Defending has often been the priority for relegation-threatened Premier League teams. Strong defensive play alone can win points against top Premier League sides simply by giving every outfield player a role to play without the ball and maintaining a strong defending shape. But, statistics show that if a relegation threatened team cannot score goals they cannot survive in the Premier League, regardless of defensive strength.
Bournemouth, who were promoted to the Premier League in the 2015/16 season, are a perfect example of a bottom half side that have survived because of attacking strength, as opposed to defensive strength. Last season, Bournemouth had the second-worst defense in the league conceding 67 goals. Aston Villa were the only team that conceded more. This season, Bournemouth have once again conceded the second most goals in the Premier League, 54, but have found themselves above the relegation zone because of their attacking abilities. While it is never good to be leaking goals, it is pivotal that teams do not sacrifice all of their creative ability for defensive solidity.
No team has avoided relegation in the Premier League without scoring at least 31 goals since the 2006/07 season when Manchester City finished 14th with only 29 goals. Averaging 0.816 goals per match correlates to finishing the 38 match season with 31 goals. Middlesbrough, who are sitting in 19th place, are currently averaging 0.704 goals per match, which means they are on course to finish the Premier League season with about 26.8 goals. Sunderland and Hull City, the two other teams currently sitting in the relegation zone and the next two teams with the least goals scored, are on pace to score 33.8 goals and 35.3 goals by the end of the season. Those numbers do not bode well for Middlesbrough.
No relegation threatened team appears to be in more trouble than 19th placed Middlesbrough. While Sunderland are currently in 20th and are three points behind Boro there is still some hope that they can turn their season around. Hull City are in 18th and only two points ahead of Boro, while playing one more match, but they still have hope. Crystal Palace, who are a single point above the relegation zone have some hope. Swansea City and Leicester City, the two other teams closest to relegation, both have hope.
That hope comes from a potential to create chances and score goals. Sunderland always have a source of goals in Defoe. Hull City have been reinvigorated under new manager Marco Silva and have found a good finisher in January signing Oumar Niasse. Crystal Palace have attacking promise in Christian Benteke, Zaha, and Townsend. Swansea City have one of the best headers of the ball in Llorente linking up with one of the best creators in Sigurdsson. Leicester City pose an attacking threat with the likes of Vardy and Mahrez. Those players give each team a fighting chance to stay in the Premier League. Middlesbrough seem to have a similar attacking promise in Negredo and Gaston Ramirez, but Boro have proven that their priority is to defend, and they will not focus on chance creation and the ability to score goals in exchange for a weakened defensive team shape.
Aitor Karanka, the Middlesbrough manager, came into the Premier League being labeled as a pragmatist; willing to sacrifice attacking potential to grind out draws against bigger clubs. But, it becomes more and more apparent that he is unforgivingly and unapologetically defensive. Middlesbrough just do not look as though they have any intention of attacking under Karanka this season. After conceding, Boro seem to immediately resign themselves to hoping out for a draw or simply losing the match.
In January, Boro looked to fix their hopeless attack by signing strikers Rudy Gestede and Patrick Bamford. But, to be brutally honest, neither of those signings address Boro’s needs and neither are capable of fixing Boro’s shambolic season. If Boro wanted to fix their lackluster attack with a signing, then they should have spent big on a team changing signing. In January it is near impossible to sign quality creative and attacking players for reasonable amounts of money. But, if Boro are hoping to stay in the league, then they should have gambled on a signing that could potentially create goals on his own.
With that being said, I don’t believe that Boro’s problems come down to their playing personnel. Negredo, while not the most consistent scorer, has proven in his time at Manchester City that he can cut it in the Premier League. Karanka is the reason why Boro cannot score goals. He is too focused on the defensive aspects of the game, and it is preventing Boro from creating chances and will prevent them from staying in the Premier League. Karanka has to be replaced if Boro want a chance to stay in the Prem.