Friday, August 8, 2008
Inconsistency leaves Boro flat
It's fair to say that Middlesbrough have enjoyed their fair share of mediocrity in recent years. Not since the 2004/05 season have they hit the heights of the top half of the Premier League and continually ending in the season mid-table is beginning to wear thin for a club with loftier ambitions.
Undoubtedly it is inconsistency that has been at the root of Boro's inability to break into the League's elite. Notching up results like the 8-1 win over Man City last year, they proved themselves capable of getting results against the likes of Arsenal and Man Utd; but also showed a fragility that extended to disappointing defeats to Bolton and Birmingham.
Yet this is nothing new. Over the years, Boro have struggled to box themselves as either European challengers or relegation contenders, settling eventually for mid-table mediocrity. While for a club prone to hero worship, their new signings have not exactly been of the quality some expected.
Showing enough promise to lure Europe's top goalscorer, Afonso Alves, to the Riverside last January, it would appear that the history of club still holds enough clout to attract a good standard of player. But with the memory of Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho still fresh in the minds of Boro fans, the new breed doesn't match up.
The arrival of young Dutch winger Marvin Emnes for £3.2million will not set pulses racing, although the 20-year-old does have the kind of pace that can make a difference in the Premier League. Likewise, spending £4million on PSG's Didier Digard does not look to be the kind of business that will elevate the club beyond their current position, but then a lack of funds has played its part in hindering the club's transfer plans.
Chairman Steve Gibson has gained a reputation for backing his manager with trust and money, but while Gareth Southgate has cleared a lot of the deadweight away from the squad, releasing the likes of Fabio Rochemback, Lee Dong-Gook and Gaizka Mendieta; Boro have been forced to sell before they buy this summer and are still feeling the pinch from breaking their transfer record for Alves.
Possibly the only one of Boro's recent signings to show genuine quality, Alves shone when he grabbed a hat-trick in the 8-1 demolition of Man City on the final day of last season and he has a proven goalscoring record, albeit in Holland. An excellent finisher, the Brazilian could be one of the League's top players if the Boro midfield can furnish him with the opportunities he needs.
With an excellent spine of Alves, David Wheater and Stuart Downing in the side, Boro do have enough to suggest that they won't be troubled by relegation come the end of the season. Wheater had such an impressive campaign in 2007/08 that he was unexpectedly called up to Fabio Capello's England squad in March and his presence alongside Emanuel Pogatetz at the back meant Boro have not missed Jonathan Woodgate too much.
Pogatetz, too, has been a solid performer for the club. His trademark determination has seen him rise to the position of captain for the coming season and, in a Boro defence short of depth, his fitness will play a key role in the club's chances in 2008/09.
Another player to impress Capello, Stuart Downing's role at the Riverside is of paramount importance. The winger started all of the club's games last year and chipped in with a good goal return as well. Providing much of the ammunition for the strikers, Downing's future has been under the spotlight this summer with Liverpool and Tottenham showing an interest and the player himself has said that Boro may not be able to match his ambition of playing in the Champions League.
If he were to leave, there would be no shortage of offers for the midfielder. However, if Boro are to banish their 'mid-table' tag, the club should be looking to keep hold of their star performers.
Departures this summer have included a host of fading stars and while they seem to have persuaded Downing to stay for at least another season, letting Luke Young and Lee Cattermole leave seems an odd choice.
Young was one of Boro's most consistent performers last season and letting a former England international depart does not seem like progress.
With new-boy Didier Digard taking the holding role and Egyptian Mohamed Shawky providing competion for places, it is easy to see why the young Cattermole would choose a move to Wigan; but having been viewed as one of the more promising players to come through the youth academy, it may set a precedent that Boro are willing to let players leave for the right price.
At the other end of the age spectrum goalkeeper Mark Schwartzer, who chose to join Fulham after an 11-year association with the club, will also be missed. Not only because the agile Australian stopper has established himself as one of the most important members of the squad in recent years, but also because Boro have failed to replace him.
Southgate seems keen to give Brad Jones and Ross Turnbull the chance to impress between the sticks, although many Boro fans will wonder if it will be a decision that could come back to bite him. Jones may be an Australian international but has not been a model of consistency during his career, while Turnbull has spent his entire Boro career on loan at lower division clubs.
A strong goalkeeper is a key component of a successful season and it seems strange the Teesside club were not able to bid for the likes of Scott Carson, Paul Robinson or Brad Friedel who were all sold for under £3.5million. A gamble that may not pay off, if Southgate is forced to wait until January to strengthen the position then the damage may already have been done.
Boro's away record has not been impressive in recent years and combined with a slow start, the side have seemingly been unable to banish the inconsistency that has held the club back.
With a good youth academy, the future looks bright, but without the big-name quality players needed to push the club to another level, Southgate's men seem set to spend another season safe within their mid-table home.
Any comments? Email Jon Carter