West Brom 0-0 Middlesbrough analysis: Not at full strength but a solid showing from Boro

Aitor Karanka's side will go into the international break unbeaten after a goalless draw at the Hawthorns

West Brom 0-0 Middlesbrough analysis: Not at full strength but a solid showing from Boro
Middlesbrough fans cheer on their team at the Hawthorns | Photo: Gazette

Middlesbrough continued their unbeaten start to the Premier League season with a dour goalless draw away to West Bromwich Albion.

Aitor Karanka's side go into the international break out of the EFL Cup but with five points from their opening three games, key players to return from injury and the prospect of more incoming transfers on the way.

It was not a performance that will have set pulses raising among Boro fans or neutrals, but a merited point away from home against a phsyical, established top-flight side is cause for encouragement.

Ayala's return is timely boost

When Dani Ayala’s name was announced in the starting eleven for the first time in the league this season, it was greeted with excitement and relief, but within 70 seconds of the kick-off he was in the referee’s notebook for a late tackle on Brendan Galloway.

‘The Boro Beckenbauer’, as he was recently referred to in FourFourTwo, will need time to get up to speed and up to full fitness after a long spell without regular football. The same can be said of Bernardo Espinosa, who appeared on Aitor Karanka’s bench for the first time.

Barragan (L) and Ayala (R) combine to stop a dangerous James McClean run | Photo: Middlesbrough FC
Barragan (L) and Ayala (R) combine to stop a dangerous James McClean run | Photo: Middlesbrough FC

With Ayala, Espinosa and Ben Gibson all vying for two central defensive spots – as well as the thus-far impeccable Antonio Barragan – Karanka must strike the right balance between finding a settled back four upon which to build his side and giving all of his players the chance to impress and enough playing time to reach full match sharpness.

Negredo proving increased quality

When Alvaro Negredo spun past Garath McAuley and cut inside another defender before having the ball nicked away from him by a covering player in the first half, he showed why he offers something no Boro striker – no, not even Kike Garcia – could last season.

At times he has looked sluggish and not up to fitness but, early in the season, that should be expected given his recent experiences at Valencia. The touch, the guile, the cheek of Negredo’s dummy heralded the presence of an elite attacking player who is far from the spent force some have suggested.

Jordan Rhodes will be frustrated at his total lack of game time so far this season but if and when his chance does come, he will need to take it. Negredo will not be an easy man to dislodge from this starting eleven.

Deliveries must come faster

There were occasions in the first half where Boro had good opportunities to put balls into the danger zone but hesitated too long. Cristhian Stuani would play the ball back for Emilio Nsue and make a darting run inside to join Negredo in the area, but Nsue’s delivery didn’t come – he played the ball back to the midfield, where either Adam Clayton or Adam Forshaw was faced with the entire West Brom back six.

Stuani and Nsue failed to live up to last weekend's billing | Photo: Sky Sports
Stuani and Nsue failed to live up to last weekend's billing | Photo: Sky Sports

Boro don’t need to change their style drastically. Their patient, probing play served them nobly last season and has done – for the most part – so time this campaign. But they could do well to show a bit more bite in attack. Negredo and Stuani can thrive on balls put into the area with their clever movement and finishing instinct, but they need the service to prove it.

Negredo’s goal against Stoke on the opening day came from an early back-post delivery, a move which seemed to be deployed almost every week at the back-end of last season. Albert Adomah was the man who put that ball in – if he is on his way out, Karanka needs to replace him with someone equally eager to put dangerous balls into the box.

Stuani not the answer to Adomah saga

Last weekend, Cristhian Stuani was one of the hottest properties in the Premier League after his finest display in a Boro shirt. This time, he showed why Boro need to add another winger if Adomah has played his last minutes for the club.

With plenty of guile but no pace in the attack, Boro struggled on the counter with the sluggish Negredo the only outlet. If Karanka is to base his gameplan on a sturdy defence and swift counter attacks, he needs someone with the ability to carry the ball forward without being caught.

Stuani is a good, experienced player and one who can perform a valuable role in the top flight, but if Stewart Downing is to play on the left and Negredo up front, Boro need some speed. Finding the right player before the transfer window shuts could prove a difficult, but crucial, task.

Boro not looking out of place

Perhaps the most significant thing about the game from a Teesside point of view was that Middlesbrough didn't look at all out of place. West Brom might not be the most glamorous opposition, but Boro on TV on a Sunday afternoon playing Premier League football - somehow, it all just felt so normal.

That is testament to the job Aitor Karanka has done in readying his squad for the big time. Boro's defensive strength has taken a step up, whichever midfield pair is chosen manages to find a way to dictate play and there are good top flight attackers leading the line.

Aitor Karanka has looked every inch the manager of a Premier League team | Photo: Katie Lunn/Gazette
Aitor Karanka has looked every inch the manager of a Premier League team | Photo: Katie Lunn/Gazette

Things will be more difficult against Palace, Spurs and Everton in the next three games, but Middlesbrough have settled into their new surroundings and will be confident of winning some more points. 

35 games to go, 35 points off the magical 40-point survival marker. Right now, they look quite capable of surpassing that target.