By Chris Harris
The New Year has been good to Middlesbrough fans. Not only has their team strung together a seven-game unbeaten run since January 1, the goals have been flowing at a pace rarely seen at the Riverside Stadium.
Suddenly, a campaign which looked in danger of ending with a relegation dog-fight has every chance of realising a top-half Premiership finish and, who knows, perhaps even a decent Cup run.
So why the transformation? We asked Philip Tallentire of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette for his insight ahead of Arsenal's trip to Teesside this weekend. Read on to find out about Gareth Southgate's "epiphany", Boro's potent front pairing and the youngsters who have come of age this season.
THE STORY SO FAR
"In December we were starting to worry a bit because Boro's form wasn't good and they were seen as a bit of a soft touch but they somehow eeked out a couple of vital wins against Charlton and Sheffield United. If they had lost those the confidence would really have slipped but they came through and those games have made all the difference. They are unbeaten in 2007 and the fact they are scoring goals has refreshed everyone.
"The big change is that Gareth Southgate has had a bit of an epiphany and has convinced himself that it is better to go on the offensive from the start of games rather than begin games tentatively which is how Steve McClaren used to be. Southgate inherited that approach to an extent. The mindset among the players and the coaches was to keep the opposition quiet in the first 10 minutes and take it from there. Now the mindset is that Boro have good attackers so let's have a go at teams. Southgate's pre-match quotes have been refreshingly optimistic ahead of the Arsenal game. He's saying Arsenal are a great attacking side so why should we let them play? He will try to have a go at them."
MEN OF THE MOMENT
"There is no doubt that Viduka and Yakubu are the kind of strikers who score goals in batches and they are both on a hot streak at the moment. How much is down to Boro being more attack-minded I don't know. Both of them are capable of getting 30 goals a season. Sometimes only one of them will play if Boro adopt a safety-first approach but they are a mouthwatering pairing and if Boro keep them fit then you can see the goals continuing to flow.
"Apart from them, a couple of players who you wouldn't expect to pick out as a potential players of the season have done really well. The left back Andrew Taylor did better than expected when he came in last season and has had an exceptional season this time around. Taylor is a real find, he's a North-East lad from Hartlepool and is one of the youngsters who won the Youth Cup with Boro in 2004. Taylor has come through and been a revelation. He plays with a smile on his face and has lots of confidence. He's a real breath of fresh air.
"The other revelation has been Emanuel Pogatetz. He was signed as a left back but wasn't very convincing in that position. He looks shaky on the left but at centre back he has been amazing. He is a big strong lad, an honest competitor, he's not afraid to put his head in where it hurts and he's a real team player. Pogatetz got a vital goal against Chelsea which really kick-started his season and he has forged a good partnership with Woodgate."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"We've had a lot of pragmatic football to watch at Boro. McClaren didn't have the players to play teams off the park so he went to keep things tight. With that mentality anything approaching the top half of the table was seen as a success. Now we are all a bit more chirpy because we were worried at one point that Boro would be struggling like West Ham and Wigan. We thought the good run would come to an end against Bolton but Boro started positively and before you knew it they were three up. They went on to win 5-1 and the self-belief Boro got from that can help push them even further up the table."
"I think Boro are hopeful that Viduka will be fit. Mark Schwarzer is 50:50 at best. Brad Jones, who kept goal in that 7-0 mauling at Highbury, had an outstanding game at Portsmouth. Apart from that the only question is whether Southgate plays Cattermole on the right because he offers more rigidity and brings Arca into the centre of midfield. Arsenal have a great record up here normally, I can remember those 4-0 and 4-1 hammerings a few years back. Boro beat them last season and I'm quietly confident they can get a point this time. Beating Arsenal twice in consecutive seasons is asking a lot."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"It was an amazing game at Emirates Stadium earlier in the season. Arsenal had so much possession and it will go down as a real battling point for Boro. It was a well-taken goal from Morrison. Unfortunately I didn't get to go to the game but my colleagues were very, very impressed. The new stadium has pushed Arsenal into a new league as far as earning potential is concerned. They can pull in 60,000 fans every single week. Obviously it took Arsenal some time to settle in but they are still unbeaten at Emirates Stadium and that speaks volumes."
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