Middlesbrough in danger of mid-table mediocrity in the Championship as Neil Warnock's side struggle for goals and clean sheets
It’s often said you cannot judge the beginning of a season until you are 10 games in.
Well, Saturday’s trip to Reading represents that elusive 10th competitive game for Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough and it’s fair to say things haven’t gone accordingly for the Boro boss.
While pre-season expectations may not have been promotion, the hope was Boro could force themselves into play-off contention.
Warnock’s side threatened to be involved in the Championship play-off picture last season before fizzling out down the home stretch with just four wins from the final 12 games.
But the Boro boss remained optimistic his side could go again this time around and find the consistency required to secure a spot in the top six.
And yet so far this season Boro don’t look as though they will threaten the play-off places as they languish in the bottom half of the table ahead of Saturday’s trip to the Madejski Stadium.
That’s not to say Boro cannot change their fortunes. We are, after all, still only in the early knockings of the campaign.
But how long before we’re out of the ‘early stages’ and into the mid-season slog? How long before a concerning start becomes a season write off?
Boro have three more fixtures before the second international break against the two sides immediately above them in Reading and Sheffield United before a trip to a Hull City side who find themselves in the bottom three. It has the feel of a now or never run of games for Boro.
Following defeat to Blackpool at the Riverside Warnock alluded to two key factors as to why his side are stuttering at the moment – they just so happen to be the two most important factors for any team in the division in scoring goals and keeping clean sheets.
“We can go anywhere and beat anybody but until we start getting clean sheets, it’s not rocket science," admitted Warnock.
“We haven’t got that ruthless streak I think you need at times.
“The players are good enough, the technical ability is as good as I’ve had within the team. But you just need a few more things to put in your cake to get the right recipe.”
Warnock’s Boro have not become a bad side since last season. Consistently inconsistent appears to be the grey area they have found themselves in though.
But how does Warnock get those extra elements into his cake for the right recipe?
Two wins from eight league games and a Carabao Cup exit doesn’t read great on the face of it, but let’s look a little closer at those games.
An opening day draw at pre-season favourites Fulham was a more than welcome bonus to Boro fans who may already have had one eye on their home opener against Bristol City a week later where they backed up that positive draw by taking all three points.
A League Cup exit at Blackpool was disappointing. If there’s one thing North East football fans crave it’s a decent cup run, and to go out so timidly is never a good look despite nine changes being made to the starting XI.
It is here, though, where things become sticky for Boro winning just one of the next six fixtures.
Among those there has been misfortune but more alarmingly there has been a number of Jekyll and Hyde displays where Boro have undone their hard work in the first 45 minutes with lacklustre performances in the second.
Perhaps this comes back to what Warnock suggested in the wake of the defeat to Blackpool. Boro’s lack of end product in the final third is a worry – even more so when they are unable to keep clean sheets.
Boro have scored just nine goals so far this season despite the arrivals of attacking players Uche Ikpeazu, Onel Hernandez and Andraz Sporar.
Ikpeazu is a presence in the attacking third and, in the main, has impressed supporters with his start to life at the Riverside but his career to date suggests he is not the prolific striker Boro are in need of.
The 26-year-old scored only six times for Wycombe Wanderers last season and only managed five at Hearts over two seasons. Elsewhere Duncan Watmore’s nine goals last season was his best return to date and while Sporar has relatively encouraging figures from his time in Portugal he will take time to adjust to the Championship.
Behind the strikers Hernandez only scored nine at Norwich City and although Matt Crooks could hit double figures based on his time at Rotherham United he seems more of a foil between the lines in the Boro attack.
This puts a greater impetus on the defence to keep clean sheets – something they have, uncharacteristically of a Warnock side, only managed to do twice so far.
Like any team, injuries have impacted Warnock’s hand this season. Defensive casualties Paddy McNair, Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel have depleted Boro’s ranks with Martin Payero still to make his anticipated presence felt further up the pitch.
Those injuries have led to Warnock having to shuffle his pack more than he would have liked with a number of formation changes unlikely to create any sort of continuity among his players.
And then there is Warnock himself. The 72-year-old agreed to a one-year extension in March for what is likely to be his final spell in management. But what sort of impact does that have on players knowing they have an outgoing manager?
Warnock has won an impressive eight promotions during his career but how much does the fire still burn for a ninth? Or is stabilising Boro – who seemed more likely to end up in League One than the Premier League recently – seen as a bigger win?
It’s a long old season, and there is still plenty of time left, but Boro at the moment are flirting with that often unwanted tag of ‘mid-table mediocrity.’