Plenty of regrets in 2018/19
Middlesbrough ended their 2018/19 campaign in The Championship in seventh place. And we all know what that means: one place short of the right to contest the Play-Offs.
They certainly can’t be accused of not having ended the season on a high. They won five of their last six games of the season- almost unheard of in a league as competitive as The Championship – and would have sneaked in to the Play-Offs had Derby not won their own final match, a 3-1 win over West Brom.
So if it wasn’t at the business end of the season that it all went wrong, then when was it?
Back in March-April they endured a six-match losing streak. It’s easy to look back at it now and say that if they’d won just one of those six matches rather than losing the lot of them, they would have finished top six. But it’s also absolutely true.
Still, they’ll get a chance to do it all over again next season and though there are rumours of a change at the helm at The Riverside, there is every chance that Middlesbrough will be up there come next May.
By the way, if the second-tier of English football is your thing, then you’ll find a whole host of Championship coverage here.
Targeting Automatic Promotion
Rather like a penalty shoot-out, contesting the Play-Offs is a little bit of a lottery. You may have finished 15 points ahead of the team you’re playing in the semis but that counts for nothing. You play home and away, the tie could go to a penalty shoot-out anyway and then you have a one-off final at Wembley where the cliché of form being thrown out of the window isn’t as silly as it sounds.
And that’s precisely why teams who have promotion as their main target for the season aim for a top two finish rather than a top six. Win it or finish as runners-up and you’re in the big time. And there are good reasons to think Boro could drastically improve on their efforts next term and do just that.
Poor Standard of Premier League Relegated Trio
The norm is for the three sides who have just been relegated from the Premier League to be instantly chalked up as favourites to go right back up. Usually that makes sense: after all, you must have had a good squad when going up (whenever that was) and whereas some star players are inevitably picked up by teams who stayed in the Premier League or other top European leagues, most remain at the club and attempt to help the team be promoted at the first time of asking.
Having said that, the two sides who had themselves been promoted last season and were relegated in their first year – Fulham and Cardiff – look to be poor favourites, should they be priced up that way.
Cardiff’s squad looks a pretty ordinary one, even allowing for the fact that the standard drops a fair bit from one division to the next. Scoring goals was a huge problem for them all season. Only Bobby Reid and Victor Camarasa got to five goals and one of the two players who reached four was centre-back Sol Bamba.
They do admittedly have physical players who put in big shifts, valuable attributes in The Championship, but they’ll struggle to attract fresh blood that can give them that little bit of quality. With all due respect to Cardiff, it’s not the first club that gifted players might choose to move to.
In many ways, Fulham were the mirror opposite of Cardiff. Scoring goals wasn’t that big a problem but keeping them out certainly was; no-one in the division conceded more.
There are other barriers in their way next season. Scott Parker is very raw as a manager and this will be his first season in charge in The Championship, a division that has its own quirks. Aleksandar Mitrovic, their star man whose 11 goals actually them a glimmer of hope, is apparently the subject of a big bid by Southampton… so is highly unlikely to stay.
As is young starlet Ryan Sessegnon, who will feel that he’ll be wanting to remain in the Premier League to further his career rather than going down a division. There will be no shortage of interest in him this summer.
As for Huddersfield, you get the feeling those two years – the one they got promoted and the one they stayed up – under David Wagner, was their moment in the sun. They haven’t looked quite as together since he left and are another club that may struggle to attract some bigger names.
‘Play-Off Sides’ Deserve Respect
So it may well be that it’s the three teams who made the Play-offs this season without getting promoted (we’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out which three) provide Boro with the sternest test.
Villa and Leeds are two of English football’s biggest clubs and with big fanbases, history and large stadiums on their side, could attract some decent new players and put in another strong challenge for promotion. In Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds also have a top-class manager who has seen it all before and that will count in their favour.
If they don’t get promoted this time round, Derby will be a better team for Frank Lampard having another year’s experience under his belt, whereas West Brom still have plenty of players on their books who have played in the Premier League.
Boro’s Room for Improvement
Of course, before worrying too much about what their rivals might do, Boro need to get their own house in order.
They can start by improving on their return in attack. Their 49 goals scored was the lowest of any side finishing in the Top 15 in The Championship. Derby, who finished one place above them, scored 20 more goals than them. Villa, who ended up just three points better off, scored 33 more goals than them! One player – Britt Assombalonga – got to 14 goals, but no-one else got more than six.
Another prolific striker or a playmaker who can create goals will surely be essential requirements for next season if they want to improve on the number of goals they score.
They’ll also need to do better at home. Remarkably, they managed one more point from their 23 away games than their 23 home ones, though of course there’s no quick-fix for doing better in that regard.
But improving in those two areas can give them a real chance at a top two finish.
It remains to be seen who will be in charge of Middlesbrough next season but in Darren Randolph, Daniel Ayala, Muhamed Besic, the highly-experienced Stewart Downing and Assombalonga, they have a fine spine of the team, assuming they all stay.
Let’s wait and see if Boro can pull it off next year.