The Boro are back in the Premier League and sadly they didn't bring with them the attacking flair of a Juninho or the 3 headed attack of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Yakubu & Mark Viduka. No, those days are long gone. The road back to the top flight has been long and bumpy, with seven seasons in the Championship all told, but building on the promise of a fourth place finish in 2014-15, automatic qualification was secured in 2015-16.
After serving three years under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho during his stint with Real Madrid, Boro came calling and offered Aitor Karanka his first club managerial role. His record on Teeside is quite impressive: 73 wins and 32 draws in 139 matches. He almost left the club three quarters of the way through last season but amends were made and he guided the team to a 2nd place finish. However, the Premier League is an altogether different beast and this season will really show us how much he learned from Mr. Mourinho.
Defense Good or Defense Lucky?
Boro gave up the least amount of 2nd tier goals (31) of any team this centuryand had a league leading 22 clean sheets during their promotion campaign, so it's safe to say that their outlook could well be defense first.
Now a lot of this was powered by a 80%+ save % from the elder statesman & goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos. The 37 year old even had a stretch of 9 matches in row where he never gave up a single goal. A nice season for any keeper. A deeper look at the numbers confirms what we already know, goalkeepers are voodoo. In the 1st half the season the Greek saved a super high 87% of the shots he faced while in the 2nd half the season he was down to 74%.
Now it is up in the air whether Konstantopoulos will be back on Teesside let alone even get a game in the coming campaign as former Barcelona man Victor Valdes and Aston Villa's Brad Guzan have been brought in. Valdes really has not played meaningful minutes since the 13-14 season and Guzan has been poor for a while now, most notably during Villa's dismal relegation year. It's hard to say either is in the right shape to show their best form.
The team itself was solid in the shots against metrics. They were at or near the top of shots, shots on target, shots inside the box against. Whether Karanka was happy with that performance or is just re-emphasising his focus on defense is tough to know based on this close season. We have seen him sign 2 keepers, Marten de Roon (DM) from Atalanta, Bernardo Espinosa (CB) from Sporting Gijon, Antonio Barrigan (RB) from Valencia and the club was also heavily linked with Neven Subotic before he failed a medical and promptly went under the knife.
It is safe to assume that Karanka will be pragmatic in his approach the Premier League and he will likely stick to a double pivot 4-2-3-1 system. I don't expect this team to take to many chances going forward and it will likely lean on defensive structure and discipline to limit the opposition.
Attack (or lack-there-of)
During 2015-16, Nugent, Kike, Stuani and Fabbrini all took turns spear-heading the attack but none really shone to brightly as the campaign wore on. Looking at the underlying numbers, Stewart Downing had a decent start to the season but after around 15 matches he started being less and less influential in creating and taking shots.
As much as it wasn't reflected in terms of goals, the Smoggie's didn't get rolling offensively till Jordan Rhodes and specifically Gaston Ramirez showed up during the January transfer window. They started to maintain longer stretches of dominating games and in turn the shot metrics took a ride upwards, they just couldn't find the net at expected rates. Ramirez took over the #10 role and the majority of the Boro attack flowed through him. Clipping along at over five shots & key passes per 90, his performance during his loan spell prompted Middlesbrough to sign the Uruguayan on a free transfer over the summer.
In the end, they scored an unflattering 63 goals (8th most in the division) which is among the lowest for a promoted club in last 15yrs.
Boro's ranking in various shot counting metrics:
Total Shots - 4th
Shots on Target - 3rd
Shots inside the Box - 2nd
Open Play Shots - 4th
We see that the Teessider's didn't have trouble getting shots away but their conversion rates were a tad on the low side:
Goal per shot on target rate - ~27%
Goal per total shot rate - ~9.5%.
League averages are roughly 30% and 10% respectively.
The only 2 attacking additions so far have been Alvaro Negredo from Valencia and the young winger Victor Fischer from Ajax.
Negredo has been brought in on loan after having struggled the last couple seasons. He posted back to back five goal seasons with Valencia in a limited role while taking roughly three shots per 90. He is now on the wrong side of the age curve and with a need for some cutting edge finishing Boro can only hope Negredo finds his pre-Man City form. (Hint: He likely won't)
Victor Fischer is a bit of an unknown but the age (22) and price (€5m) reduce the risk. He found the net 8 times in 1200 minutes last season and as a winger he took 3 shots and 1.3 key passes p90. He ran hot with a goal per shot rate of over 19%.
Can they survive?
Gaston Ramirez is the key going forward but the creative depth falls off a cliff after that. Someone is going to have to step up and join Ramirez if the club has realistic aspirations to maintain it's position in the division. That the club relied on goal keeper over performance during much of the season is a concern given that in a harder league and with some reversion, we know that is unlikely to continue.
When analyzing any promoted team it is extremely difficult to gauge how they will do in their first season up. Metrics in the Championship do not effectively transfer to an analysis of the next season in the Premier League. While Karanka can lay claim to some tactical nous, I am just not sure the overall talent pool at the Riverside is good enough. In short, staying up would be a great achievement.
Contribution to Shots and Goals Through the 1st 38 games of the 15-16 season
|Contribution to Shots %
|Contribution to Goals %