The 2023/24 season has started in the worst possible way for Middlesbrough but with the club rooted to the bottom of the Championship, how can they bounce back and turn themselves into promotion contenders once again?
Michael Carrick’s men are bottom of the Championship despite Tuesday’s 1-1 draw against Sheffield Wednesday and remain one of three sides that are still without a victory in the division so far this season.
Middlesbrough had a slow start to the 2022/23 campaign but finished fourth in the Championship, claiming a play-off tie against Coventry City. However, after a tough first leg at the CBS Arena, the Sky Blues beat Boro 1-0 courtesy of a Gustavo Hamer strike, beginning the decline of Middlesbrough once again.
Last season’s squad contained several talented players including Cameron Archer, Chuba Akpom and Ryan Giles but since the ending of the season, the squad has suffered a major hit that it simply hasn’t recovered from so far. Despite a busy summer transfer window, the club have continued to struggle in the Championship, with their only victories coming in the EFL Cup.
After seven matches, Middlesbrough have just two points, becoming the joint-second lowest scorers (5) as well as having the second-worst defence in the entire division, conceding 14 league goals which is only beaten by Southampton.
With the pressure beginning to build on Michael Carrick and his Middlesbrough side, how can the Championship side bounce back and fly up the table once again before they end up losing one of the division’s best managers?
Before taking a look at how the side can improve, I think it’s important to take an in-depth look at the root of the issues at the Riverside Stadium and how they have managed to get themselves in the situation they have.
Following their defeat to Coventry, loanees Ryan Giles (Wolves), Zach Steffen (Manchester City), Alex Mowatt (West Bromwich Albion), Rodrigo Muniz (Fulham) as well as Aston Villa duo Cameron Archer and Aaron Ramsey all returned to their parent clubs, creating several gaps within the squad that needed improving.
Similarly, the club also suffered the losses of Darnell Fisher, Grant Hall and Joe Lumley following the expiry of their contracts, which further increased the amount of business that Middlesbrough had to do.
During the summer transfer window, Middlesbrough signed 14 new players with four of them being youth additions. The club replaced Steffen and Lumley with QPR’s Seny Dieng and Wigan’s Jamie Jones which hasn’t increased the quality from the previous season. Dutch defender Rav Van Den Berg, Manchester City’s Morgan Rogers and Atalanta’s Emmanuel Latte Lath were amongst the club’s main permanent business, whilst Leeds’ Sam Greenwood and Nottingham Forest’s Lewis O’Brien arrived on loan.
The issue is that the quality that departed the club out-weighs the current strength of the new arrivals, which suggests that the overall quality within the squad has decreased. Similarly, Middlesbrough also lost the division’s player of the year Chuba Akpom to Ajax, causing further issues in the final third.
Start to the season
Out of Middlesbrough’s seven opening matches, four of them were against sides that finished in the top ten of the Championship in the previous campaign. Michael Carrick’s men began with a 1-0 loss to Millwall, before losing 3-0 against Coventry City. A 65th-minute strike from Hayden Hackney rescued a point against Neil Warnock’s Huddersfield Town, but this was met with three additional losses to West Bromwich Albion, Queens Park Rangers and Blackburn Rovers.
On Tuesday evening, Darragh Lenihan’s second-half strike forced a share of the spoils against Sheffield Wednesday in what was a disappointing performance from the club.
The issue is that Middlesbrough are yet to score first in a Championship match this season and the fans deserve better than the performances they are currently witnessing.
Michael Carrick’s side are next in action on Saturday as they host an out-of-form Southampton side, before matches against Bradford City (EFL Cup), Watford, Cardiff City and Sunderland before the next international break in October.
Is Carrick the issue?
Whenever a football club experiences a run of form like Middlesbrough have, the pressure is always going to be placed on the manager especially given how much expectation there is on a side like Middlesbrough. However, Boro did exactly the same thing last season and still finished fourth in the Championship.
Admittedly, some of the pressure will be on Michael Carrick judging by some of the social media reaction to his line-ups and substitutions. Similarly, Middlesbrough’s squad on paper is still good enough to compete this season but it is noticeably weaker than the previous campaign.
However, I personally believe Michael Carrick has proven himself as one of the division’s best managers and sacking him would cause more problems than it would solve in my opinion, meaning the club needs to stick by Carrick rather than send him to the chopping block.
Could reinforcements be needed?
Middlesbrough recently submitted their 2023/24 Championship squad list across to the EFL, but only named 24 players out of a possible 25. This does open the door for the club to sign an additional player between now and the January transfer window.
However, during a recent interview, Michael Carrick appears to be happy with his current squad, which implies that he isn’t looking to bolster their squad. He stated…
“I’m really happy with the squad as we sit now and I think we’ve got a very good team and group of individuals. We’ve got a good balance to the squad crucially as well. We’ve brought a lot of good players into the group, a lot of them at a very good age as well in terms of looking at that next stage and chapter of their career and coming here to develop and progress.”
On the other hand, Middlesbrough are currently struggling to score goals and keep the ball out. If I had to focus on an area, it would be the forward area due to the club struggling to score goals. Conceding goals is an issue but if you can score, you make yourselves more likely to get more points and a change of fortune is desperately needed at the Riverside.
In terms of options, former Fulham playmaker Josh Onomah remains a free agent alongside Luke Freeman, Lyle Taylor and Andros Townsend. Admittedly, Townsend is the only player who would immediately improve the quality in the final third but Michael Carrick has the experience to get the best out of the others.
Middlesbrough host Southampton this weekend and this for me is arguably the best time for Michael Carrick’s men to recapture their existing form. Southampton have lost three matches on the bounce, scoring once and conceding ten goals, with pressure also rising on Russell Martin at St. Mary’s.
Michael Carrick’s men showed fight by bouncing back against Sheffield Wednesday and they need to use that as motivation to kick-on this weekend. Southampton have a strong side but are lacking motivation, presenting Middlesbrough with their best possible opportunity of grabbing their first three points of the season.
Should Middlesbrough beat Southampton, they will head into their EFL Cup clash with Bradford City full of confidence and then travel to Watford with the expectation that they will be out of the bottom three should the club win their respective matches. This would ease the pressure off Michael Carrick and the squad, allowing them to play free-flowing football and would give the supporters the chance to have something to sing about once again.
Admittedly, if the club lose to Southampton, the pressure would be further increased and the Watford match could spark a very serious management conversation. My message to Middlesbrough supporters is to get behind the club and especially Michael Carrick. I don’t think sacking him should be an option at this stage as I don’t think there’s a manager who would be a better fit than Carrick at the Riverside at this stage.
Boro have built a squad that has the potential to shine in the next couple of years, but they are currently experiencing a short-term hit and it is crucial that the club and the supporters remain as positive as they can. The club proved what they are capable of last season and the success stories from Coventry and Nottingham Forest should also be used as motivation to bounce back once again.
Middlesbrough fans, where do you think the issue is within the current squad and are you Carrick in or out? Let us know on Twitter @TheRealEFLNews.