- Middlesbrough take on Leicester City at Riverside Stadium on Saturday (3pm kick-off)
- The hosts have recovered from a difficult start to the season under Michael Carrick, according to Craig Johns
- The Teesside Live reporter believes the influx of new players took time to adapt but now look set for another promotion push
- Boro are sat 12th in the Sky Bet Championship standings ahead of the weekend’s matches
Having finished fourth in 2022/23, losing out in the play-off semi-finals, there was an expectation for the North East club to be in and around the promotion picture once again this term.
Following a difficult opening to the campaign, Boro have moved into the top half of the Sky Bet Championship prior to this weekend’s fixtures. They welcome league leaders Leicester City to Riverside Stadium on Saturday (3pm kick-off).
“It’s been a funny old start,” Johns explained. “They were heavily tipped to be challenging for promotion along with the likes of Leicester. It was a tough one because there were a lot of loan players to replace in the summer, and Chuba Akpom, who scored 28 league goals last season.
A home win over Southampton started the Middlesbrough revival, the first of six straight successes.
“The strategy changed and they’ve looked at young players and foreign markets. There were 12 new players coming in altogether and they needed to learn the league, new surroundings and gel. I think that played its part in what was a poor start to the season, going on a seven-game winless run.
“They turned it around, beating Southampton and went on a six-game winning run. They’ve really started to show what they are capable of. What’s been impressive about that run is that they’ve had injuries to key players Riley McGree and Darragh Lenihan.
“There became a point where those injuries started to take their toll a little and Carrick didn’t quite have the options to change things when he needed to. Players started to look tired. The last win was a really hard-fought one at Norwich, which is obviously a long midweek trip. They really had to battle to get those three points.”
They’ll have a steely, determined mood, but there will be an awful lot of respect for the quality that they are coming up against.Craig Johns Teesside Live
Progression has slowed in recent weeks, though Middlesbrough did book a place in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup with a 3-2 win away at Sky Bet League 1 Exeter City and will face another third tier outfit, Port Vale, in the last eight.
“Ultimately, they’ve picked up one point from their last two, beaten by Stoke at home, and drawing 3-3 at Plymouth,” the journalist continued. “It was a fantastic game to watch from a neutral perspective, but they got themselves 1-0 up and had a few chances to extend the lead in the first half.
“They then went down 2-1 and showed their character to come back but conceded a late equaliser. There was a lot of frustration in the Boro camp, feeling they really ought to have got the three points. There will be a bit of a response to that in terms of channelling their frustration into a positive performance.
“They’ve had a free week going into this Leicester game, so the hope will be that they’ve rested and will be fit and fresh for Saturday. They’ll have a steely, determined mood. There will be an awful lot of respect for the quality that they are coming up against.”
Former Sunderland and Arsenal youngster Sam Greenwood is now showcasing his talent on loan at Boro.
Johns picked out two standout performers as key to the hosts’ chances of earning a positive result against the Foxes. Local lad Hayden Hackney has been with the club since the age of 10. Now 21, Boro’s No.7 looks to be improving every week, alongside fellow youngster Sam Greenwood.
Providing insight into both players, Johns said: “In central midfield, young Hayden Hackney is the kind of player who always shows for the ball and looks to get himself into a position where he can receive it and go forward with it. It’s something Carrick has worked on with him for a long time, in terms of his body shape.
“That allows him to turn into a positive position. He does it really well, driving forward or picking a pass to get Boro moving. He's a really influential player on his day. If he can get on the ball a lot and set the tempo of the game, Middlesbrough are always in a good position.
“Sam Greenwood, on loan from Leeds, has taken a little bit of time to get up to match sharpness but he’s got two goals in his last three games. He’s the type of player that looks in his body language like he’s not giving as much effort as others but give him the ball and he has a moment of magic in him. He can spark attacks and make things happen out of nothing.”
All times GMT.
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