Ian Foster’s honeymoon period in charge of Plymouth Argyle is well and truly over. His start was undeniably encouraging, and included the Greens’ first away win of the season in Swansea. Since then, the mood has crashed back down to Earth swiftly. It’s now one point from the last 12 available, culminating in a chastening 3-0 defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday night.

It’s arguable that the West Brom performance was Argyle’s worst for many years. It’s been a few days now, and I’m still stunned that an Argyle side whose strengths all season have been in attack managed 0.11 xG across the 90 minutes. It’s the sort of figure you’d expect from an amateur side getting their dream draw in the FA Cup, not a Championship outfit who had only lost four times in front of their own fans all season.

The hope has got to be that the game against the Baggies was a one-off. If Argyle can bounce back quickly, they’re still in a strong position to remain in the Championship. If this becomes a trend, Foster and his side are in serious trouble. Perhaps we’ll learn more about the direction of this season when Argyle make another long trip, this time to Middlesbrough, on Saturday.

This is a game that was very nearly postponed; Boro were within one game of reaching Sunday’s EFL Cup final before collapsing against Chelsea, losing the second leg 6-1 at Stamford Bridge. Alas, such a result is unlikely this weekend. Michael Carrick’s side enter the game as comfortable favourites, particularly after an excellent 2-1 win against league leaders Leicester City last weekend.

Style of play

Going forward, Middlesbrough operate in the way every good side theoretically should. They look to get their creative players on the ball as much as possible, trusting them to develop the chances they need to win games. I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as a passing side, but they’re comfortable keeping possessing if the need arises.

When Boro’s creative players are in possession – Dan Barlaser, Hayden Hackney and a certain Finn Azaz regularly feature – they have several ways of creating openings. Generally, they turn to the obvious options of through balls and passes over the top of defences. They don’t always work, with Boro actually being caught offside more than any other side this season. But they can be mightily effective when they come off and, with Argyle particularly susceptible to through balls, they promise to be a potent weapon for Carrick’s side this weekend.

As with any side, Boro’s style of play is centred around creating goalscoring chances. Unlike many teams though, Carrick isn’t particularly keen on getting his players to shoot at the earliest opportunity. Instead, his side will try to work the ball into the best possible position before getting a shot away. That can be demonstrated by the fact that they’ve taken 69% of their shots from inside the box this season, the third-highest figure in the Championship. Argyle are almost the polar opposite.

In means there are no real standouts when it comes to goalscoring. They don’t have a target to aim for when going forward, and prefer simply to play the ball to whoever is in the best position for any given chance. It’s meant that Boro have had 16 different goalscorers this season, just short of the league-high of 17.

To make the style work, Carrick likes to stick to his favoured 4-2-3-1. He’s not tied to the formation – a switch to five at the back worked wonders in the win over Leicester. You suspect though that, being at home to a side who have won just once away all season, Carrick will want Boro to play on their terms. A 4-2-3-1 is therefore highly likely.

Pinpointing exactly who starts is tricky, because Boro haven’t been shy to rotate their side. If I had to guess, I’d suspect Barlaser and Hackney will start as the “2”, with Azaz further upfield. Riley McGree or Jonny Howson may complete the midfield, and I suspect both Sam Greenwood and Marcus Forss will start, particularly with Isaiah Jones missing out with a hamstring injury. Don’t be surprised though if former Argyle targets Josh Coburn and Sam Silvera take to the field at some stage.

Predicting the defence is also causing me grief. A couple of weeks ago I’d have had Dael Fry down as a certain starter, but he’s missed the last two against Leicester and Preston North End. With that in mind, I think Boro may opt for a pairing of Matt Clarke and Rav van den Berg, though don’t rule out Paddy McNair, who made a long-awaited return against the Foxes.

At left back it’s a straight choice between Lukas Engel and Leicester loanee Luke Thomas, with my money being on the latter starting after being ineligible against his parent club on Saturday. There may even be a change in goal; Tom Glover has had the gloves recently as injury cover for Seny Dieng, but the Senegalese international has been back amongst the matchday squad for the last fortnight. The only near-certain starter in the entire side is right back Luke Ayling, who signed on loan from Leeds United in January.

Ultimately, Middlesbrough have a ton of options. Whichever side they select will be strong, and have the confidence they can hurt Argyle in various ways.


I mentioned earlier that Middlesbrough like to rely on their creative players to be a key source of danger. That’s nothing new of course; many sides like to get their creative players on the ball in key areas, and frankly it’d be odd if they didn’t. What sets Boro aside, however, is they’re much better at it than most.

Carrick’s side have had 79 big goalscoring chances this season. That’s already impressive, being the fourth-highest figure in the league and trailing only the three relegated sides. That doesn’t necessarily mean Boro created those chances though; big chances can for example can include penalties, or short backpasses from defenders allowing an attacker in on goal. Big chances created, consisting of big chances where a teammate has actually passed the ball to the man who eventually shoots, is therefore a better measure.

Using that, the picture is even better. Middlesbrough have created 65 big chances for themselves this season. This time, it’s the league’s second-highest figure, with only Leicester (78) creating more. It means that not only are Boro getting the chance to score regularly, their style of play is actively contributing to that potency.

Given how much the ball is shared around, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s hard to pinpoint a star in Boro’s creative ranks. Morgan Rogers may have been the natural choice in the first half of the season, but his numbers earned him a move to the Premier League with Aston Villa on deadline day. There is one player I want to touch on though. And yes, I’m afraid it’s the obvious.

Argyle know all about the talents of Finn Azaz, and he’s starting to hit his best form again under Carrick. He’s already in the top four for big chances created per 90 minutes in Middlesbrough’s ranks this season, and has continued to include the goalscoring to his game that makes him a constant threat. Azaz has already netted twice for Boro, including a stunner to open his account against Preston.


Aside from their creativity, there are a couple of other strengths I just want to touch on. I’ll start by looking at aerial duels, where Boro have excelled this season with their 53% success rate. Only Leicester and West Brom (both 55%) have won aerial duels at a greater rate than Boro and, even more crucially, their figure puts them at odds with Argyle. The Greens have the third-lowest aerial duel success in the league with 47%, and will have to be careful not to take the aerial route too often against a strong Middlesbrough side.

I’ve also had a look at when Boro score their goals. 26% of the goals they’ve scored this season have come in the first 15 minutes of the second half, with only two other sides scoring a higher proportion of their goals in that period. Usually I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such a detail, but this time I’m anxious. The 15-minute period after half time has been Argyle’s worst for conceding goals this season with 13 shipped, 23% of their total.

Whatever happens, Foster will need to ensure his half time team talk hits all of the right notes.


Middlesbrough are an objectively strong side. When their style of play works and takes advantage those strengths, they can be a nightmare to play against. The fact they’ve done the double over the runaway league leaders shows they’re doing a great deal right. So why are they 13th in the league?

To my eye, Middlesbrough have been seriously underperforming this season, and that’s backed up statistically. Our expected points model suggests that Carrick’s side should be on 53.8 points, based on their xG at both ends of the field. Their underperformance of 9.8 points is the second-worst underperformance in the league, behind just Sheffield Wednesday who are underperforming by 10.6 points.

There are factors at both ends of the pitch causing such a chasm. Their struggle to score at the rate they ought to is an obvious place to start. Remember earlier when I was waxing lyrical about Boro’s ability to create big chances? It hardly helps if you can’t put them away. Middlesbrough are one of those teams. They’ve missed a whopping 52 big chances this season, the second-highest figure in the league. They’re also, along with Coventry City, one of only two sides to have had three players miss seven or more big chances on their own.

But it’s not just the attackers who take the brunt of the blame. At the back, there are also indications that they’re shipping more goals than they ought to expect. In fact, I don’t think it’d be unfair to argue that the defence are even more to blame for Boro’s underperformance than the forwards.

I’d first point to their woeful numbers for defensive actions. Boro rank in the bottom five for all four of clearances, blocks, interceptions and tackles this season, making them the only side to rank so poorly in every metric across the division.

Their figures for blocks are particularly alarming. Middlesbrough rank dead last for shots blocked in the Championship this season with 89. To put that into perspective, Lewis Gibson’s 43 blocks mean he has made over 48% of that total on his own. It means that Middlesbrough have been conceding from shots that other sides would simply get in the way of, and inflating the number of shots challenging their goalkeepers.

And when those goalkeepers have been challenged, they haven’t been up to the job. Dieng and Glover have shared the role this season, but neither has particularly impressed me with their shot stopping. As well as both goalkeepers underperforming against the post-shot xG they’ve faced, the two as a collective have a save success rate of 63%. Only Sheffield Wednesday have posted a worse figure. In short: get Morgan Whittaker on the ball, and get shots away.

Whittaker, it should be said, may also have some joy with his dribbling. With 47%, Middlesbrough have the lowest ground duel success rate in the league, and their lousy tackle success rate of 65% (20th highest) contributes heavily. Boro may be good in the air, but if Argyle can keep the ball on the floor and get their key men in possession, they’ll surely trust themselves to create openings.

All in all, everything I’ve mentioned above contributes to a substandard defensive showing from Carrick’s side. They’ve kept just one clean sheet in their last 14 league games, and that certainly isn’t a coincidence. Argyle will hope to find some of their old attacking flair to put the Boro defence to the sword once more.


I’ve actually found this one challenging to predict. Given the strength of the respective sides, the results they’re coming into the game on the back of, and the fact that one has had a week off whilst the other is travelling the length of the country after playing on Tuesday night, you may conclude that the likely winners are obvious. That may indeed turn out to be the case.

There are some elements though that we cannot ignore. Middlesbrough have underperformed in many respects this season. Meanwhile, if we cast Tuesday night’s aberration aside for a moment, Argyle have had a knack for picking up points when not at their best. This may not be a foregone conclusion, particularly given that Boro have won just one of their last seven home league games (although that hasn’t stopped Argyle putting such records to bed in the past – West Brom hadn’t won an away game since November before this week).

Regretfully, I just don’t think it’ll be enough to see Argyle win the game. It may well be close for a while, but I suspect a sucker punch is a lot more likely than a heroic away winner. And if they do get in front, Carrick and his side may get home comfortably in the end. 2-0 to Boro.