Long Read: Who's to blame at Middlesbrough for this season's concerning decline
Despite their run of just one win in 11 games, the soundbites coming out of Middlesbrough in recent weeks suggest the club are staying positive.
Of course no one will be happy that the Teessiders are languishing just a point above the Championship relegation zone, yet the message from the summer has been that head coach Jonathan Woodgate will be given time.
Concerns among supporters are palpable, though, especially following Saturday’s 4-0 thumping at Leeds, a team who were promotion rivals less than a year ago.
Boro have gone backwards since then, this time last year they were third in the Championship and fighting for an automatic promotion under Tony Pulis. One year later, the threat of relegation is real.
So how has it got to this? Like with most things, it would be unfair to lay the blame on just one person and, as the man who addresses the fans and speaks to the media every week, Woodgate will inevitably take a lot of the flak.
His comments about playing an ‘attacking, exciting’ brand football have backfired, while the head coach’s remarks about the league table ‘lying’ drew criticism on social media.
The former defender is in unknown territory though, this is his first managerial role and he will make mistakes.
But while the buck often stops with the manager (or head coach), Woodgate can’t be held solely responsible for Boro’s recent malaise.
Yes the club have endured a wretched run of results and it’s hard to imagine Boro would have dipped into the relegation zone under Tony Pulis.
The football Boro played last season may not have appealed to the Teesside audience, yet Pulis had a strategy to get results which took his side to the cusp of the play-offs.
After selling his two best attackers in Patrick Bamford and Adama Traore in the summer 2018, the Welshman would argue he didn’t have the resources to play a more expansive brand of football.
Yet Pulis found a way to get results with the squad he had. Woodgate doesn’t have the same managerial experiences to draw upon.
The former defender is inexperienced at managerial level and only retired from his playing career in 2016.
The idea that Woodgate, a boyhood Boro fan, will grow with the club is a satisfying thought, yet the Championship is an unforgiving league – just look at North East neighbours Sunderland, and former Championship regulars Ipswich who dropped like a stone following Mick McCarthy’s departure.
That’s not to say that Woodgate can’t turn things around but he’s very much learning on the job and must learn fast under difficult circumstances.
It’s also fair to say Boro’s recruitment since the 2017 January transfer window has been highly questionable at best, with the club now attempting to balance the books following a spending spree under Garry Monk.
Monk, who lasted just six months at the Riverside, is an easy scapegoat in all of this, but you have to question if he really wanted to make so many signings or identified the players to came in.
Yet ever since the brief Monk era, the squad has looked significantly unbalanced while a long-term plan hasn’t been apparent.
The appointment of Pulis looked like a quick-fire attempt to win immediate promotion back to the Premier League but, after missing out via the play-offs in his first half season, the mood on Teesside turn sour.
Even under Pulis, who was always extremely complimentary about chairman Steve Gibson, there were suggestions that all was not well.
Despite signing George Saville, Paddy McNair and Aden Flint for sizeable fees in the summer of 2018, Pulis wasn’t able to land the pacey winger he craved and spoke about the ‘astonishing’ wages the likes of Martin Braithwaite were earning.
Just like club legend Tony Mowbray in 2010, it seems like Woodgate is part of the clean up operation.
He may have been fortunate to get the job in the first place with so little managerial experience, yet this is no easy task.
Since last season, Boro have lost several experienced players, including Stewart Downing, Jordan Hugill, Aden Flint, Mo Besic, John Obi Mikel and Braithwaite.
You can argue the aforementioned players didn’t have the biggest impact last campaign, yet all helped beef up the squad and provided competition for places during Boro’s push for the play-offs.
Their replacements this summer? Three outfield players who were all playing in League One last season.
Anfernee Dijksteel, Marc Bola and Marcus Browne may prove to be good signings for the Teessiders in the long run, yet they’ve struggled to make the step up so far.
There’s no doubt the squad is weaker compared to the last campaign – something which has been highlighted following a barrage of injuries.
At Leeds on Saturday, excluding Adam Clayton, Boro’s outfield substitutes had made just three Championship appearances between them before kick-off. Against a side in red-hot form, Woodgate’s lack of options were clear for all to see.
That again goes back to the summer where Boro failed to supply their young head coach with the players and resources he needed.
At first Woodgate wanted his side to play in a 4-3-3 formation, but the lack of pace and natural wide players forced him to abandon that approach.
There is also a shortage of competition in key areas, and at times it looks like some players have become comfortable or, as was the case at Leeds, burnt out.
Reports on Monday suggested that Boro were ready to part company with Woodgate and appoint the vastly experienced Neil Warnock.
And while the rumours were quickly shot down, the suggestion of short-termism reflected the worrying position Boro find themselves in.
Woodgate may be paying the price for this season’s decision making, yet he’s not the only one who’s made mistakes.