Saturday’s crucial win was Boro’s 6th win at home out of the last 7, only slipping up against the runaway champions. In contrast, the miserable loss to Sheffield United meant we have only won 1 in the last 7 away from home. The stats seem to show we are decent at home, but struggle away, and that will ultimately be our downfall.
In this piece I will attempt to argue that our away form is not actually our main problem, and that there is only one ingredient missing that is the difference between this team and the 2015-16 that is standing in the way of us achieving promotion. And how on Saturday we might have gained that vital ingredient.
I’ll start with looking at the away form. Our away form against teams outside the top 6 is, Won: 7, Drawn 4, Lost: 5.
In 2015-16 our away form against teams who finished outside of playoffs was, Won: 8, Drawn: 4, Lost: 6.
Pretty much the same, and with two away games left our record could potentially be better than it was two years ago.
At home, our form against teams outside the top 6 is, Won: 13, Drawn: 3, Lost: 2.
In 2015/16 our home record against teams who finished outside the top 6, Won: 12, Drawn: 4, Lost: 2.
Again very similar. So our record against teams below the playoffs is almost identical to our record during the 2015-16.
So how in ’15-16 did we end up with 89 points and an automatic place and how are we so far short of that? Obviously the answer is due to how well we performed against teams within the top 6.
Boro’s record against the top 6 this season*:
- Home: Won: 0, Drawn: 0, Lost: 4.
- Away: Won: 0, Drawn: 2, Lost: 3
*(with Millwall still to play at home)
Boro’s record against the top 6 in the 2015-16 season:
- Home: (W), 4, (D), 1, (L), 0.
- Away: (W), 2, (D) 2, (L) 1.
In ’15-16 we won 6 and only lost once to top 6 opposition, which was key because it took points off our challengers. I’m simplifying the argument, but the only difference between this season and 2015-16 is the way we have performed against our direct rivals.
This proves that this team, like the team in 2015-16, is one of the best assembled squads in the division in terms of quality. When we are playing against teams that are below our level we usually come out on top because we are a better team. But when we come against a team that can match us in quality, there is something missing, and I don’t believe it is simply that “we are just not good enough.”
The ’15-16 team had a collective commitment and belief in their system which gave them a mental edge over their direct challengers, which the current team has lacked.
It’s not a simple case of not being motivated or “up for it.” It’s about being committed to that shared belief over the course of an extremely grinding season.
After the heartbreak of the playoff loss the year before, the ’15-16 team fully believed that they were supposed to get promoted, and they were going to claw and fight with everything they’ve got to get there.
There are so many examples in that season, when we were playing poorly, but something just made the team push that little bit extra, like in the last minute wins at Reading and Bolton, and the late winner at home to Hull, and late goals against Derby at home. Those sort of moments have been absent this season.
In Mike Calvin’s book on football management “Living On The Volcano” he interviews Brendan Rogers just after Liverpool’s extraordinary 2nd place finish in 2014 and discusses the steadfast commitment the team had to each other over the course of the season:
“I don’t need players motivated, because some days you get up and you’re not motivated. But if you’re a life-saving surgeon, you work on commitment. If you do five operations a day and save people’s lives, you might be motivated for the first four, but the fifth guys need you like the first one. So you need to commit to your work.”
I believe this is where Middlesbrough have struggled this season. Boro have lacked that commitment, so when they come up against good teams they either submit meekly or collapse completely.
It’s completely understandable why the team is like this. For the first half of the season Garry Monk struggled to get his plan and views across. The team was unbalanced, and there was constant confusion and chaos at the back.
Tony Pulis came in, put in his system and we looked more solid and organised. But at same time Pulis was also talking about the many changes that needed to happen behind the scenes. He was open about what was not working at the club. He made it very clear that this was a team he had inherited and he could only do the best with what he had.
Under those circumstances, when players don’t really know what the future holds for them or the club, you can’t expect them to galvanise the unshakable spirit and commitment that Rogers was talking about, or the one Karanka fostered. It’s why, despite the improvements the team have made under Pulis, we were still limp and feeble against top 6 opposition.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday. Ok, Bristol are not in the top six anymore, and are in awful form particularly on the road, but going into Saturday they were a playoff rival who could leapfrog above us with a win, plus they had played us off the park earlier in the season.
Saturday was the first time we saw genuine commitment and belief from this Boro team. Earlier in the season, after going a goal down, we could easily have seen another collapse. Instead we responded positively and ground out the win.
The manner in which we came back will be a huge psychological boost. Now, if we go a goal down in the next 3 crucial games (and hopefully playoffs), we know we won’t crumble.
Significantly both goals came from set-pieces, it’s not to everyone’s taste, but this now a Pulis team and they’re playing like one.
Hopefully Boro can do enough to secure a playoff place. If they do then they will face one of Villa, Fulham and Cardiff who are battling it out for 2nd place, and one of them is going to have to deal with the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion, and then go to a roaring Riverside against a renewed Boro team brimming with confidence and belief just when it matters.
In the last promotion season, between 15th December and January 2nd, Middlesbrough played four consecutive matches against eventual top 6 teams. They beat Burnley at home 1-0, Brighton away 3-0, Sheffield Wednesday at home 1-0 and Derby at home 2-0. 4 matches, 4 wins, 8 goals, none conceded. 12 points gained on their direct rivals.
You could argue that promotion was won during that 3 week spell. In terms of results our season has basically been very similar to the 2015-16 season, except we never had a spell like that. Maybe, just maybe, Saturday’s win was the start of such a spell that propels this team to promotion.