Midway review: Assessing Middlesbrough's return to the Premier League

Midway review: Assessing Middlesbrough's return to the Premier League

How have Middlesbrough fared so far in their first top-flight campaign since 2008/09.

Dom Brown

It has been seven months since the drama against Brighton in which Middlesbrough earned promotion to the Premier League following seven seasons in the second teir.

With the festive period well underway, and the season entering its second half, it seems a good time to take stock of Aitor Karanka's first 17 games in the Premier League.

Here are some talking points from Middlesbrough's first half of the season.

A hectic and largely successful transfer window

Karanka left the Riverside Stadium after seeing his side clinch promotion to England's top flight on May 7th, and began almost immediately to look at strengthening his squad.

The first name through the door came later that month with Dane Viktor Fischer signing for less than £4 million.

Fischer, who will miss the festive period due to injury, was the first of twelve new players to sign for the Teesside outfit.

Viktor Fischer celebrates fellow new face de Roon's goal v Manchester City | Photo: GettyImages/
Viktor Fischer celebrates, fellow new face, de Roon's goal v Manchester City | Photo: GettyImages/Rich Linley - CameraSport

Premier League winner Alvaro Negredo added firepower up front, along with the permanent signing of former loanee Gaston Ramirez. While a near club record fee was paid for defensive midfielder Marten de Roon.

Boro's business was still ongoing when deadline day arrived.

Adama Traore arrived from Aston Villa with just hours remaining until the transfer window deadline. Karanka also made his biggest sales on deadline day too, as Adam Reach and Albert Adomah both left for Sheffield Wednesday and Villa respectively. Middlesbrough recouped around £12 million for the duo.

Who was Middlesbrough's best signing?

While the players above came into Middlesbrough and have strengthened the squad, the signing of Victor Valdes is one which is proving to be the best of the summer window.

Valdes celebrated Middlesbrough's third goal in their last match against Swansea | Photo: GettyImages/Nigel Roddis
Valdes celebrated Middlesbrough's third goal in their last match against Swansea | Photo: GettyImages/Nigel Roddis

When the former Barcelona 'keeper came to Teesside, many questioned why he was purchased and why the ability of veteran Dimi Konstantopolous to compete at top-flight level was questioned after helping the team win promotion from the Sky Bet Championship last season.

Karanka's decision to bring in his fellow spaniard has been vindicated as Valdes has since proved his class and arguably earned 'Boro as many points as the forwards have.

Despite a shaky start, Valdes has helped rebuild the strong defensive foundations on which the Boro team is built after the back line looked poor at the start of the season.

A rather poor start to the campaign

Middlesbrough were unbeaten in their first three games, drawing two and winning away at Sunderland, but went on to lose four out of the next five against Crystal Palace, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Watford.

This frustrating run, in which 'Boro gained only one point from a possible 15, was made more worrying by the poor performances against Watford and in the first half of the Tottenham match.

Aitor Karanka was deploying his 4-2-3-1 formation with Stewart Downing and Cristhian Stuani wide, meaning there was little pace in the Middlesbrough team. Adomah had provided that in the season before but he had moved on to the Midlands.

Questions started to be asked about the formation and the players in it. Many were asking why Negredo deserved his place over Jordan Rhodes who had been a prolific scorer in the lower leagues.

Although this run was poor, Middlesbrough never slipped into the relegation places. They were hanging around the lower reaches of the table, however, and something needed to be done to change fortunes.

Gunners game was a pivotal turning point

When travelling to face Arsenal, Middlesbrough fans were not expecting much, but the Teesside outfit came away with a draw and looked like they could have won the fixture at certain points.

This result is commonly creditied to Karanka's change of formation. He played a 4-3-3 with the three central midfielders able to break down Arsenal's advances and halt the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.

There are more reasons, though, as to why Middlesbrough's season has kicked on since then.

Although it would take another month for Negredo to score again, Ramirez played his best football since helping Boro to promotion. He could have scored with a header at the back post and hit the bar with a free kick.

The Uruguayan was deployed on the left of midfield and, therefore, did not get caught up in the mass of bodies that many teams (such as Middlesbrough) have in the centre. Ramirez, therefore, had more room to run at defences.

Gaston Ramirez celebrates scoring in the win against Hull City | Photo: GettyImages/Lindsey Parnaby
Gaston Ramirez has been key to Middlesbrough's good form of late | Photo: GettyImages/Lindsey Parnaby

The former Southampton man's form has been impressive ever since, and his good form has helped his fellow forward and Valencia loanee Negredo to score two braces in the space of four games.

The Arsenal stalemate also gave heart to the Boro players, as if they could hold the Gunners at home then they should not be afraid of any team in the division.

This attitude was shown against Manchester City where they earned another unexpected point.Karanka's men have also won another three times since the match against Arsene Wegner's side.

Performances since Arsenal

Following the Arsenal fixture, Middlesbrough have lost twice in eight games and have eleven points since then as opposed to six prior.

The only mark against Middlesbrough was the 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool. This game was the only this season where Middlesbrough looked outclassed, as Jurgen Klopp's men were better in every department and deserved the three points.

The fact, however, that Boro could bounce back from defeat and win by their own three goal margin just three days later says a great deal about the character of the squad.

Overall assessment

Coming into this season, fans of Middlesbrough would have been apprehensive as this was their first season back in the top flight in seven years and a lot was unknown about the division.

The acquisitions that Karanka made to his side will have eased nerves, as he brought in quality around the team.

Following a rather shaky start, Boro have seemingly found their feet now as they reach Christmas and have been very successful so far this season.

The players cannot celebrate the holidays for too long, however, as they make the journey to Turf Moor to take on a Burnley side who beat Boro to the Championship title last season.

Both sides will be desperate to win against their rivals for survival, and both teams have impressd this season.

Should Karanka's team lose, the feeling around Teesside may be quite different, but right now at the half way point of the season, Middlesbrough have impressed on their return, and long may that continue.