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Why do Middlesbrough suffer from the January blues?
IT is known as the bleakest month of the year, and in the case of Middlesbrough, the epithet could hardly be more fitting.
In the last six seasons, the Teessiders have played 22 league matches in January and recorded just four victories.
From a possible total of 66 points, they have claimed 21, with their last five January league games all ending in defeat.
Last year, despite being involved in a play-off push that only proved unsuccessful on the final weekend of the season, Boro lost their three January outings against Blackpool, Burnley and Coventry, hardly teams that were flying high in the title race.
This time around, Saturday's 2-1 home defeat to Watford followed hot on the heels of the New Year's Day reverse to Derby and sent Tony Mowbray's side tumbling to fifth in the table.
Thanks to their strength in the first half of the season, it should not be a run that has major repercussions in terms of Boro's promotion prospects.
But with Friday's trip to third-placed Leicester City representing the club's only remaining Championship fixture this month now that the Leeds game has been rearranged because of the FA Cup, it is possible Boro will experience a pointless January for the second season in succession.
Why does their form tend to dip as the Christmas decorations come down? Here are five possible explanations:#
They struggle to cope with the fall-out from the packed Christmas schedule
The January matches come at the end of a hectic festive spell that often sees Boro playing four or five matches in a fortnight.
That inevitably places a major strain on the playing squad and the Teessiders have generally suffered more injuries in this month that at any other time of the year.
Every team in the league suffers the same fixture congestion, but it can be argued that Boro have often had a much shallower squad than some of their rivals.
That was certainly the case in the latter stages of their stay in the Premier League, and while the current squad is numerically healthy, the extent of the club's injury problems was a major factor in the defeat at Derby.
A number of Boro's injured players returned at the weekend, but the opportunity to reintegrate them into training ahead of the Watford game was limited.
The January transfer window has an unsettling effect
It is not really the case this year, but in the past, Boro have been handicapped by the machinations of the January transfer window.
In 2010, Adam Johnson's future was the subject of considerable debate from the turn of the year onwards. The winger never looked himself and eventually joined Manchester City on transfer-deadline day.
Twelve months on, and it was David Wheater who found himself at the eye of the storm prior to joining Bolton on January 20. Again, the period was unsettling for all concerned.
Even when Boro were looking to sign players under Gordon Strachan, their key mid-season signing, Scott McDonald, did not arrive until February 1 and so was unable to assist with the January schedule.
A recent change of manager proves disruptive
Again, this explanation does not apply this season, but in the past, the timing of the club's managerial changes has mitigated against a strong January showing.
Both Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray were appointed at the end of October, and while their arrival coincided with a brief upturn in form, reality had hit home by the turn of the year.
In January, their respective reigns had reached that difficult period where the initial honeymoon was over and the hard work of transforming the club's fortunes had begun, but they had had limited time in which to get over their ideas.
Both managers' first January programme proved difficult, with Mowbray in particular enjoying better results once he had benefited from more time to get to grips with his squad.
The effects of an unkind fixture list
You have to play everybody at some stage, but it can be argued that Boro's January fixtures in the last five or six years have hardly been helpful.
This year, the Teessiders have had to travel to Derby and Leicester, sides who have only suffered four home defeats between them all season.
Last year's New Year trip to Blackpool was always going to be tricky, while 12 months earlier, games against Leeds and Norwich pitted Boro against sides in the thick of the promotion chase.
The FA Cup always disrupts the January league programme, and means clubs often play fewer league games than in most other months, something that skews any statistical comparison.
The January downturn has become a self-fulfilling prophecy
After a succession of disappointing Januarys, there is now an expectation among a large number of supporters that Boro will struggle once the calendar changes.
Does that feed into the performance of the team? Possibly. In the past, it has been possible to detect an edginess at the Riverside in January that is not as readily apparent at other times of the year.
The current squad contains a large number of players participating in their first full season on Teesside, so it would be wrong to suggest there is a mental barrier relating to previous disappointments at the start of the year.
But football often throws up anomalies that are hard to explain on a rational basis. Might Boro simply be fated to suffer the January blues?
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