Welcome to part 5 of my save with Middlesbrough FC, we have just completed our first season back in the top tier of English football (18/19) which is my second season at the club. If you read my last update you will know that I added the following players to the squad after our promotion winning season, Mo Besic, Lewis Baker, Helder Costa, Danny Ings, Nick Pope, Tomas Kalas and Loris Benito all on permanent deals, plus Moise Kean and Pablo Maffeo on loan deals. I also promoted two of our academy players Harry Chapman and Callum Cooke in to the first team set up. At the start of the season my objective was to finish mid table by playing the same sort of style that won us the Championship last season. So how did we get on?
There were many questions to be answered along the way none more so than how we would adapt to life in the top flight. Nothing gives me more sense of pleasure than to implement a tactical system / philosophy in to a club and watch it evolve over time. I made a promise to myself that I would not alter in any way shape or form the system Smoggers 433 until after the 20 game point in the league season because I wanted to analyse our strengths and weaknesses over this period of time before making any tweaks.
The 2018-2019 Premier League season kicked off away at Brighton a long trip South for our travelling army of supporters who came away happy after we managed a good 2-0 win against a Brighton side who looked disjointed. Last seasons top scorer Britt Assombalonga got our opener just before the break for then to assist on loan Italian Moise Kean 5 minutes in to the second half to seal our first 3 points of the season.
Just over thirty four and an half thousand packed in to the Riverside for the visit of Burnley who came to spoil our party with a very effective 442 system that ran us ragged with both Gibson and Ayala being bullied by Chris Wood who on the day was unplayable. The visitors stormed in to a 2 goal lead before the break with Woods instrumental in both goals. I tore a strip off the lads at half time and to their credit came out fighting in the second period but we only had a Stewart Downing consolation goal to cheer as Burnley held on for a well deserved 3 points. I can’t help but be impressed with their 442 which played to their strengths. Danny Ings made is debut for us alongside keeper Nick Pope. A midweek Carabao Cup game at Rotherham went to extra time were we just got over the line 2-1 with Patrick Bamford getting the winner in the 121st minute.
We managed only 1 win out of our next 3 games which was a 3-2 win at home to fellow promoted Fulham sandwiched in between two defeats against Tottenham 0-2 and Everton 1-2 were Mo Besic got our goal on his return to Goodison Park. After watching a large chunk of these games already it is clear to see that our forwards are struggling to convert the chances created for them but I am not panicking because we are playing some decent football and creating chances.
With four wins out of our next five games it looks like we are settling in to life in the top tier that coincides with my faith in playing Patrick Bamford up top against Fleetwood in the Carabao Cup were he netted a brace in a 3-1 win, Helder Costa got his first club goal to round off the victory. Both Bamford and Assombalonga were struggling with slight knocks that kept them out of the visit of Manchester City to Teeside so Danny Ings led the attack and was unlucky not get on the scoresheet hitting the post twice in the first half. We went in level 0-0 at the interval after a good performance. City came out firing in the 2nd half and got their rewards when Sergio Aguero finished at the back post after some great build up play involving Silva and De Bruyne which proved to be the match winning moment with City holding out for a 1-0 win. Ings started our next game away at rivals Newcastle United and again failed to finish some good opportunities so I brought Bamford on with 20 minutes to go with the teams locked at 0-0. It would prove to be a smart move when Bamford repaid my faith in him with 2 late goals to give us a 2-0 win. Another brace from Bamford against West Ham to give us a 2-1 win would be the inform forwards last this year after picking up an injury that would keep him out for a few months. A blow to both the club and Paddy himself who was having his best spell under my management.
We then went 5 games without a win meaning a win less November. Danny Ings was our frontman with Bamford out long term and Assombalonga carrying an injury which needed nursing back. Ings was struggling to convert the chances created for him and however I seemed to handle him it just did not click for him. We were knocked out of the Carabao Cup at the 4th round stage 0-2 by Sheffield Wednesday after probably the worse performance to date whilst I have been the manager. We had two 0-0 draws away at Huddersfield Town and Leicester City and two 1-2 defeats at home to both Manchester United and Chelsea. Just two goals scored in 5 games coming via Tomas Kalas and Danny Ings in the last 5 games is simply not good enough if we are going to be competitive however our general play is good and we are at least creating chances we just need to be more clinical in front of goal.
Britt Assombalonga was nearing full fitness but I decided to give Ings another start against Bournemouth and told him I had faith in him even if I was beginning to wonder if signing him was a mistake and again he failed to hit the net after having at least 2 clear cut chances. With the scores at 0-0 and the clock ticking away I looked down the bench and told Assombalonga to warm up, I made the switch replacing Ings with Assombalonga inside the 78 minute mark then the next time I looked at the clock it was 85 minutes played then Harry Chapman was up ended inside the box after running wide from just inside the halfway line beating not one not two but three Bournemouth players for dead he cut inside Penalty, Assombalonga steps up and slots the ball in to the bottom left corner 1-0 and 3 points I jump for joy with a fist pump good enough to celebrate a victory in the World Cup Final.
I didn’t want to rush Assombalonga back too quickly and risk having him sidelined again so Danny Ings started up front for the visit of Arsenal and although he failed to find the net he was instrumental in creating the only goal of the game finished by Helder Costa to give us a tremendous 1-0 win. Ings did manage a goal in a 2-2 draw against Wolves in a game that looked to be slipping away from us until young Harry Chapman rescued a point with a sublime finish that underlined this boys quality. A 0-0 draw agaist Southampton just before Christmas saw us drop to 11th in the table were we stayed and finished the year after a 2-3 defeat at Liverpool which saw both Adama Traore and Britt Assombalonga get on the scoresheet.
We reach the halfwaystage of the season with a 0-0 draw at West Bromwich Albion that keeps us in 11th position in the table which on reflection is not bad but we have to start turning draws in to wins if we are to push on in the 2nd half of the season. We have only won 2 games out of the last 10 in the league drawing 5 and losing 3 which were against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool so we can’t grumble but we need to win more games against the teams that we are competing against that are outside of the top teams.
The Magic Of The FA Cup
At the start of the season the FA Cup was not a priority for me however once it began I enjoyed the matches and ended up watching each one comprehensively starting with a good old fashioned cup game away at Bolton in the 3rd round that ended in a 2-2 draw meaning a replay which I could have done without. Both Traore and Bamford got the goals in front of 13,407 supporters. The replay at the Riverside turned out to be a one sided event after a goalless first half Helder Costa and Harry Chapman put the game in our hands with two goals that put us comfortably 2-0 up and in to the next round.
The 4th round draw gave us an home tie against Bury who we beat 2-1 thanks to goals from Grant Leadbitter and Danny Ings. I am pleased for Ings because whilst things have not gone his way since joining us he remains upbeat. An hard fought 1-1 draw at Tottenham in the 5th Round saw Tomás Kalas score a bullet header to earn a replay at the Riverside were we came out victorious winning 3-1 with 3 second half goals coming via Assombalonga, Helder Costa and Howson.
A Quarter-Final tie against Huddersfield ended 2-2 in regulation time so we had an extra 30 minutes which we could have done without but ended up winning 4-3 with our goals coming from Assombalonga, Helder Costa, Traoré and Ayala to set up a Semi Final against Derby County at Wembley.
A packed Wembley stadium watched as we put Derby to the sword with both Adama Traoré and Britt Assombalonga running the Derby backline a merry dance, we ran out 5-1 winners against the Championship club with Assombalonga scoring an hat-trick and Traoré grabbing the other 2 in this total mismatch.
The Final at Wembley would see us face Roberto Martinez and his Arsenal side who went in to the game favourites to lift the FA Cup which they did by the narrowest of margins after an epic game that saw us lose 2-3. We can hold our heads up high because we gave the Gunners a run for their money narrowly losing 2-3 on the Wembley turf. Both Assombalonga and Traoré got the goals for us in the 2nd period. Whilst the domestic trophies were not a priority for us it was a proud moment to lead the boys out at Wembley,
The second half of our debut season back in the Premier League started with a below par performance away to Burnley who beat us 1-0. We then struggled against Brighton in a dull game that ended 0-0. A 4-2 win against Tottenham lifted our spirits but not for long when Everton hammered us 4-1 at Goodison Park with the one goal flattering us.
We managed to pick ourselves up with two 1-0 wins against Fulham and Watford that keeps us in a mid table position. A 7 goal thriller at Manchester City with us losing 3-4 after a gutsy performance. Derby day next saw Brendon Rodgers bring his Newcastle United team to the Riverside after he started a war of words just days before but my boys did the talking on the pitch inflicting a 2-0 defeat on my new enemy Mr Rodgers for the second time this season.
A visit to West Ham who are in the group of teams around us proved disappointing with us incurring a 0-2 defeat that sees them leap frog us in the table. A very welcome three points with a 2-1 win at Huddersfield with Adama Traore scoring 2 minutes from time to secure the victory. Another defeat against bloody Mourinho and his Manchester United side at Old Trafford this time 1-3 was followed by another 1-3 defeat to Chelsea are right in the mix for the title left us in 11th place with 7 games to go.
Two home wins against Leicester City 2-0 and AFC Bournemouth 3-1 proved the worth of bringing Moise Kean in on loan who netted 4 goals in both of the games to give us the 6 points. A spirited 3-4 defeat at the Emirates against Arsenal came next before a 2-0 against relegation threatened Wolves before a shocking 1-4 defeat against Liverpool who had been in our sights in the table made it doubtful if we could catch them. Two games to go and time for a team meeting to see if I could get that little bit extra out of the squad.
The team meeting seamed to work with a 3-0 win against relegated West Bromwich Albion meaning at least a ninth placed finish was guaranteed with us sitting in 8th spot going in to the last game of the season away at Southampton who themselves had guaranteed a tenth placed finish but you would not have thought it on how they came at us in the opening minutes. We managed to settle in to our stride after we took the lead through Besic in the tenth minute but the saints were up for a game and led at the interval 2-1. Enter Britt Assombalonga who came on at the break and took the game by the scruff of the neck with a quick fire brace to win us the game and secure an 8th place finish.
Our first season back in the top tier was a successful one in my opinion, the board are very happy with an 8th place finish.
Notable performances from Assombalonga (18) and Bamford (13) and our wingers Helder Costa and Adama Traore who both netted 10 goals but it was our young winger Harry Chapman who pitched in with 3 goals and 12 assists who impressed in his first season in the big time.
So an 8th placed finish and an FA Cup final appearance is definitely a good foundation to build on. Season 3 will be about establishing ourselves in the top tier and trying to make progress from this season to a point were we may even be competitive enough to compete for a European place.
Thank you for reading and hope you come back soon to check the progression of Middlesbrough FC.