IT has been a case of ‘nearly, but not quite’ for Middlesbrough this season. There have been patches of impressive play, and moments when Garry Monk’s side have looked capable of living up to their billing of pre-season title favourites, but they have been fleeting.

There have also been other occasions where Boro have looked less than the sum of their parts, with points being squandered as standards have dipped and performance levels fluctuating wildly over the course of a game.

There is no need to panic with the Teessiders sitting in 11th position ahead of Saturday’s game at Barnsley, eight points adrift of league leaders Cardiff City, but by the same token, a record of four wins from 11 Championship matches is hardly commensurate with chairman Steve Gibson’s pre-season pledge to “smash the league”.

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What are the key issues Monk will be looking to address ahead of his side’s trip to Oakwell? And what are the key things Boro have to improve if they are to force themselves back into the heart of the promotion picture?


The Northern Echo:

These are still early days in Monk’s managerial tenure, but it is hard not to feel that the Boro boss is still to settle on his ideal midfield make-up.

Tactically, he has tried a number of different things. Boro started the season playing in a 4-3-3 formation that left them somewhat vulnerable at the back. The system morphed to more of a 4-2-3-1 after the opening few months, with two midfielders – generally Adam Clayton and either Jonny Howson or Grant Leadbitter – instructed to sit, but that impinged on the side’s ability to pose an attacking threat.

In the 2-2 draw that preceded the international break, Boro were lined up in what was effectively an old-fashioned 4-4-2, with Adama Traore and Marvin Johnson starting in the wide positions. Again, the ploy didn’t really work, with Traore being hauled off at half-time.

Aitor Karanka was a huge fan of playing two holding midfielders, and while the Spaniard was criticised for being overly-negative, his tactics during his final two Championship campaigns undoubtedly made Boro very difficult to break down. Monk needs to replicate that solidity, while also guaranteeing sufficient attacking freedom to ensure his creative players can still be effective.


The Northern Echo:

Martin Braithwaite was one of Boro’s key summer acquisitions, but a hamstring problem means he has only been able to make two competitive starts for the club.

He played in a wide position as part of a front three during the opening-day defeat to Wolves, but was fielded as more of a central striker when he returned to the starting line-up for the 2-2 draw with Brentford?

What is his optimal role? He looked effective cutting in from the left-hand side during the pre-season win over Augsburg, although playing him in a wide position could leave the full-back behind him vulnerable as he does not look like someone who will relish tracking back. It would also make it hard to find a place for Johnson in the side.

An alternative would be to play him in a ‘number ten’ role, and his ability to pick a pass as well as pose a goalscoring threat of his own makes him an ideal candidate for such a position. Again, though, there would be repercussions for other Boro players if he was to do that, most notably Howson and Lewis Baker.


The Northern Echo:

One of Boro’s key problems this season is that they have constantly been playing catch-up. They have fallen behind in their last four league games, often as a consequence of failing to get out of the traps.

They conceded a second-minute goal to QPR and a 13th-minute goal to Norwich, and the tempo of their early play in both of those games was extremely sluggish.

Their first-half performance against Brentford was arguably their worst 45 minutes of the season, and it was only after Braithwaite equalised midway through the second half that they began to really take the game to their opponents.

Monk is a fan of patient passing play, with his philosophy during his time at Swansea City having been built around possession and calmly rotating the ball. That is all well and good, but the Championship demands a certain level of intensity and impetus, and Boro cannot afford to be caught cold again in the opening stages of a game.


The Northern Echo:

Winston Churchill once famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Goodness knows what he would have made of Adama Traore.

Traore can go from brilliant to baffling, often in the same move. His match-winning display at Bolton was the best individual performance produced in the Championship this season, but on his following outing, he leapt into a senseless tackle at Aston Villa and was sent off in the first five minutes.

He played reasonably well in the home defeat to Norwich, but was badly off colour in the first half of the Brentford draw before being withdrawn at half-time.

At the moment, you don’t know what you are going to get with him, and that makes it difficult for Monk to carry on selecting him in the starting XI. His attacking quality means he probably merits another couple of chances, but unless he starts adding some consistency to his game, there will eventually come a time when he has to be regarded as too much of a luxury.


The Northern Echo:

Boro haven’t defended badly this season – but their play has been littered with examples of bad defending. The individual errors started with Daniel Ayala’s suicidal pass at Molineux on the opening weekend, and haven’t really stopped since.

Pretty much every member of the backline has been afflicted at some stage, with Ben Gibson and Dael Fry also having erred in costly fashion. George Friend’s form dropped after the opening couple of matches, and the full-back has been unable to win back his starting spot after being demoted for Fabio Da Silva.

There is nothing wrong with Boro’s defensive shape or the quality of the individuals in the backline. Gibson might have been in the England squad last week had his club side not been relegated, and Fry is reportedly attracting attention from Manchester United and Chelsea.

Perhaps it is a matter of concentration, with some of Boro’s defenders still adapting to the physical challenges posed by the Championship? Whatever it is, it is time to stamp out the mistakes before they start to become even more damaging.