Lovely. When it came to calling the season previews of teams here in UF, I was late to the party. Let’s just say, then, that I got a couple of teams that I don’t really care for, including one that I know very little about. That little-known–to me–squad would be Middlesbrough. Where do I begin? What is the heart of the squad? Is this a squad that pushes for Europe, or do they survive by the skin of their teeth?
Never one to not look a gift horse in the mouth, I’ll use the manager as a jumping off point.
Gareth Southgate has no love for redemptive dentistry. He has been in charge of ‘Boro since the summer of 2006, when Steve McClaren left to take over the England National team. To date, Middlesbrough have taken 88 points in 76 league matches under Southgate. Not stellar numbers, but enough to see them comfortably out of relegation both seasons.
So, then what about the team? ‘Boro made a splash last January signing Alfonso Alves from Heerenveen for $16 million. Problem was, Alves was not healthy. Alves made only nine appearances for the club last season, finding the net six times. If he gets and stays healthy this term, he may be able to erase the idea that some of us here hold that players who score well in the Dutch league can only score in the Dutch league. Which reminds me, I should go pick him up for our fantasy league, just in case.
This offseason, Southgate made a couple of early swoops for new talent. By the first week of July, Southgate had brought in Didier Digard, a midfielder from PSG, and Marvin Emnes, a forward from Sparta Rotterdam. At the time, Southgate declared the Middlesbrough were in the market for even more talent. Too bad for ‘Boro fans that this statement was not exactly truthful.
In truth, ‘Boro started selling off talent immediately after. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was the first to leave the team this offseasion, making the switch to Fulham. Hull City signed last season’s EPL leader in cards, George Boateng, shortly after. Luke Young went to Aston Villa. Finally, midfield mainstay Lee Cattermole was shuffled off to Wigan.
All three held starting positions at Middlesbrough, and all three probably will at their new clubs. The one that hurts the most to lose is Schwarzer. No one has been brought in to replace the keeper, which means that the starting job will fall to one of two candidates. Brad Jones has 15 top flight starts under his belt in the last five years, and a smattering of other appearances on loan. Ross Turnbull has even less experience, appearing just five times in league for Middlesbrough. However, Turnbull has the closest thing to a full season’s experience as a starter, having appeared 29 times for Crewe Alexandra while on loan in ’05-’06. If these two start to leak goals at the back, no amount of scoring up top, unless it is really off the charts, will help the club on their push to Europe.
To be fair, if there is a strength to this squad, it is up top. Middlesbrough could conceivably play three up top given their talent. In addition to Alfonso Alves, this team has both the Egyptian Mido, and the Turk Tuncay as legitimate starters at forward. That is, if they stay healthy. Mido had what the club calls “a serious pubic bone injury” last season and capped the year off with hernia surgery. ‘Boro fans better hope he’s better to start the season, since Mido takes winters off anyway. Sometime scorer Jeremie Aliadiere is also on the bench for ‘Boro.
The midfield is mostly anonymous, with Stewart Downing and Julio Arca the only ones bearing any real name recognition. The defense is decent, and should be helped by the soon-to-arrive Justin Hoyte, provided the two sides agree to terms over the next couple of days.
All in all, Middlebrough could be a fun team to watch. Southgate is no tactical genius, and could just be trying to outscore his opponents. Which would be rare. There is no reason to believe this team will be any better that their 13th place finish last season, and could, in fact be worse.