Premier League 2016-17 season preview No12: Middlesbrough

Marten De Roon of Middlesbrough and Markel Bergara of Real Sociedad (R) in action

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 17th (NB: this is not necessarily Louise Taylor’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 2nd (Championship)

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,000-1

Aitor Karanka may have been forgiven for his March meltdown but that extraordinary episode has certainly not been forgotten. It dictates that, realistically, Middlesbrough’s Basque manager begins the season very much on trial.

Only time will tell whether relationships with senior players that appeared all but wrecked when Karanka was sent home after a furious Friday morning row with first-teamers before being placed on gardening leave and missing a defeat at Charlton, are truly healed.

Granted, once Steve Gibson, Middlesbrough’s owner, had controversially reinstated José Mourinho’s one-time Real Madrid sidekick, Boro barely looked back, overcoming their winter wobble to secure the Championship’s second automatic promotion spot at Brighton’s expense.

A sceptic might say it was in everyone’s interests for the cracks to be papered over as the promised land of the Premier League was reached. Given the tough tests ahead, it should certainly be intriguing to see if those fissures reappear as events unfold at the Riverside.

How they finished in the past five seasons

If Karanka’s willingness to leave expensive signings Stewart Downing and Jordan Rhodes (apparently not his preferred recruits) on the bench last spring emphasised a characteristic readiness to make politically loaded decisions, the acquisition of nine new faces (eight from overseas) this summer will inevitably create serious competition for starting slots.

Importing so many new players in one close-season always represents a risk but, on paper at least, Boro look to have made some interesting and exciting buys. Potentially one of the best is the 6ft 1in central midfielder, Marten de Roon, a young Dutchman signed from Italy’s Atalanta for £12m. He made more tackles – many of them crunching – than any other midfielder in Serie A last season.

De Roon’s arrival is likely to see the currently injured captain Grant Leadbitter competing with his erstwhile defensive-midfield partner Adam Clayton for the deep-sitting place alongside the Dutchman in Boro’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Effective as that pairing proved in the Championship, Leadbitter and Clayton are arguably too similar – and almost certainly lack the pace and power required in the Premier League.

Karanka’s bloody-mindedness in refusing to adjust that configuration on the – admittedly relatively rare – occasions when things were not working last season prompted accusations of tactical inflexibility. Some Teessiders wondered if promotion might not have been secured sooner had he risked a switch to 4-4-2 on occasion but the former Real Madrid centre-half was not about to be swayed. To Karanka “retro” was something which should be applied to decor or clothing not football teams.

Encouragingly, pre-season has seen him loosen up a bit by experimenting a little with 4-4-2, sometimes switching to this system after half-time during friendlies. While his essential belief that the No10 role is far too integral to success to be abandoned and a team really need to be built around their playmaker, remains undimmed, there is a feeling that the word “compromise” might finally be entering his vocabulary.

After arriving on loan from Southampton last January, Gaston Ramírez proved integral to the promotion bid, making Karanka’s at times rather cautious, generally low scoring and slightly one-paced, interpretation of 4-2-3-1 really work. The Uruguayan has now completed a permanent move and will be expected to continue shining in the No10 role behind Álvaro Negredo.

Borrowed from Valencia with a view to a £9m transfer next summer, the former Manchester City forward struggled in La Liga last season but Boro are confident his wage demands of around £100,000 a week will prove well worth it.

Negredo’s old Valencia team-mate, Antonio Barragan, will challenge Emilio Nsue for the right-back slot while Víctor Valdés, the former Barcelona and Manchester United goalkeeper, will presumably be first choice once he regains optimal fitness. Should Valdés stumble, Brad Guzan, a free transfer arrival from Aston Villa, will be waiting in the wings.

Downing seems to be in a straight fight with Viktor Fischer for the attacking role to the left of Ramírez, with Karanka apparently harbouring high hopes for the 22-year-old Denmark left winger purchased from Ajax. Judging by Fischer’s limited pre-season impact, though, it might be unrealistic to expect a Dane who could be one for the future to have instant impact in the Premier League.

Considering the defence proved Boro’s forte last season it seems somewhat ironic that it is now the department provoking Karanka’s biggest headache. While there are few worries regarding George Friend, Boro’s dashing attacking left-back and a potential contender for England honours one day or Ben Gibson, the owner’s nephew and a fine young centre-half widely expected to also eventually challenge for full international honours, a question mark hovers over the second central-defensive position.

While Dani Ayala – Gibson’s partner at the back last term – was arguably the best in the Championship in that position, the one time Liverpool defender is suffering from an ankle problem which means he is touch and go to be fit for the opening. Moreover, in a squad light on centre backs, Ayala and Gibson require high-calibre cover and serious competition – something Karanka had envisaged being provided by Neven Subotic.

A near £10m move for Borussia Dortmund’s Serbian defender had long been lined up but then Subotic failed a medical on Teesside, with a consultant identifying a serious rib problem which has led to him undergoing potentially season-ending chest surgery.

Quite apart from raising all sorts of questions as to why the problem was not identified earlier – Subotic did, after all, end last season sidelined by deep-vein thrombosis in an arm, something seemingly connected to the problem picked up by Boro’s specialist – his unavailability left Karanka playing transfer-market catch-up.

Granted Bernando Espinosa, a Colombian centre-half, has been recruited from Sporting Gijón to challenge for a first-team place but he missed the latter part of last season with a serious knee injury and the convalescence from surgery to repair that cruciate rupture has seen him sit out much of this summer. Accordingly it is expected that Boro’s 10th, and surely final, summer signing will be a No5.

The current absence of such a figure should not blemish the stellar work of Gary Gill, Boro’s head of recruitment, and Victor Orta, the Spanish super scout and widely respected European football “technocrat” recruited by Karanka last spring.

Last season's results

The 1980s Boro midfielder and the talent spotter admired by some of the continent’s biggest names pooled their extensive contacts before presiding over a strategic masterclass. By identifying and courting targets early, Gill and Orta enabled the club to have made five signings before the first friendly was even played.

Although five of the imports are native Spanish speakers they are all understood to speak at least some English, something Boro hope will help preserve the chemistry within what was one of the Championship’s most “together” and clique-free dressing rooms last season.

When it comes to recruitment, both Gill – an excellent communicator – and Orta are big on relationship building but whether Karanka has fully repaired certain internal club bonds remains to be seen.

If Boro’s top-flight fortunes currently seem as opaque as many a Teesside sky – it is possible to envisage them taking the division by surprise but equally easy to imagine a relegation struggle – one thing is certain: Steve Gibson has really backed his manager over the past few months. Only Boro’s owner knows how close he came to sacking Karanka last March but for the moment at least, his forgiveness appears absolute.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Louise Taylor, for The Guardian on Monday 8th August 2016 13.00 Europe/London

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