Ahead of Southampton's game against Middlesbrough, we got the lowdown on Boro from The Gazette journalist Anthony Vickers.
How would you sum up Middlesbrough’s season so far?
It's been a bit of a slow burner – but there are signs that it is hotting up. Boro did well in the first few games with two draws and a win away in the derby match at Sunderland, so there was early optimism, but it is a big step up and there were some harsh lessons in a poor run of four defeats in five. Since a sluggish and disappointing home defeat to Watford, there has been a change of tactics and a steady improvement and, after a run of just one defeat in six tough-looking fixtures, there is a bit of spring in the step now.
What is the team’s style of play like, and how do they like to set up?
For the first three years under Aitor Karanka, Boro played a very well-drilled 4-2-3-1 based on a very strong defence and patient possession looking to pick a way through. It was very effective and, while the team were not the most prolific goalscorers, Karanka had a win rate of more than 50 per cent, the team had the best clean sheet record in the country and Boro first got to the play-off final and then promoted.
But that was in the Championship when Boro were usually the strongest team and they dominated possession. In the higher league, there has been a realisation that the old system won't work often enough to take enough points, and the boss has adapted his system and has started to set up with a 4-1-4-1 in defence that switches to a 4-3-3 when in attack. That has proved a good fit and has been productive in recent weeks.
How strong have performances away from home been this season?
Solid, but not spectacular. Boro have lost just one of their seven away games this season, at Everton, in a bruising 3-1 defeat. That said, they have only won one, at Sunderland. The last four away games have been draws, and Boro can take heart from spirited displays at two of the title contenders. They soaked up the pressure superbly and could have won at Arsenal with some sharp counter-attacking, then showed grit and guile as they changed shape and fought back from behind to draw 1-1 at Manchester City. Last time out they drew 2-2 at Leicester after playing perhaps their best football of the season, only to be pegged back by two penalties, the second deep in stoppage time.
Saints fans know Gastón Ramírez well. How big an influence is he having at Boro?
Gastón has been an important figure. After arriving on loan, he galvanised a stuttering promotion campaign with mercurial movement, and his seven goals and a handful of assists helped Boro claw into the Premier League. This season in a tougher league he has found it harder to find the same space and time, but he has still been Boro's creative engine. He works hard and links up well with Alvaro Negredo up front and, at his best, can be a match winner, as he showed with his scorching solo run and goal against Bournemouth.
Who would you pick as the key men for Boro this Sunday?
At Boro it is the team that is important, and the aim will be to make sure it is greater than the sum of its parts – but there are some individuals who are helping make things tick. At the back, the central defensive partnership of Ben Gibson and Calum Chambers is growing in stature by the week, Adam Forshaw in midfield is grabbing his chance in the big league by the throat and the awesome pace and raw potential of Adama Traoré has carved some good teams open.