Newly promoted Middlesbrough come to Goodison Park on Saturday in the day’s late fixture. After a second half burst propelled Everton to a 3-0 victory at Sunderland on Monday, they are riding high in third place. Boro sit in a respectable ninth having lost just once in their opening four fixtures.
After seven seasons in the Championship Middlesbrough finally finished second last year, largely on the back of a defense that conceded a league-low 31 goals. However, as noted by Clarke Ruehlen in his excellent Boro preview for Statsbomb, the Teesiders were riding a suspiciously high save percentage for a large portion of the season. In other words, sometimes goalies get hot for unclear reasons, and Dimitrios Konstantopoulos was definitely running hot for a while.
With that being said, the shot numbers were still pretty good and early returns in the Premier League so far are consistent with the idea that the Boro defense is at least pretty solid: 7th in expected goals against according to Michael Caley, 11th in shots against, and 5th in shots on target against.
Offensively there is a lot less to be excited about; both the numbers and the eye test indicate Boro like to have the ball and are generally tidy with it (54% possession, 81% pass accuracy), but they are not particularly adept at creating quality chances (17th in expected goals). Manager Aitor Karanka was José Mourinho’s assistant coach for his three-year spell in charge of Real Madrid, and while one can often sense the Special One’s fingerprints in Boro’s organization, at least he knows how to unleash his team’s attack from time to time. As it stands, Boro have the league’s highest passes per shot rate (put another way, the league’s lowest shot tempo), pointing to a rather conservative approach in possession. One could argue that such an approach is prudent given the task Karanka faces this season, but eventually Boro will have to get a little more aggressive going forward if they want to stay up. 9.75 shots per game against the likes of Stoke, Sunderland, West Brom, and Palace doesn’t bode well.
In any case it at least seems Middlesbrough have a plan, which is summed up well by Reuhlen:
"It is safe to assume that Karanka will be pragmatic in his approach the Premier League and he will likely stick to a double pivot 4-2-3-1 system. I don’t expect this team to take to many chances going forward and it will likely lean on defensive structure and discipline to limit the opposition."
With the ball
As mentioned above, Boro line up in a 4-2-3-1 with the fullbacks providing width and the wingers allowed to drift inside. Their buildup play will start either long to Álvaro Negredo, or short to one of the fullbacks, who will either push the ball up to a winger or cycle possession laterally via one of the double pivots. The wide players and defensive midfielders tend to get a lot of touches, but have had difficulty this season linking with the front two:
Impressive how both DM's dictate stuff in this Middlesbrough team. pic.twitter.com/oICJsggRFS— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) August 21, 2016
Full-backs to wingers, and a lot of sideways passing to said full-backs.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) August 30, 2016
Not great, Bob. pic.twitter.com/ljmv0appor
Middlesbrough are too sterile in possession. Some of that is likely tactical—at times they seem unwilling rather than unable to risk losing the ball to try to play a killer pass, or to risk being caught out on the counter by sending a midfielder forward to take up an advanced position.
In the clip below from last weekend, Boro begin a typical buildup of theirs, cycling the ball laterally and then attacking down a flank. As the left back George Friend progresses up the field with the ball, keep an eye on Adam Forshaw in the middle (#34, Everton youth product and one of Boro’s double pivots). He is conservative in his movement and reluctant to push up into the open space in the middle of the field. With winger Stewart Downing dropping off as well, Friend has no passing options in the middle of the pitch and the attack is extremely easy to contain for Palace.
I don’t mean to lay into Forshaw in particular—there’s also question to be asked about Gaston Ramírez’s decision to get into the box rather than to move over in support—but one sees this reserved approach quite a bit when watching Boro. Note that at this point they are down 2-1 with under 20 minutes to go and should probably be chasing the game, especially considering they are at home.
Courtesy of FourFourTwo, here’s Boro’s attacking third passing map from that match:
There’s a pretty serious hole in both graphics around the danger zone and zone 14 that suggest Boro are not penetrating their opponents’ most vulnerable areas. In this context, their low expected goals output is unsurprising.
It’s worth noting that when Boro’s defensive midfielders do get a little more aggressive with their positioning and make a concerted effort to link up with the number 10 in dangerous areas, they are skilled enough to create chances:
In Ramírez, Forshaw, and Downing, Boro do have midfield players with the technical ability to unlock the opposition, but they often have spacing and positional issues (perhaps due to managerial instructions) that set them back.
Without the ball
When not in possession, Karanka usually sets Middlesbrough up in a mid-block with the typical two banks of four behind the ball. They don’t tend to press super high up the pitch but will become more active as the ball reaches the midfield four. This can change though depending on game state, and against Palace they were notably more aggressive in their forward pressing as the match wore on.
As you’d expect based on their approach and results, Boro are pretty organized in the defensive phase and will require cleverness from the opposition attackers to be broken down. So far this season, Sunderland in the second half of their match have been the one team able to consistently create chances against them. One of the ways they did so was by using direct dribbling and quick passing combinations to exploit Boro’s pressing scheme in the half-spaces and middle of the pitch:
Here, Forshaw initiates the press and is unlucky not to win the ball. Adam Clayton, his DM partner, has to defend van Aanholt’s resulting dribble. With Forshaw now behind the play, the midfield structure starts to break down, with both van Aanholt and Duncan Watmore now free. This allows Watmore the space for a shot that ultimately results in a goal.
Matchup with Everton
Middlesbrough’s defensive scheme could cause some problems for Everton, not unlike Sunderland’s did for one half on Monday. In that match, Ross Barkley struggled to get into the match in the number 10 position. His touches were poor, and he wasn’t able to take up dangerous positions between Sunderland’s midfield and back four. While Koeman’s halftime switch wasn’t necessarily a tactical masterstroke, Kevin Mirallas was better able to find pockets of space and play more vertical passes, as opposed to Barkley who tends to play sideways quite a bit.
At the moment this is probably the biggest weakness in Everton’s lineup. They’ve worked around it by (a) defending solidly, (b) focusing the attack down the wings, and (c) allowing Idrissa Gueye to get forward a bit more in support, but eventually the Toffees will probably need Barkley to either truly step into a central playmaker role or they will need to find someone else who can.
Against Middlesbrough Barkley will again be tasked with using his movement and technical ability to disrupt the defensive structure and create space for his teammates. If he is again unable to do so, Everton will find themselves in a similar position as in the first half on Monday night: relying on crosses and wide play to generate chances.
Creative midfield problems aside, if Everton play anything like they did in the second half against Sunderland, they’ll win this game. The Barkley situation is of particular intrigue—having been dropped by England and subsequently chastised by Koeman for his comments, he could find himself on the bench to start this match. It would be a bold move by Koeman and one I suspect many fans would not support, but Everton were notably more dangerous with a front four of Bolasie/Mirallas/Deulofeu/Lukaku. Should Ross remain in the team, the pressure will be on him to prove he can thrive as a creative midfielder against a team defending deeply, and not just on the counterattack.
Defensively Everton need only to do what those before them have done: cut off the supply lines to Negredo and snuff out Boro’s attacks down the flanks. It will be a disappointment if the Toffees don’t extend their clean sheet streak to three games.