Middlesbrough Season Preview

middlesbroughThe Football Lab interviewed Middlesbrough fan James Cartwright, ahead of the new season. You can follow him on Twitter @James94Cart

Middlesbrough finished 4th last season, and lost in the play-off final. Do you look back on that campaign mainly with pride for the progress the club have made, or disappointment at not having won promotion?

Just after defeat there was obvious disappointment to come so close and fail to get over the line. But we have to accept it wasn’t to be, in the big games against Bournemouth, Watford and in the playoff final we didn’t quite have the extra bit needed to win the game. Looking at it now, it has to be seen as progress given it was our first time in the playoffs. I’m sure the players have learned a lot from the campaign.

The main news for Boro this summer is that Stewart Downing, who came through the club’s academy, is returning in a £5 million deal. Are you pleased about this?

Very pleased, it shows intent and it proves we can still bring top quality players to Middlesbrough. There’s no doubt in my mind that Stewart Downing is the best player in the league now. As I alluded in my last answer, we failed to have the extra bit to finish off the top teams last season- hopefully Downing will prove to be the answer.

No Championship team has conceded fewer goals than Middlesbrough since QPR, when they won the title in the 2010-11 season. How pleased are you with the team’s organization?

Every game I feel confident we can keep a cleansheet and that obviously means we are always getting result. I expect the same high standards for this upcoming season and if that’s the case, then Boro should be in for another good season.

So far, there have not been rumours that any of Middlesbrough’s key players want to leave for a Premier League club this summer. Is this an indication that they are happy playing under Aitor Karanka?

Clearly it is, the players all seem to be in on helping Middlesbrough achieve their goal of Premier League football. After last seasons disappointment, they are doubly determined to get things right this time around. Of course, they could move to the Premier League but I doubt they would be content with bench warming at a mid-table club that has limited ambition.

Goalkeeper Dimitros Konstantopoulos is now 36. Do you need to find a long-term replacement for him? Will Tomas Meijas be able to step into the fray when needed?

For the time being, Dimi is fine and I’ll gladly have him as the number one next season. In terms of a long-term replacement, I think we should send Connor Ripley out on loan to League One or Two and see how he fares. For me, he still remains an option. As for Meijias, the jury is still very much out on him. Signing a right-back was one of Middlesbrough’s main priorities this summer.

What are your thoughts on the addition of Alex Baptiste?

Unfortunately we will not see him in the near future due to an injury suffered against York City. That aside, he’s solid Championhship defender from what I’ve seen and should push for a starting place when he’s fit.

Defender Tomas Kalas played 17 games for Boro last season after joining on loan from Chelsea. Based on his performances in that time, are you pleased he is staying for another year?

Yes, Kalas grew as a player during his time with us last season. He’s a talented defender but he still has lot to learn in terms of discipline. Having him at Middlesbrough again is great for us and great for Chelsea. I’d like to him as the regular right-back next season.

Centre-back Daniel Ayala was arguably Middlesbrough’s best player last season, and is almost guaranteed to start when fit. Who should partner him?

It has to be Ben Gibson, our defence was at its best last season when the two were paired with each other. The two compliment each other with Gibson always learning from Ayala and vice-versa in some ways. The key to another season of a low ‘goals against’ column is keeping a constant back four.

Left-back George Friend has been a key player in recent seasons. Do you think playing non-league football earlier in his career gave him that extra drive to succeed at Middlesbrough?

Perhaps, I think the reason he’s so devoted to the club is because we gave him the chance in Championship football again. At Doncaster he was heading for League One and we gave him the option to further his career. He could move to the Premier League but helping the club that resurrected his career is much more tantalising.

Middlesbrough only won 1 game in which they fell behind last season. By comparison, promoted sides Watford and Norwich both won 6 of those games, while Bournemouth won 3. Do Boro need to be better at changing a match that isn’t going their way? Do you need to vary your style of play more?

I think we just need to not let our heads drop when a goals goes against us. There should always be a plan b but it doesn’t need to come out immediately.

Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton formed a very solid midfield partnership last season. However, do you feel they contribute enough in an attacking sense?

As the clubs second highest goalscorer last season, Leadbitter contributes enough going forward for me. As for Clayton he does make a difference going forward as he gets the attack rolling from deep. I would like to see him shoot more though and perhaps bag himself a goal or two as he did at Huddersfield.

Earlier in his career, Albert Adomah was regarded as a skilful speed merchant who perhaps lacks an end product. He seems to have moved up another level in the last 12 months?

He’s developed a discipline to his game and he’s took on board what Karanka has said to him. Previously he was just classic Championship winger who would use his pace to burn past defenders. Now he has developed an intelligence to now when to strike and when it hold back. As a result, his attacks tend to be much more productive now,

Some people argue that Lee Tomlin (now at Bournemouth), although talented, did not show his quality often enough last season. Do you share those views?

I think we wasn’t always able to show his best last season as he often found himself on the wing. I know if your expected to do a job wherever you play but Tomlin is more effective in the middle. Towards the end of last season he proved to be a match winner in fair few games when he was given the chance to dictate the attack from the middle.

Top scorer Patrick Bamford has returned to parent club Chelsea this summer, opting for a loan move to Crystal Palace. Is new signing Cristhian Stuani capable of replacing him?

He’s a different type of player so I don’t think he will exactly replace him. In terms of goals he could fire a few in, although we’ll have to give him time to get settled in. He’s a major coup for us, having watched him in La Liga over the last few years I have been impressed by what I’ve seen,

Boro aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Who do you think will do well? Which teams might struggle?

I can see the likes of Wolves, Derby, Bristol City, QPR and Ipswich Town challenging next season. All had decent campaigns in 2014-15 (excluding Derby and QPR) and have made some decent signings in the transfer window.

As for those who will struggle, I’ll go for the likes of Rotherham United, Blackburn Rovers and Huddersfield. Maybe even Leeds if they make a bad start.

You said last summer that you would be happy if Middlesbrough were to challenge for a play-off spot, and they finished 4th. What is your prediction for this campaign?

If we make progress yet again then it has to be automatic promotion. We proved on plenty of occasions last season we are capable of finishing in the top two, it’s just about getting consistency to make sure we stay there.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Having narrowly missed out on promotion last year, Middlesbrough are an incredibly well organized team and have made huge strides under Aitor Karanka. The addition of Stewart Downing and Diego Fabbrini gives them extra quality in midfield, meaning that Boro will be competing at the top once again. 2nd

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