By Matt Fortune
Two down, one to go. Arsenal will head back to the North East on Sunday for their third away day in eight days looking for all three points after Wednesday's draw at Newcastle. It's another test against another side in the doldrums.
Middlesbrough are stuck in the relegation mire having not won since September 1, and the fans are getting restless. A much-improved display at Reading provided brief respite for Gareth Southgate, but just one win at home all season doesn't bode well.
We spoke to Eric Paylor of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette ahead of Arsenal's visit to the Riverside. Read on for an insight into why Southgate has the chairman's full backing, the lack of goals in the side, how defensive injuries have blighted the campaign and the desperate need to strengthen in January.
THE STORY SO FAR
"It has been a massive disappointment because in the summer Middlesbrough were quite confident of making progress up the league. They are not a club that traditionally finishes top half but that was the target. There were changes made in terms of signings, ins and outs, and overall Gareth Southgate was hopeful the squad was capable of moving the club forward. You can never guarantee at the beginning of the season that you are going to stay in there, it has to be fought for and you have to pick up the points. Fourth bottom I think will be settled for now."
MEN OF THE MOMENT
"He has the total backing of the chairman Steve Gibson, who is a very loyal guy. He has backed all his managers to the hilt and he does believe that Southgate has what it takes. I don't think there is any doubt Southgate didn't buy as well as he could have done. He has said he is happy. Southgate announced he was taking the team in another direction this season. They had always been quite dour and hard to break down under Steve McClaren. In transforming everything it is quite a task, and it hasn't really happened. They are only trying to survive. Gareth said in November time he wanted to be pulling away and reach the top half of the table by early in the New Year. There is now the realisation that this is going to be a relegation battle right until the end of the season. It is just starting to hit home."
"The players that came in have not been able to produce the number of goals that the team needs to keep their head above water. Aliadiere is quite clearly a very good player. He was superb at Reading last week but he has only got one goal so far and that is not necessarily a satisfactory haul. Mido was a late signing from Tottenham but he has one fitness problem after another and he will be out until the end of January with a groin problem. They also got Tuncay in who is a Turkish international and one report at the time said he was the Turkish David Beckham. He was quite revered in Turkey and Fenerbache were very disappointed to see him go. He has though taken a long time to settle and he isn't actually an orthodox striker - he supports the front two. The goals just haven't been forthcoming from him and in fact he only opened his account last week. So overall it's the goal haul that has been very disappointing. There is still plenty of quality in defence and in midfield but it's the lack of goals that has led to them slipping into the bottom three and it's going to be a long hard season ahead I think."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"They do have a very strong defensive unit when everybody is fit. Robert Huth for example has been out for most of the season and so has Emmanuel Pogatetz. Their presence will help and certainly create competition which is always good. They also do have two real quality wingers in Adam Johnson and Stewart Downing and then Julio Arca has been an inspiration when he is fit.
"What we can gather from talking to the manager and the players is that they are determined they will stay and avoid the dreaded drop. We are an established side in the Premier League and have only spent one year out of it since 1995 and that is pretty good going."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"The biggest problem has been that they just can't score goals. They lost Mark Viduka to Newcastle and Yakubu went to Everton. It was a case of both players wanting to leave and when it's like that you can't really keep hold of them, although they actually got a very good deal for Yakubu. When you're not scoring goals you can get into that mindset and you can tell that a lack of confidence has been a major factor as to why they have shipped goals as well. I do believe if they can find a goalscorer in January who can get eight or nine by the end of the season that will solve it. I do think an orthodox frontman playing on a regular basis will give the whole side confidence and as a unit they will perform better.
"Mido hadn't played for six months when he arrived and then it is sometimes inevitable that players will pick up injuries and so it has proved. He was a crucial part of the team's make-up as the only orthodox centre-forward and without his presence it is a battle. They have created chances but they don't have anyone who is prolific. A goal poacher would be worth their weight in gold."
"Boro are desperate to win games so even though it is Arsenal, and no-one underestimates the task, they have to set out to try and win it because with the position they are in a point doesn't make that much difference and they need three. They can take some inspiration from Newcastle's performance. You can't outplay Arsenal because they are too good and the only way to deal with them is to outfight them. Get stuck in, do a lot of running and try and unsettle the Gunners. That is the approach I think they will adopt. It's the only chance you have got when you are the bottom five and playing against a team of such quality. Boro do need to win, they have to keep going for 90 minutes and hope for the best."