“Shot shy Boro just don’t score enough goals to get promoted!”
That’s the latest line being peddled by the cynics – sorry, “realists” – as Aitor Karanka’ side take up residence in the pack. Or at least, it was until the five-star display at the Den when a potent performance and a goal romp dented that thinly constructed criticism.
Boro celebrate massaging the scoring stats at Millwall
After a sticky start the habitual jaundiced scepticism was all about Karanka’s poor untried buys, very quickly judged by the moan-in knee-jerkers as a hotch-potch of free transfer Spanish wimps and unproven Chelsea loanees not fit for purpose in the physical high-tempo Championship war-zone.
Then after two home defeats in a row the Chicken Run consensus was that the defence had been exposed, the keeper dropped some costly clangers and home form was a disaster and the season was stillborn – we may as well start digging in for the relegation battle.
But as Boro started to edge up slowly towards the business end of the table and the rearguard assumed a rigid default once more, as the framework started to bed in and the team showed spirit and strength in midfield the cynics’ focus fell on the front-line.
Big money buy Kike had tailed off after a good start, Chelsea starlet Patrick Bamford was spluttering and Jelle Vossen – sprung from his mink- lined Belgian prison cell by a viral mob – was spectacularly lacking in matchday ‘duck skin’.
So even as the bits fell into place and Boro steadily climbed the table that lack of regular net-busting action from a head-line grabbing hitman became the battleground of choice as those of half-empty disposition looked for weaknesses they could pick at while the majority were enjoying a campaign fast shaping up to one of great promise.
There is a case to be argued about the “lack of fire-power” of course.
Boro don’t have an out-and-out striker up there tussling for the Championship’s Golden Boot. And before Millwall, Boro had just stuttered through a toothless run of three draws that yielded just three points from a possible nine and just two goals. And time and time again we have come away frustrated from games after seeing a series of golden chances squandered – the last home game against Blackburn for example in which the shots on target were well into double figures but Boro could only take a solitary point.
But are those failings fatal? Are Boro really that far short of the rest of the presumably far more prolific promotion pack? No. Boro have no problems up front. They are creating plenty of chances, have options to change the style and shape up front and the goals are being spread around rather than snaffled by a primary poacher – and that’s not a problem.
And whereas there was a marked early goals deficit, that is being closed very quickly.
Boro are currently the fourth top scorers in the Championship. Of course, ideally they would be a dozen ahead, we’d be clear at the top and the title would be in the bag Charltonesque by the end of March. But it doesn’t work like that.
Boro have scored 33 goals and are six behind the top goal-getters Bournemouth, a gap largely down to a freak result, a cruel Cherries battering of basement boys Birmingham when they were managerless and in complete disarray.
Derby on 38 and Watford on 36 are also ahead of Boro with Ipswich, Blackburn Forest and Fulham all within three goals behind. But none of those gaps look entrenched or insurmountable and in a pack that is in flux those positions could be shuffled quite dramatically in a single round of matches.
And crucially, Boro’s goal strike rate has improved steadily as the season has gone on.
In an all-change August Karanka’s new look side lost three of their first five fixtures in the league and scored just three goals prompting some squeals of anxiety. But in September they got eight from five games, in October five from four and in November nine from five. Five so far in December suggests that progressive goals curve will continue.
Since the end of August and the back-to-back defeats that are blighting the stats Boro have scored 27 goals in 15 games including four twice and five at Millwall.
Even at home where the message-board mythology says Boro are particularly weak they have rattled in 16 in seven games since then including four twice, against promotion pretenders Brentford and Norwich. That’s not bad. It is certainly no worse than the rest of the promotion pretenders.
Of course, they haven’t scythed teams open in a clinical goal romp every week but then, that is the nature of football. The opposition is looking to stifle and frustrate at the Riverside – more so as Boro climb the table and gain a reputation as a side that are good going forward – and the key tactical challenge has been overcoming that.
And it is true that Boro don’t have a single striker tearing up the league like 13- goal Daryl Murphy of Ipswich or Chris Martin at Derby and Britt Assombalonga of Forest who both have a dozen apiece. But does it really matter where the goals come from?
Bournemouth’s top league scorer is Callum Wilson with nine and the next best is Brett Pitman on three: That’s 12. Watford have Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra on seven each: 14. “Shoy-shy” Boro have Leadbitter on eight and Kike (or Bamford, take your pick) on six: That’s 14 too. Derby have the most potent pairing up front with Martin on 12 and Jamie Ward on five. That’s 17. It’s more but it is hardly a yawning gulf.
People make a fetish of goalscorers – and pay them lots of money – but it is only part of the story. If the goals are shared around they still count. Boro still get the points even though five of Grant Leadbitter’s were penalties.
And the other part of the goals equation – the important part – is how many you concede.
Goal difference is what counts in the table, not goals scored – and by that criteria Boro are building up quite a cushion. Miserly Middlesbrough have only conceded 15 goals in 20 games. The next best are Sheffield Wednesday – in 12th and eight points adrift – with Derby on 19. That gives the Rams a slightly better goal difference of 19 while Boro and Bournemouth are on 18 (there’s that Brum car-crash at play again). If current form and statistical trends continue, both slender advantages will be shaved away.
Scoring at the current rate should see Boro stay safely in the pack.
Conceding at the current rate should see them promoted.