New manager can save Middlesbrough's season... with a switch to 4-4-2

Charles Walford
Agnew takes charge tomorrow for his first real game as Boro boss (credit: Getty)

Forget the early-season optimism, the false dawns, the ructions, the winless run. Oh and the departure of the man who got them back to the Premier League.

There is nothing to be gained by dwelling on the past. Middlesbrough’s season is still salvageable and boils down to the next eight days.

Tomorrow they face Swansea City with a chance to close the gap on the Welsh side to just two points. A win followed up with one against Hull on Wednesday and they will have overhauled the

Humbersiders, and maybe even Swansea and Crystal Palace, both of whom are nervously looking over their shoulder despite upturns in fortunes in recent weeks.

Then there’s an eminently winnable game at home to Burnley; but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Either way, in just over a week’s time we will know whether Boro are in a position to pull off their own great escape or whether it’s time to dig out the directions to Cardiff, Brentford and Ipswich.

To all intents and purposes tomorrow is Steve Agnew’s first game in charge. Yes he was in the dugout for the visit of Manchester United – three goals conceded and Stewart Downing hitting ten crosses were not exactly hallmarks of Karanka’s sides – but this is really the first side he has put out having had time to work with the players as the head man.

The international break will have allowed him plenty of time to get across his message in time for the most crucial week for the club in recent memory.

It may not be pretty, but Boro must utilise Gestede’s aerial ability (credit: Getty)

Boro will be praying to enjoy the ‘new manager bounce’ that all the clubs around them at the bottom – bar Sunderland – have enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent this season. But the only way it will happen is if Agnew sets the team up to attack and they play with no fear of failure.

It can be hard to change the approach of players who have spent three years being instilled with a negative, safety-first, take-no-risks mindset. But it is only by throwing of the shackles imposed by Karanka that Boro can hope to pick up enough points to have a hope of staying up.

It has been a while since the 4-4-2 has been seen on Teesside, but Agnew could do worse than giving it a try, instructing his players to get the ball wide, get crosses in the box and use Rudy Gestede’s ability in the air. He can win a lot of balls and get efforts in on goal or provide knock-downs for others

Alvaro Negredo can then be freed to join in the build-up play and ghost in between the back four to profit from those knock-downs and generally give the opposing centre backs something to think about.

The inherent problem with such a formation would be an apparent lack of cover in the centre of midfield. It would require extra work from whoever is given the responsibility of playing there – which should be Marten de Roon and Grant Leadbitter – and this is the one area where the formation switch could hurt defensively.

But, as the previous 28 games have shown, worrying too much about your defensive at the expense of any sort of attacking threat is not a recipe for staying up.

I would give Stewart Downing and Adama Traore the freedom of the flanks with encouragement to run at the full backs and get the ball into the box as often as possible. We shouldn’t forget that the nerves will be jangling for Swansea too and putting their defence under as much pressure as possible will bring errors from which they can profit.

If they get at Swansea, look to turn them, get in behind, bombard them at the right time, then Middlesbrough can come through the 90mins with a crucial three points.

And maybe, just maybe the optimism that has all but drained away from Teesside can be reignited at just the right time.

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