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At the Riverside, a low block awaits Everton

Middlesbrough have the league’s worst attack but a sturdy defense

Everton v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images

After a wild win against Bournemouth, Everton head to North Yorkshire to take on Middlesbrough. The Teessiders haven’t won in the league in almost 8 weeks, while Everton haven’t lost in the league during the same period. In terms of the table, Boro are relegation candidates but still have decent chance at safety:

The Toffees have a long shot at European qualification but are more and more looking like 7th place will be the final resting point:

Boro’s stuttering attack

The first thing you notice when you look at Middlesbrough’s numbers is that their attack is bad, full stop. They are dead last in the league in goals, shots, and shots on target. In terms of advanced metrics, Michael Caley’s expected goals model has them at...dead last.

There are a lot of ways to be bad at attacking. In Middlesbrough’s case, they seem to be able to move the ball into the middle third but not beyond. According to Objective Football, Boro have spent more time with the ball in the middle third than any other team in the Premier League, and less time with the ball in the final third than any other team. Their overall passing and possession is worthy of a mid-table side but they are utterly toothless going forward. I wrote way back in September that they had the league’s slowest shot tempo (shots per pass completion), and that is still the case now.

Some of this down to manager Aitor Karanka’s conservative, organization-first approach, but Boro’s personnel isn’t really up to the task of scoring goals at this level either. In Álvaro Negredo they have a striker who hasn’t hit a double digit goal tally in a season since 2013/14. Elsewhere, Gastón Ramírez is a Uruguayan international and probably their best attacker, but has missed the last six weeks with an injury and reportedly handed in a transfer request. He may be back in the fold for this fixture, which would be a huge boost for the Teessiders. When in the lineup he has often been a focal point in Karanka’s 4-3-3:

Beyond that, Boro have little. Amongst all players this season with at least 10 Premier League appearances, only Stewart Downing joins Ramírez in the top 100 in key passes per 90. In fact, he comes in at number 100. With such little creativity in their ranks, it’s not hard to see why Boro have such a difficult time breaking through opposition defenses. Without Ramírez there isn’t much happening:

The answer to these problems isn’t obvious. Middlesbrough play plenty of long balls (second most in the league), but get less production out of them than the likes of West Brom, Watford, and even Crystal Palace. They have the worst shot accuracy in the league. Perhaps they just ought to sell out more to the counter-attack, but they don’t really have the speed for it. For this match, Everton just need to do what they did in September, dominating the midfield and denying service to Negredo. In that match Boro had no shots on target and just 0.2 expected goals.

Over-achieving on defense

Given all of the above, you might wonder how Middlesbrough aren’t a dead lock for relegation. The answer is mostly that their defense is half decent. Specifically, they’ve conceded the fewest shots on target in the league. Interestingly, they’ve conceded more total shots than just six other sides. It follows that teams have had terrible shot accuracy against Middlesbrough.

Part of this is luck; this much has been suggested elsewhere, both by numbers and by watching them recently:

Some of it though, is attributable to Boro’s tactics. They do run a fairly organized well low block, with plenty of numbers behind the ball. Their opponents’ shot quality (expected goals per shot) is quite low for a side of their stature and is bested only by Manchester United, Southampton, and Burnley (who deserve an asterisk here because the sheer shot volume they concede outweighs most benefits of limited individual shot quality).

When allowed to organize they can be a frustrating opponent. Even so, they are vulnerable to individual errors, especially in moments of transition. Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers was the unfortunate goat multiple times against Spurs.

Early, he was caught out of position on a harmless midfield throw-in (though Son could arguably be a midfielder’s responsibility here):

Towards the end of the match, Chambers was similarly useless on a Spurs break, with Son again the beneficiary:

Karanka is a competent manager, but one can only rely on pure defense for so long, especially with a squad of questionable talent. Worryingly for Boro fans, the cracks are beginning to show on the defensive side. At this point they can only hope that Ramírez somehow re-motivates himself and drags them to safety, or, simply, that three of the five teams currently below them in the table continue to struggle.

For Everton, there isn’t a whole lot to do here except to stick to their guns and play their game. After a frankly terrifying 35 minutes of second half action against Bournemouth, they showed maturity and patience in the buildup to their crucial 4th goal:

More of that and they should be home and dry with 3 points in the bag. Not that “should” means “will,” mind you. But you already knew that.