Strachan must raise game to elevate Boro
Just over a year ago, Middlesbrough began their league campaign having just been relegated from the Premier League alongside Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion. They had the best player in the division, Adam Johnson, to help lift them back to the top flight and managed to keep hold of promising defender David Wheater despite rumoured interest from bigger clubs.
Fast forward to this weekend and Newcastle, West Brom and Johnson, now at Manchester City, all find themselves televised while Boro laboured to a 0-0 draw at Leicester.
Gordon Strachan was the man in the away dugout at the Walkers Stadium and he relied on an excellent defensive display from Wheater to preserve his side’s clean sheet. But it was Leicester who should have won the game and that must be a concern to Boro supporters.
Back to front
Middlesbrough’s summer spending in the Scottish market seemed to put them in pole position to reclaim their place in the Premier League. Kris Boyd and Scott McDonald should be the best front two in the division.
Rookie goalkeeper Jason Steele, who should replace Liverpool-bound Brad Jones as the number one pick for Boro this season, was superb on Saturday, while the back four excelled under Wheater’s leadership.
The middle men
All of which leaves the rather uncertain future of Middlesbrough’s midfield. At Leicester, the men in the middle were, fittingly enough, former Celtic man Barry Robson and Kevin Thomson, signed from Rangers. Strachan stationed young attacker Luke Williams out on the right wing and summer signing Nicky Bailey on the left side.
While it must be said that wide man Willo Flood was injured in the opening-day loss at home to Ipswich, Strachan seems to have a tendency to field players out of position. Bailey struggled on the left and contributed to Leicester right-back Robbie Neilson enjoying arguably his best game for the club.
The jury is still out on Bailey as a Championship player, having signed from Charlton Athletic after an impressive season in League One but without ever having proven himself at a higher level. Williams, on the other hand, is only 17 years old and has made his name in youth football as a centre-forward.
In the central midfield area, Robson and Thomson struggled against the Leicester trio of Matt Oakley, Richie Wellens and Andy King. In the first half, Boyd made a series of clever angled runs and Leicester relied on a superb covering tackle from centre-back Jack Hobbs to keep the game scoreless. Thomson suffered a seemingly serious injury in the second half and his unavailability will test Boro severely.
Williams was also enjoying plenty of space on the right hand side, with his marker Bruno Berner not getting tight enough. Boro, however, could not profit and their attacks were far too sporadic for a team aiming to challenge at the top of the table.
While Boyd is without doubt a fine signing for a Championship club, he is little more than a finisher. McDonald is more lively and will get involved outside of the box, looking brightest during a spell towards the end of the game when he was moved to the right wing.
Strachan has come from the SPL where the Old Firm can play 4-4-2 and rely on their superior players to overpower opposition teams without having to worry too much about tactical intricacies. Many of Boro’s players have arrived from the same background. A stuttering start to the new Championship season should act as a stark warning.
Follow the leaders
Newcastle and West Brom possessed the two best squads in the Championship last season and they duly occupied the two automatic promotion spots when all 46 games had been played, but that is not to suggest that the Baggies in particular were not a well-constructed side from a tactical view point.
Newcastle had proven Premiership players who were often simply too good for Championship opposition, while Roberto di Matteo recognised that West Brom’s main strength was an abundance of technically sound midfield players.
Strachan will need to decide very quickly how he wants his Boro side to play. Cardiff and, to a lesser extent, Newcastle both successfully employed 4-4-2 formations last season but both had a target man of sorts to rely heavily upon. Jay Bothroyd and Andy Carroll both enjoyed excellent seasons as the attacking focal point of their respective teams.
Getting the best out of Boyd
Kris Boyd may be an imposing physical presence and can hold the ball up or win it in the air but he does not convey the air of a man who wants to be constantly involved in buildup play. Boyd wants others to do the donkey work and he will stick the ball in the net at the end of it all. Strachan and Boro must have known this when attracting him from Ibrox.
Middlesbrough’s next game is a televised clash with Sheffield United at the Riverside Stadium next Sunday. Whether the Blades have appointed a new manager by then or not, Boro can expect their visitors to be hard-working and are well capable of taking at least a point if Strachan’s side do not show any improvement on their two opening games.
Having around £4million to spend on a centre-forward is a luxury for any Football League club. Strachan is fortunate to be in the position to splash out, but is arguably the manager under most pressure to deliver in the Championship this season. Thankfully, managing Celtic will stand him in good stead given the weight of expectation at the Riverside this season.
44 league games remain for Boro, all of which they must approach with a level of intensity more befitting of an Old Firm game than a routine home encounter with Falkirk or Motherwell. Strachan and his men have only one point from their first two games and a point to prove.