Gastón Ramírez is crucial for Middlesbrough against Sunderland - he must be protected

The Uruguayan playmaker looks a player reborn at the Riverside, but is repeatedly subjected to a physical barrage

Gastón Ramírez is crucial for Middlesbrough against Sunderland - he must be protected
Gastón Ramírez hits the post against Stoke City | Photo: Steve Welsh/Getty

Middlesbrough travel to the Stadium of Light to play their first North-East derby in the league for six years this Sunday, and there is little mystery over who the key man could be for the travelling Teessiders.

Since Gastón Ramírez joined the club, initially on loan, in the January transfer window, he has transformed the way Middlesbrough play.

Aitor Karanka's rigid, pragmatic 4-2-3-1 set-up was being found out by opponents and effectively countered by simply putting bodies behind the ball, but the wily Uruguayan added the dash of South American sizzle that Boro fans have come to so admire over the years.

Don't say the word 'Juninho' when talking about him - that would be too far by a distance - but there is something about Gastón. He makes the team tick, he produces the unexpected, he makes the game flow through his boots. For this reason, he must be better protected.

Battered Ramírez bears the brunt

In the last two competitive games he has played for Boro, Ramírez has left the field in a daze. Once considered lightweight and mercenary, he is now hardworking and courageous, but his slight build means he comes off second best when up against a bruiser of a centre-back.

Against Brighton and Hove Albion, Ramírez was stretchered from the pitch with a slice of his leg hanging loose, after creating the chance for the goal which took Middlesbrough back to the Premier League.

Gaston Ramirez is stretchered from the field against Brighton | Photo: Gazette
Gaston Ramirez is stretchered from the field against Brighton | Photo: Gazette

Against Stoke City, he was taken off in better condition but to an extent for his own protection after being roughed up, hacked and thrown about by defenders after nodding down a cross for Álvaro Negredo to score the goal which announced Middlesbrough's return to the Premier League.

There is a theme developing for Boro here, and it is a dangerous one. Had his injury against Brighton come two or three games earlier, it is possible they would still be a Championship club, and if he had done himself a mischief against Stoke there would be serious questions raised about the remaining creativity in the squad.

Sunderland would be naïve not to target him

David Moyes knows that Sunderland cannot afford to ignore the wide threat of Stewart Downing and Albert Adomah, but the focus of Lamine Koné and Younès Kaboul will be firmly on Ramírez' poise, guile and verve through the middle. 

Lee Cattermole may be missing, but Sunderland won't be afraid to tackle | Photo: Graham Stuart/Getty
Lee Cattermole may be missing, but Sunderland won't be afraid to tackle | Photo: Graham Stuart/Getty

Referee Martin Atkinson is an experienced official, and he knows all about big defenders 'leaving their mark' on an opposing playmaker, but at 3.7 yellow cards/game over the course of last season, he is not trigger-happy with bookings. Defenders will get their chance to have a go.

Middlesbrough's midfield enforcer Marten de Roon is already sidelined with an injury, and they cannot afford for their attacking fulcrum to meet the same fate. Certainly not at the same time.

The suggestion that Karanka could dip back into the transfer market for a backup number ten suggests he is aware of the danger, but for now at least he is sticking with what he has.

Negredo should lead the fightback

The onus is on Negredo to help shield Ramírez. 'The Beast' put himself about and looked promising on the opening day against Stoke, not least because of his understanding with his playmaker, but he must help to protect his supply line.

Gaston and The Beast's Disney-esque partnership could be crucial | Photo: Steve Welsh/Getty
Gaston and The Beast's Disney-esque partnership could be crucial | Photo: Steve Welsh/Getty

If Kaboul goes in hard on Ramírez early in the game, Negredo must be prepared to do the fighting back for him. To lose the physical battle could be crucial and with Dani AyalaGrant Leadbitter and de Roon all absent, a good deal of this responsibility goes to Negredo.

If he is kept in one piece, Ramírez can offer the spark which ignites the flames of the Teesside phoenix's return to the Premier League, and help them stay there.

In the meantime, he can aim for a second assist of the season, and a first three points.