According to the BBC in an online article published in December of last year, Middlesbrough’s youth academy has produced the most graduates (9) eligible to represent England at international level and start in at least five senior games for the club since the 2002-2003 season, including Stewart Downing, Lee Cattermole (now at Wigan), David Wheater, Stuart Parnaby (now at Birmingham City), Andrew Taylor, and Adam Johnson. Lesser-known but still young players like Jonathan Grounds, Josh Walker, and Seb Hines also came from the academy, and they too seem to have a future with The Boro.
Despite this success at youth level, where they also lost in the 2003 FA Youth Cup final and then won the competition the next year, Middlesbrough’s first team has struggled to get out of the bottom half of the Premiership — they’ve done so only twice in the last 10 seasons, with a 7th-place finish their highest in England’s top flight since 1974-75. Boro lost to Juande Ramos’ Sevilla side in the 2005-2006 UEFA Cup final and appeared in the Round of 16 the season before, but those are the two bright spots in a decade of mediocrity.
Gareth Southgate is entering his third season as manager after spending the previous five seasons as a player at the Riverside. He’s led the club to 12th and 13th place in his first two seasons, respectively, and compiled an overall record of 27-29-36 during that time. All-in-all, the second-youngest manager in the Premiership at 37 years of age has done a decent job, but he understands that Middlesbrough fans want to see their club make a jump up into the top ten within the next couple years.
To that end, Southgate has brought in two solid signings — Didier Digard, a young French midfielder, from PSG, and Marvin Emnes, a pacey 20-year-old winger/striker who was the 2007-08 Fans’ Player of the Year at Sparta Rotterdam. Emnes may play right away on the right flank opposite Downing, and Digard should replace George Boateng, who left for Hull City, in the holding role.
Southgate has made it clear that he wants to rebuild at Middlesbrough and usher in a youth movement. He wants to bring more energy and exuberance into the club, which you’ll see with Digard and Emnes. He let Boateng go as the player doesn’t fit this mold, allowed Boro’s long-time goalkeeper, 37-year-old Mark Schwarzer, to leave for Fulham on a free transfer, and released Fábio Rochemback. I’m not sure if he wanted to sell Cattermole, who Southgate handed the captain’s armband to for a game when Cattermole was only 19, but may have felt the offer from Wigan was too good to pass up. He essentially just swapped Cattermole for Digard, a great tackler, and only paid a net cost of $1 million to do so.
The interesting thing about Boro is, unlike any of the teams I’ve previewed so far, they don’t have one group (goalie/defense, midfield, forwards) that stands out visibly above the other two or is obviously weaker than the other two — all three are consistent.
The back four is sturdy with Emanuel Pogatetz and David Wheater as the anchors in the middle, though Pogatetz is a natural left back and Robert Huth can play alongside Wheater if preferred. The midfield is good with Downing, Digard, Julio Arca, and either Gary O’Neil, Enmes, or even Jérémie Aliadière, who would rather play up top, wide right. The combination of Afonso Alves and Tuncay up front blossomed at the end of the season. Aliadière is a viable strike option as well, and Mido isn’t bad off the bench.
Many players on the roster can play multiple positions, so Southgate can mix and match until he settles on some combination he really likes. He’s not locked into playing the same formation with the same players on a weekly basis, which is a huge advantage for a manager.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
*GK: Brad Jones
RB: Luke Young
*Schwarzer’s departure has left the starting keeper’s job wide open, with some speculating that Jones, last year’s backup, will go between the sticks, and others saying Southgate will go out and buy a proven number one. Because Jones is currently the best option, he’s my projected starter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Southgate did acquire another keeper.
Middlesbrough should get off to a decent start, with winnable home games against Tottenham, Stoke, and West Brom amongst their opening six matches. The first of two Tees-Wear derbies comes at Sunderland on September 20. Nine total goals were scored in the corresponding games last season, so that should be a good one to watch.
November brings home games against West Ham, Bolton, and Newcastle in a Tyne-Tees derby affair. Middlesbrough would love nine points from those fixtures as their other two that month come at Aston Villa and at Everton, where Boro certainly won’t be favored.
Arsenal comes to the Riverside on December 13 and in the same game last year, Boro pulled off a thrilling 2-1 victory. A potentially difficult month with that match, a visit to Old Trafford, and a home game against Everton could be made better with road victories at Hull City and Fulham.
Southgate’s club finishes the season in style as they’ll see Arsenal, Manchester United, and Newcastle in three consecutive weeks, followed a home game with Villa and a trip to East London to play West Ham to end the campaign. Remember, Middlesbrough is usually simply playing out the string in March or April — they seem to be condemned to another middling finish by then and have little motivation or anything to play for — but that won’t be the case this year with that kind of opposition awaiting them.
Bottom Line: This team is being built for the future, and success usually comes only through growing pains. That’s what this season probably will be for Middlesbrough fans, because while they’re decent in all facets of the game, they haven’t broken through to being very good in any. It takes time and experience to do that, things that many of Boro’s players don’t have at the Premiership level. They have obvious upside and could definitely be a team to watch going forward, but for this year, it’ll be another bottom-half finish.