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Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics

EFL Championship 2023/24: Middlesbrough’s substandard start to the season – scout report

Last season, Michael Carrick surprised and impressed many by guiding Middlesbrough to the play-offs, producing some spectacular form and eye-catching football along the way. Carrick, who enjoyed a fruitful career playing in the Premier League for teams like Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, has so far failed to replicate such form in the 2023/24 EFL Championship season, with Boro sitting in 22nd place and yet to win in their opening four games.

This scout report and tactical analysis will highlight some of the key factors behind their lacklustre start to the season, with the analysis looking to uncover whether there is an issue regarding tactics or whether the problem lies elsewhere.

Results overview

While Carrick’s side has experienced a poor start to the season, we must remember that we are just four games in, so we shouldn’t expect Middlesbrough to undertake any drastic changes like ditching their tactical set-up or even sacking Carrick – sacking a manager this early in the season would be madness…

The only point they have picked up so far this season came in a 1-1 draw at home to fellow slow starters Huddersfield Town – 11 days prior to that result, Boro beat Huddersfield away in the first round of the Carabao Cup. Their three other league games all ended in defeat, losing to Millwall (1-0 at home), Coventry (3-0 away), and West Brom (4-2 away – Tommy Smith was sent off 51 minutes in).

Defensive issues in midfield

So far, from four league games, Middlesbrough have shipped nine goals – only Rotherham have conceded more at this stage. Their defensive record wasn’t the best last season either – not for a team fighting for promotion anyway; it seems they have carried that habit into this season, and it is starting to cost them. Some of their defensive issues arise in midfield, whether a poorly executed press, a passive mid-block, or small details such as marking and reacting to situations quickly.

Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics
Boro’s midfield shape and execution need work out of possession.

We start with an example of Boro looking to execute a mid-block, but the positioning and organisation let them down. You would expect a stronger shape, and perhaps one that is more compact, but at the least, you would expect opposition players in central areas to be marked and passing lines to be shut off – in this example, Boro did not manage this. West Brom could easily play a pass into central midfield, with the Baggies player opting for a backwards pass when he could drive forward, so in that sense, this example was a let-off for Middlesbrough. If Carrick can tighten things up in midfield – and boost their organisation and positioning, they would be a stronger defensive outfit.

Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics
Slow reactions have caused Middlesbrough too many issues already this season.

Boro are not a high-pressing team. You may see the forwards applying pressure occasionally when the opposition has possession at the back. Still, Middlesbrough’s pressing usually seems to be executed a second too late, meaning the pressing player is left chasing the opponent rather than closing him down. Quick mental reactions like that, or lack thereof, can be seen in some of their midfield defending, like the example above.

The Coventry midfielder receives the ball inside his half following a transition; Boro has several players relatively high up the pitch, so that you can forgive the positional disarray on this occasion. The press on Coventry’s number 14 on the ball was triggered far too late, allowing him plenty of time to pick out his next pass, bringing us back to the point about marking again, as the switch pass to an open teammate was easy. It allowed Coventry to launch an attack down the opposite flank.

How could Boro handle situations like this better? There needs to be more explicit instruction (or a better understanding of instructions) of when and where to press, as sometimes it looks as though players are rushing in on a whim but a second too late.

Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics
More defensive issues in midfield for Carrick’s team.

We see a culmination of all the points we’ve touched upon in this example, and it saw Coventry carve Boro’s midfield open with ease. Firstly, they allowed the pass out from the Coventry CB after another lacklustre press from the forward, allowing the pass onward into a central area.

A Middlesbrough shirt was seen rushing in to close the pass recipient down, which can be praised because he realised the potential danger of allowing the Coventry midfielder time on the ball in that area. Still, questions must be asked of Boro’s number 10 – Morgan Rodgers: Why didn’t he recognise the danger and engage with the Coventry midfielder?

This left space deeper in Boro’s central midfield area after the Coventry central midfielder showed good press-resistant qualities to play the ball out wide before receiving the return pass further up. He then continued the attack by driving forward into Boro’s half – some good individual midfield work, taking advantage of Boro’s downfalls.

Their struggle in defending wide attacks and set-piece deliveries

A worrying portion of the nine goals they conceded have come from set-pieces and wide deliveries from open play. Many teams focus their attacks through the flanks. Hence, this is a real problem for Carrick, who must look to instil better organisation and cohesion within his defensive ranks in the aforementioned areas – they have the highest success rate for aerial duels in the division at the time of writing, so clearly, they have the aerial ability in their ranks, it is just a matter of being organised and reacting proactively.

Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics
Poor defensive organisation has been a significant undoing of Boro this season.

While this example did not feature a cross, it was an opposition goal built from a wide area that again exposed Middlesbrough’s defensive weaknesses. We have highlighted three blue shirts in this example – not one of them is marked tightly; in fact, two of them are not marked at all.

This left Coventry spoiled for choice as to how to proceed with the move with two players unmarked at the edge of the box. The one nearest the ball received the pass and opted to take a chance on goal – his effort ricocheted off a Boro player, and the ball found its way to a Coventry shirt – the highlighted forward barely marked by a red shirt. He used that advantage to his gain and smashed the ball home to punish Carrick’s team.

Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics
Carrick will be desperate to see an improvement in his team defending set-pieces.

It is only early in the season, but Boro has already shown a struggle in defending set pieces; corners in particular – they have conceded multiple times from set plays this season, exposing their weaknesses in organisation and reactions once again.

This corner had an element of fortune about it in the sense that the initial header at the near post was deflected, taking it away from its predicted path, wrong-footing most players in the box, but not everyone – a Coventry shirt had peeled away from his marker far too quickly to break free, leaving him open to smash the loose ball home. As mentioned, bad luck was involved here, but marking your man from a corner is an essential skill.

Build-up play issues 

While Boro have only scored three goals in their opening four games, if you dig deeper into the data, you’ll discover that they are creating chances and generally playing some effective football to get into goalscoring opportunities. So, it is likely that the goals will start to flow in time. Still, there is an area within their tactics that is holding them back currently, and that is that they sometimes take far too long on the ball in the early stages of build-up play, slowing the pace of the game significantly and making it difficult to progress up the pitch.

We have seen flashes of this issue arise over the first four fixtures, so it is worth looking at an example of it unfolding.

Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics
Middlesbrough need to learn to capitalise on their possession.

Boro are used to having the larger share of possession – something they have carried over from last season, but unfortunately for Carrick and co., Boro are an example of possession not guaranteeing success. As mentioned earlier, they do create a good number of chances, and to their credit, in advanced midfield areas and the final third, they can produce good things, but too often, when they have possession deeper, they let themselves down.

Take the example above; the man on the ball has three close options – two with the potential to carry the ball out into wider areas, which Boro likes to do higher up the pitch. Making one of these passes should be a quick task to keep a good pace to the possession, but instead, there is far too much hesitation and time taken on the ball, only allowing the opposition more time to get set up defensively. This is not a one-off either from Middlesbrough; we’ve seen it on multiple occasions – they need to be willing to move the ball quicker and take more risks in doing so.

Analysing Middlesbrough’s poor start to the season – scout report tactical analysis tactics

Credit where it is due, though; Boro do create chances, so they will likely start to score more goals in the coming weeks and months if they continue to develop in other areas of their game. Averaging an xG of 1.38 per 90, they already have given themselves a decent foundation to build. If they can finetune their attacking tactics and get used to playing at a consistently higher pace in possession, they could become a hazardous team on the ball.


While Boro fans will be frustrated with the start to the season their team has made, it is too early for alarm bells to ring and for panic to set in. This will be a good test of the players’ mentality and work rate and Carrick’s ability as a manager. It is important to remember that he is still a young manager in the early days of his coaching career, so there is still a lot for him to learn. He had Boro playing some fantastic football last season, so he will want to return to that – it is his task to fix the small details that are slowing his side’s progression down.