Already-relegated 'Boro have nothing to lose, need to show attacking intent
With Middlesbrough's immediate relegation to the Sky Bet Championship confirmed after their 3-0 drubbing to champions-elect Chelsea, thoughts within the club will be turning to just how it all went so wrong and ultimately how it can be put right.
Steve Agnew will somehow need to find a way to lift the battered spirits of his players as he aims to see out what remains of Boro's short Premier League tenure with dignity. Southampton, comfortably nestled in 10th position, are the final visitors to the Riverside Stadium. Agnew's men simply must put on a positive and exciting display to try and reward their fans for their patience and support throughout what has been a tumultuous campaign.
Going into the final game, the Riverside faithful have been treated to a miserly 16 goals on their own patch. Middlesbrough struggled for goals even during their promotion season from the second tier, registering just 63 goals in 46 games -- the poorest return from the top six teams. It was somewhat glossed over as Boro stumbled their way over the line to promotion by ending their season with four draws and pipping Brighton to the prize on goal difference alone.
This shyness in front of goal needed to be remedied for the club to stand a chance of survival but it is clear that the issue remains unresolved. Had the fans been able to know that they would only see 0.89 goals per game for Middlesbrough at the Riverside this season, there may have been some questioning the value in rushing for a season ticket.
The loan move for Spanish hitman Alvaro Negredo hasn't worked out as planned and perhaps through no fault of the striker's own. He sits on a current return of 9 goals but has been sorely starved of service and company alongside him to bounce off. Aitor Karanka's famed defensive nature led to a stodgy and stale side that were incapable of creating anywhere the amount of chances, or even half-chances, for someone of Negredo's calibre to turn into profit.
With relegation now confirmed, there isn't anything for Middlesbrough to lose now and if they can find the back of the net a couple of times before the end of the campaign -- it might provide some momentum for the summer of rebuilding that is follow. With that in mind, surely now is the time to wave goodbye to the likes of Negredo, Victor Valdes, Adama Traore et al from the starting lineup and focus on those who will be vying for an instant return to the Premier League next term.
Once the pressure lid has been lifted and the handbrake taken off, it is at this time of the season where we often see strange results filling up the videprinter. Sunderland's shock 2-0 away victory at desperate Hull City last weekend is a case in point. Agnew should look to offer an early chance in the limelight to struggling strikers Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede in a forward pairing that points to the future for the club.
Bamford's sizzling form which fired Boro to the playoff final in 2015 must be recreated next season if the club are to have a fair probability of escaping again from one of the toughest leagues in world football. The little and large pairing of Bamford and Gestede could work to good effect against most defences in the Championship -- and the irony is not lost on Boro fans, that Gestede was at his most effective alongside Jordan Rhodes for Blackburn Rovers a few seasons ago.
The results from here on in are irrelevant but it is the nature and style of the performances that are now the most pressing concern. Steve Agnew looks to be lacking the support of most fans in his bid for the permanent manager's role but he may well endear himself to more sections of the crowd with an increased attacking intent.
Agnew's bid to employ such a strategy backfired spectacularly when a frantic Boro took the fight to Hull City in a crunch match which they lost 4-2. In mitigation, Middlesbrough were missing key defenders Calum Chambers, George Friend and Fabio in that game which left them badly unbalanced and evidently vulnerable. But they managed to score two goals -- a feat all too rarely achieved this season under Karanka or Agnew.
The shackles are off and soon Middlesbrough will be as well -- their fans now deserve to see them go down fighting and firing.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady