Since being relegated last year, Middlesbrough’s priority has been to return to the Premier League this season. So far, they have not got off to the best start imaginable. They have lost twice in their first five league games. Once to Wolves on the opening day, in part to a Daniel Ayala mistake and again to Nottingham Forest this time largely due to Britt Assombalonga missing some key chances. They were also held to a 0-0 draw by Preston North End in their last match, largely due to a poor choice in formation by Garry Monk.
Despite all of this though, Boro fans should not be too worried. Middlesbrough often start seasons slow. Take their last two Championship seasons as an example. In their promotion winning 2015/16 season, Boro had just eight points after five games, just one more than their current total of seven after five games.
The season before when Boro reached the Playoff Final they had just six points after five games, one less than their current total. So, even after a slow start Boro are still very much in the title picture this season. But who will be key to Boro’s promotion push this season? Here are the three most important players to Middlesbrough this season.
Perhaps Middlesbrough’s best bit of business this past transfer window was keeping hold of Ben Gibson. As Boro fans will know, Gibson was the subject of several bids from West Brom while also attracting the attention of other Premier League clubs such as Manchester City.
However, Middlesbrough stood firm on their stance of not selling Gibson and on September 1st Gibson was still a Boro player. This makes Gibson key to Boro’s promotion success for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Ben Gibson is Middlesbrough’s current captain. Gibson has captained Boro in every Championship game this season. He is an excellent leader who shows immense passion for the club. Gibson grew up around Boro with his Uncle Steve Gibson being the chairman. Therefore, Gibson knows the fans, the area and he knows how much it means for Boro fans to be back in the Premier League. A quality all the money in the world can’t buy you. Gibson would have been near impossible to replace had he left. But now he is here to stay Boro have made a real statement.
Gibson has also formed a brilliant partnership with fellow Boro Academy product, Dael Fry. Fry is four years younger than Gibson (24). Despite the age gap the two are forming an excellent partnership at the back and are a big part of why Boro have yet to concede a goal at home this season. So, not only is Gibson important to Boro because of his own ability, he is also important to the development of Dael Fry as Gibson will be able to teach Fry things and mould him into another quality centre back like Gibson.
Adam Clayton is possibly the most underrated Boro player in recent years. Clayton does not bomb forward scoring 40 yarders. But what he does do is integral to Middlesbrough’s system working properly and he is superb at doing it.
Under Garry Monk, Clayton plays as a very deep centre defensive midfielder, who when Boro have the ball drops back between the centre backs to form a back three. This allows both Middlesbrough’s two full backs to push forward. Along with Boro’s to centre mids.
Clayton in this role is integral to Monk’s system working correctly. If Clayton was not so good at dropping back Boro would be caught out way too much with their full backs and centre mids pushing so far forward.
Adam Clayton is also excellent at controlling play. This is best shown by the fact that Clayton has an 86% pass accuracy, the most in the Boro team. Clayton also makes the second most interceptions per game. Only Martin Braithwaite has more but that was for just one appearance. This further demonstrates how important Clayton is to Middlesbrough’s defensive structure as he is breaking down play more than anyone on the pitch for Middlesbrough’s first five games of the season.
Clayton is very underrated and if he were to get injured, it would be hard to see who could take his role and do it as well as he does.
Britt Assombalonga cost Middlesbrough £15 million and is their record signing. He could also be the man to make or break Middlesbrough’s season.
Middlesbrough have been without a true goal scorer for some years now. Last season Boro scored just 27 goals in the Premier League, the lowest in the league. The season before when Boro were promoted, their top scorer David Nugent finished on just eight goals for the season. If this doesn’t show Boro needed a goal scorer, nothing will.
Assombalonga is seemingly the man Boro are going to put their faith in to bag the goals. This is hardly surprising given his goal scoring record. Last season he managed 14 goals in just 20 starts for Nottingham Forest last season.
Unfortunately for Boro, he has not had the greatest start for them. He has scored two goals this season. But against his former club Nottingham Forest he missed some huge chances that cost Boro the game. In total, he has missed five clear cut chances in the Championship this season, more than any other player in the league.
Middlesbrough will be hoping that Assombalonga finds his goal scoring boots sooner rather than later. Because if he doesn’t, Boro could be set for yet another season where they can’t score enough goals.