Middlesbrough Season Preview: strong additions

middlesbroughAfter seven years away, Boro are back in the big time. Aitor Karanka, the club’s first ever foreign coach, has guided them into the Premier League after two and a half seasons of excellent defending. Are they in the best position of the three promoted clubs? The Football Lab spoke to supporter James Cartwright. You can read his Teesside Football Blog and follow him on Twitter @James94Cart.

Middlesbrough won promotion on the final day last season. Did you deserve to go up over the season?

Certainly, our record against the rest of the top six speaks for itself. Defensively we were the best team in the league and on our day, could be one of the better attacking teams too. Such is the volume of games; I don’t think any team can finish in the top two if it is not deserved.

Your form dipped between January and March, before Aitor Karanka’s storm off. Was David Nugent’s last minute winner against Hull in his first game back the pivotal moment in your season?

Yes, I think it is fair to say Boro would have finished well below the top two if they hadn’t got that win over Hull City. It was just the catalyst to get us all believing in the squad again after what had been a turbulent week. Adam Forshaw’s late goal against Reading is probably the other pivotal point of the season.

Dimitros Konstantopoulos has kept 49 clean sheets in 27 months of first team football at Boro. Is it necessarily a given that high-profile arrival Victor Valdes will take the number one jersey?

I would like to see Dimi Konstantopoulos be given the opportunity to retain his jersey. He was a consistent performer last season and seems to be only getting better with age. Victor Valdes shouldn’t automatically start because of his reputation.

Right-back Ritchie De Laet was pictured with both a Championship runners-up medal and a Premier League winners medal! Not a bad season for him…

A great season for him, although I can’t see him being back at the Riverside any time soon unless it’s in an opposition shirt.

Daniel Ayala has been the best centre-back in the Championship for a long time now. You must be pleased for him to get the chance to prove himself in the top flight?

Delighted for him, at Middlesbrough he’s finally found himself a club where’s been able to develop into the player Liverpool thought he would be. I can see him only improving the more he plays in the Premier League. If that does happen, the big clubs will probably come knocking.

Partnering Ayala is likely to be Bernardo Espinosa, who joins from Sporting Gijon on a free transfer. Does this suggest young, home-grown centre-backs such as Ben Gibson and Dael Fry will have to wait their chance?

I would like to think Karanka would stick with the partnership of Gibson and Ayala which was so successful last season. After all, there’s no need to fix something that isn’t broken. Given the volume of games and injuries though, I can Espinosa playing a fair few games. As for Fry, I would like to see him go on loan to Championship club. Perhaps a side such as Preston.

Left-back George Friend has been excellent over the last few seasons. How close is he to becoming the complete full-back?

I’m not sure he’ll ever become the ‘complete full-back’ but he’s certainly an ideal one. I think playing for bottom-half Premier League will probably be his level. I am sure we will be relying on his defensive abilities much more next season.

Adam Clayton had a good season last year. However, does he have the pace to adapt to the Premier League?

The Championship is much more of a hectic and fast league, so I don’t think that should be a problem. He’s only improved since he joined us two years ago and I can see that continuing in the Premier League. Considering how the Premier League relies more on technical skill, he’ll take to it quickly.

With Marten De Roon joining from Atalanta, who do you expect to be your double pivot?

I would probably go with De Roon and Clayton. I am sure Grant Leadbitter will feature on a regular basis but I think he’s probably a level below Clayton in ability. Currently, I imagine De Roon playing the big games and Leadbitter featuring when were playing Burnley at home for example.

Stewart Downing played most of his games last season on the left. What does the arrival of winger Viktor Fischer mean for him?

It means he has to be one his toes. I think we’ll see a better Stewart Downing this season, last season he was often marked out of games as many Championship clubs thought him to be our best player. He should have more of an opportunity to show us the sort of form he showed at Aston Villa few years back.

Gaston Ramirez looks a creative player. Are you excited to see what he can do in the top flight?

Hopefully we can get deal in place to bring him back to the club because he’s one of the most exciting players I’ve seen for Middlesbrough. Much like Ayala, it was case of finding the right club and he’s done that at Middlesbrough. He has a lot to prove in the Premier League and I am confident he can do it.

A lot of Jordan Rhodes’ goals for Blackburn came alongside Rudy Gestede. Does he have the qualities to lead the line on his own?

Yes, he just needs to be more clinical when the chances fall his way. He gets in all the right positions to score numerous goals but often he takes too long or his effort is a poor one. In the Premier League, he will probably have three or four chances maximum in a game. He needs to be able to take them.

You’ve made a lot of high-profile signings this summer but four of the five so far are fairly defensive players. Are you surprised the club haven’t brought in more attack-minded types?

No because I think we are far from done in terms of transfer business. I am sure the club will be working to bring in some more attacking-minded players in the coming month or so.

A striker has to be the priority. What are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? Which teams do you feel could be struggling near the bottom?

I think we’re heading into one of the more intriguing Premier League seasons in years. It is just exciting to think of all the top managers that will be in the league such as Mourinho, Conte, Klopp and of course, Guardiola. The league title is impossible to call with all of the big clubs working hard to prevent another Leicester. It is logical to think that Middlesbrough, Burnley and Hull will all be fighting a relegation battle straight after promotion. Second season syndrome could strike for Bournemouth and I can see the likes of Swansea and West Brom in the relegation fight.

Where will you finish?

Anywhere outside the relegation zone and I’ll dance round the streets.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Middlesbrough have made some excellent signings including a goalscorer in Negredo. With their capacity for clean sheets they will finish the season safely in midtable. 13th