Middlesbrough’s Premier League plight: A look at Karanka’s strategy

It doesn’t take the insight of Hercule Poirot to figure out the reason why Middlesbrough are currently residing in 18th position in the Premier League, ten matches without a win and their manager, Aitor Karanka, currently a strong odds-on favourite for the next Premier League manager to depart.  Indeed, all of our “top” pundits, Robbie Savage, Martin Keown and Trevor Sinclair, have all managed to point to the goals for column in the league table and stated “They just don’t score enough goals”.

Of course, teams don’t have to score very many goals to win a football match. In fact I believe it just takes one, as long as you keep them out of the other end. Undoubtedly Aitor Karanka has that kind of mind set, and it is one that he cultivated over years of trying to keep them out himself in his playing days but also in his role alongside Jose Mourinho during his pragmatic reign at Real Madrid.

The two clearly still enjoy a positive relationship, and this has helped Karanka in his tenure at the Riverside, not least in the access he enjoyed to Chelsea’s youngsters (Omeruo, Chalobah, Bamford, Blackman, Kalas) during Mourinho’s latest spell at the Bridge. Karanka has also clearly taken some of the Mourinho philosophies to heart (and therefore, onto the pitch) setting up his Boro team with solidity, a strong central midfield presence and an ability to alienate certain players (Albert Adomah, Jordan Rhodes) and the fans with his comments in the media.

It is clear from those forays into the media that Karanka has complete faith in his methods, after all he has taken Middlesbrough from 16th in the Championship into the Premier League in two and half seasons, but the problem is that his methods have resulted in the current malaise, and it is just as clear that there are a great number of the Riverside faithful don’t believe in his methods either:


I guess the question is, what are Middlesbrough doing (or not doing) that is creating this situation. I have taken the liberty of doing some analysis on their play this season, first of all let us confirm what we already know:

Goals scored
Goals scored (Premier League 2016-17)

Boro have scored the fewest goals in the Premier League this season, by a clear margin. This averages out to 0.71 per match. 0.71 goals a match will not win many football matches, despite a defensive record better than anyone else up to Manchester United in 6th place (and better than Liverpool & Arsenal in 4th/5th).  Just a point of interest, currently the three lowest scoring teams are also the bottom three in the current league table.

Looking into this in a little more detail, why is this the case? Have they been profligate in front of goal? Anyone who has spent time watching the Teessiders this season will know that they don’t really create enough chances to even be profligate. The graphic below demonstrates that they haven’t really been guilty of missing chance after chance:

Big chances missed
Big chances missed (Premier League 2016-17)

As an aside on this graphic; it is interesting how closely this mirrors the actual league table. Although logic would dictate that the more missed chances the more actual chances created, therefore the better teams should miss more as well as score more. However, fans of Manchester United and Leicester City may reflect on where they might be if their teams were a little more ruthless in front of goal, whereas Chelsea and West Brom fans may reflect that their excellent seasons are either a) a bit flukey or b) down to excellent finishing. I wonder if any reversion to the mean might occur between now and the end of the season.

So, returning to the topic in hand, if Middlesbrough’s problem isn’t lax finishing then is it passing or getting into the right areas?

Stats 16-17

Their possession and pass success rates are fine, around average for the league, but the type of passes they are playing to try and get into the areas where the goals are scored are interesting.  Middlesbrough have struck the 3rd highest number of long passes in the Premier League, which would indicate quite a direct approach. With the speed of Adama Traore and the hold up play of Alvaro Negredo, this is an understandable tactic if there was enough support around the Spaniard, but often he is quite isolated in matches. Interestingly, Boro, for a bottom half team with a number of long passes, also post quite a high number of backward passes in the league, which is more typical of a patient build up of teams who dominate possession (Liverpool, Man. City, Man. Utd. are the top three in this stat).

This is already leading me to question the pattern of play, this raw data suggests that perhaps the team are happy to retain possession of the ball in their own half but are unable to pass through teams. As the opposition has time to get set they then have to use a longer pass to get into goalscoring areas, which is proving ineffective in getting shots away. This theory is also backed up by the fact that Ben Gibson has played the most passes in the squad this season (1253), and looking at the average pass per game stats the central defenders see the ball the most and you have to look down to number 12 in the list to find a player (Stewart Downing) who could be described as creative having an effect on the game, indeed Victor Valdes makes more passes per game than Downing, Gaston Ramirez, Adama Traore and Alvaro Negredo. They have, unsurprisingly, the fewest number of goal attempts in the league so far this season.

Contrast this with Burnley, who came up with Middlesbrough last year. They have struck the most number of long passes, and pretty much the least number of backward passes. There is a certain clarity of purpose within that group of players on the pitch that has clearly been successful so far with them sitting safely in mid-table at the moment, although they also haven’t got a great shot total, sitting 18th out of 20 in that statistic.

Premier League shots
Total shots 
Long passes
Long passes
Backward passes
Backward passes
Goals scored
Middlesbrough squad ordered by average passes per game


The next set of graphics demonstrate further the problems that Boro have getting into the right areas to score goals. Middlesbrough have scored 11 goals from open play, 4 from set pieces  and only one on the counter attack, again demonstrating their lack of edge from their own half. 78% of the play in their matches happens in their defensive and middle third, so they could really do with developing a counter attacking game plan to progress from these areas into the final third with a threat.

Goals and touch map 2016-7

Goals and shots 16-17

These numbers would mean more with a little context, so I pulled the same data for their main rival for relegation, Crystal Palace. The first thing to notice is that Palace spend more time in the opposition third and less time in their own defensive third than Middlesbrough. 63% of their goals come from open play, making them slightly more effective than Boro and they are also more effective from set pieces with 10 goals as compared to Boro’s 6.  The final point that I would like to make about this is that Boro take a greater percentage of their attempts from outside the box in comparison to Palace, 44% to 39%. Yet again, this highlights Middlesbrough’s ineffectiveness in getting opportunities in the best areas for goalscoring i.e. in the penalty box.

Palace passes and zonesPalace goals and shots

They have signed forward players in preparation for this season, Negredo, Ramirez, Traore, and Viktor Fischer in the summer before reinforcing with Rudy Gestede and Patrick Bamford in January.  Karanka’s love of organisation and his loyalty to his system means that a maximum of four attack-minded players will be on the pitch from 0-70 minutes of the game. In the Championship promotion season he stuck quite religiously to the Mourinho style 4231, with a number 10 (Downing, or later, Ramirez) in behind either David Nugent or Jordan Rhodes. He opened up similarly in the Premier League, but has often reverted to an even more solid 433 with Clayton, De Roon and Forshaw holding station in the middle. The Real Madrid team that Karanka assisted Mourinho with played the 4231 but the difference is obvious, the forward players in that team were able to do anything, dribeither individually or as a four breaking out of defence with lightning speed and effectiveness. None of the forwards signed appear to be able to work together as a unit and certainly none of them possess the individual talents to produce enough moments of magic to consistently win matches (the exception being Gaston Ramirez’ excellent goal vs Bournemouth), certainly not in the way that Ibrahimovic has managed for Mourinho this season.

I wonder what Middlesbrough fans expected coming into this season. They were promoted in 2nd from the Championship, but with the 5th lowest number of goals scored in the history of teams promoted automatically into the Premier League. Of the other four, Sunderland 96-97 were relegated with 40pts and 35 goals scored, West Brom 02-03  finished 19th, 26pts and 29 goals scored, Birmingham did exceptionally well under Steve Bruce in 09-10, only scoring 38 goals but finishing 9th with 50pts, and the last one was Hull City 13-14, again under Steve Bruce, who finished the season with 37pts in 16th having scored 38 goals.  In other words, those teams did not score goals in the top flight the season after promotion.  What the survivors did manage to do was dig out 1-0 wins and beat the teams in and around them in the league, especially at home.

Middlesbrough begin April with three consecutive matches against relegation rivals, Swansea and Hull City away, then Burnley at home. If they have any chance of being one of the survivors then they surely have to pick up wins from at least two of these matches.  There is no doubt that Aitor Karanka works very hard, again in a link to Mourinho, he produces very detailed dossiers on the opposition, drills his team relentlessly on the training pitch and rules Rockliffe (Boro’s training facility) with a rod of iron, but only time will tell if this can keep Boro in the Premier League, and therefore keep his job.


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