back in that league this year after being in the Championship since 2009. Is being back in the top flight awesome, terrifying, or both?
JS: I must admit, it has so far been a little more muted than had been anticipated. Having endured the horror of a playoff final defeat, and then sneaking automatic promotion on the final day of the season a year later, the start of the new campaign has been comparatively flat for Boro supporters. That, probably has something to do with our slow start, but there remains a lingering feeling that nothing - barring a Sunderland-style relegation survival extravaganza - will top the sheer excitement of promotion itself.
TSF: How well did Boro do this summer to bolster the squad for a tougher level of competition?
JS: The jury is still out. Álvaro Negredo looks like he'll be an excellent signing, and Gastón Ramírez - who we signed on a free transfer - is undoubtedly Boro's key creative force. The other positive is youngster Adama Traoré, signed from Villa, who already looks like a star of the future. However, there remain question marks over some of Boro's other reinforcements: veteran defender Antonio Barragán has been patchy; former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdés has been plain dodgy; and ex-Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon is yet to demonstrate why Boro dropped an eight-figure sum on him. On paper, I think the team now looks like quite a strong one; but we're yet to really see that reflected in results.
TSF: Eight games in, six points on the board. Is that a slower start than expected, or did fans assume there would be some early struggles?
JS: Naively, I think most Boro fans expected that we'd have enough to challenge for a mid-table finish this season. By now we'd certainly have hoped for a more comfortable buffer over the bottom three, especially with games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs coming up before the turn of the year. Though some teething problems were always bound to occur, we had hoped Aitor Karanka's cautious, almost Mourinhoesque style would give us a solid foundation on which to establish ourselves in the top flight.
TSF: Related question: what do you think is the main cause of that slow start?
JS: Many Boro fans (particularly those who spend their time bashing angry messages into online fan forums) would lay the blame squarely with Aitor Karanka and an approach perceived as overly defensive. Almost ever since Karanka arrived, there has been a chronic obsession with his unwillingness to deviate from a lone-striker system, much to the consternation of Teesside's keyboard warriors. However, it seems to me the problem isn't that simple, and the formation doesn't matter quite so much as the mentality of the players. They do need to be a little braver in possession and offer more support for Álvaro Negredo; and, perhaps most importantly, they need to recover that defensive solidity on which promotion was built.
TSF: Which Boro player(s) should Arsenal fans be most wary of on Saturday?
JS: Though Negredo is the player tasked with putting the ball in the net, the player who's most likely to create something from nothing is Ramírez. In Karanka's fairly rigid system, Ramírez - who plays in the central attacking midfield slot - is the most unpredictable player, drifting across the field looking for pockets of space. His close control is excellent and he's got a superb eye for a pass. If he's given space to turn, he can do some damage. Arsenal's midfield pivot will have to watch him carefully.
6. Fill in the blank: if Arsenal want to beat Boro, they must (blank)
JS: Assuming Arsenal are going to dominate possession, they'll just have to stop Boro from finding space on the counter-attack. Karanka's men are at their most dangerous when they can break forward into space with quick passing combinations, but tend to struggle to break down a well-organised defence. Providing Arsenal can keep things tight at the back, you should have more than enough firepower to win the game.
Thanks again to Jack for taking the time to chat!