The Local Lowdown: Middlesbrough


We asked opposition expert Craig Johns, Middlesbrough reporter for Teesside Live, to preview Southampton's Good Friday clash with Boro at St Mary's from the visitors' point of view...

How would you rate Middlesbrough’s season so far?

It's been a bit of a topsy-turvy one overall, with highs and lows along the way. On the back of such a strong run last term after Michael Carrick's arrival, many had tipped Boro to be strong promotion contenders this term.

While that was certainly the hope going in, ultimately a summer of enforced change to their squad left them in a position where this season will probably ultimately be remembered as one of transition more than anything.

They signed 12 largely younger players last summer and have gone about developing them and laying stronger foundations from which they can build, but undoubtedly, in a season heavily impacted by injuries, they have been too inconsistent and at times frustrating as a result.

But with an excellent Carabao Cup run to the semi-finals, and some strong league performances – including a double over Leicester City – there's been enough good to be optimistic about the future.

Hayden Hackney celebrates his winning goal in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Chelsea

Boro are coming into this game in good form, with three wins and a draw before the international break. What’s contributed to the upturn in results?

A couple of factors – the first being a slight change in formation. Michael Carrick is a modern head coach who doesn't particularly see the game like we would traditionally as far as tactics are concerned and therefore he hates this discussion. Rather than traditional positions and numbered roles, he looks at each individual more in terms of what space on the pitch they can exploit or need to be in particular moments.

But, without doubt, a big factor in Boro's upturn in the four games before the break was the formation switch which saw Carrick deploy three centre-backs as opposed to two – therefore having a more natural third centre-back as opposed to the previously preferred tactic that would see one full-back sit in when Boro had possession to build-up attacks with a three-man defence.

The switch has ultimately served to offer better balance in the side based on the current options available, with Boro a little too expansive in the weeks prior to that and too easy to counter on as they lacked the prolificacy to negate their vulnerability to the counter.

On top of the change in formation, they have also started to get important players back from injury – with the return of Emmanuel Latte Lath particularly important because before that they'd been playing for much of 2024 without a recognised centre-forward.

Emmanuel Latte Lath is Middlesbrough's top scorer with nine goals in all competitions

With eight games to go, how do you assess Boro’s play-off prospects?

To highlight just how quickly this league can change, there were fears five games ago when Boro lost to relegation-threatened Stoke City, that they may actually be dragged into the battle at the wrong end of the table, with that defeat leaving them just six points off the bottom three.

Their three wins since that have ended that anxiety and they looked well-placed to attack a top-six charge after the break if they'd have been able to go into the international break with a fourth straight win.

As it happened, they only managed a goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers last time out in a result that highlighted that frustrating lack of consistency and left them seven points outside the play-off places. With some tough games to come, starting at Southampton, it's going to take some effort to make the play-offs now, and most fans seem resigned to missing out.

Only the top four have more away victories than Middlesbrough this season, and last month saw Boro win at Leicester. What makes the team more effective on their travels?

There are probably multiple factors to this one, but perhaps the most glaring is their inability to unlock defences who play with a low block – as seen most recently against Blackburn.

That's been particularly highlighted at the Riverside where many teams have done their homework and looked to sit deep, stay compact and block Boro's route to goal, safe in the knowledge that Boro will usually leave themselves open to a counter-attack or two at the other end.

When Boro go away from home, however, by virtue of naturally wanting to rouse their home fans, sides have been less likely to play with that low block and it's therefore left Boro with a few more gaps that they've been able to exploit.

Finland international Marcus Forss came off injured in Boro's last outing against Blackburn

Who are the players to watch?

Given Boro's injury record before the international break, I'd be reluctant to make many predictions about who may or may not be available for the game. Riley McGree and Marcus Forss had been returning to their best form of late before Forss went off early against Blackburn and McGree was injured while on international duty.

They should have Isaiah Jones available after he returned against Blackburn though and he can be a real livewire with his pace, as can the aforementioned Latte Lath up top. They'll both want to use their speed to help make things happen for their side.

How do you see Friday’s game playing out?

After the Blackburn game, Michael Carrick made an interesting claim that it was time for Boro to 'let loose' in the final eight games, if they were to have any chance of pushing the top six hard in the remaining games.

It will be interesting to see whether in saying that he hinted at reverting back to his more attack-minded fluid 4-2-3-1 formation, or whether he sticks with the more conservative 3-4-3 that has served them well in recent games, with the letting loose coming more in terms of mentality than tactical approach.

While I can see goals in the game for both sides, I ultimately see Southampton having a little too much quality for Boro. While Boro won the reverse fixture, it came early in the season as Southampton still looked to be getting to grips with Russell Martin's style. The results since then have ultimately proven Southampton's quality and why Martin's faith was correct.