When the final whistle sounded at Stamford Bridge on Monday evening the reaction of the two sets of players on the field could not have been more contrasting.
Whilst Antonio Conte and his Chelsea squad celebrated safe in the knowledge that the Premier League title had been all but secured, Middlesbrough’s players sank to the floor or shuffled down the tunnel with their heads down and shoulders slumped.
Goals from Diego Costa, Marcus Alonso and Nemanja Matic had put the final nails into Boro’s top-flight coffin and confirmed their relegation to The Championship.
Hamstrung by caution and a lack of ambition
There is no shame in a newly promoted team suffering relegation, but there is a definitive feeling that Middlesbrough have failed to make a significant contribution to the Premier League this season. They have come and gone without incident or achievement, leaving the top-flight quietly through the rear stage exit without any fuss or fight.
This season has been a missed opportunity for the club. After spending seven years in The Championship rebuilding and striving to earn their chance to compete with the elite of English football you cannot help but feel that they have fluffed their lines and blown their shot at the big time.
Throughout the campaign Middlesbrough have appeared imbalanced and hamstrung by a cautious approach and, arguably, negative attitude. The team were blunt, lacked creativity or inventiveness and certainly lacked the willingness to take their destiny by the scruff of the neck and play on the front foot. They may have the best defensive record in the bottom half of the table but they have found the back of the net just 26 times in their 36 league games.
In short, Boro simply did not attack their great opportunity.
Much of the blame will be directed towards Aitor Karanka. The Spaniard did a remarkable job lifting the club from the lower echelons of The Championship and guiding them to promotion but was left ruthlessly exposed in the top-flight by his lack of attacking ambition.
In Alvaro Negredo he had a proven goal scorer whilst the creative talents of players such as Adama Traore and Gaston Ramirez were primed to provide the ammunition. However, Karanka was cautious and his approach appeared to have sucked all of the creativity, enthusiasm and imagination out of the Middlesbrough squad by the time he departed in mid-March.
His temporary replacement, Steve Agnew, never looked like he possessed the experience or knowledge to turn around the clubs fortunes.
A missed opportunity
In truth, Middlesbrough’s relegation has been a long, draw-out process. By the turn of the year the trajectory of the club was only heading in one direction and at no point have they looked capable of pulling themselves away from trouble.
It all feels a little underwhelming and predictable.
No one would have expected Boro to have travelled to Stamford Bridge and beat the champions-elect in their own back yard but the poor level of their performance suggested that the players had all but given up hope. Chelsea oozed class and they could easily have scored four or five goals.
Middlesbrough supporters will feel rightly aggrieved that their club has not made the most of their opportunity in the Premier League – they never really “had a go”. After waiting seven years for their return to the top flight they suffered immediate relegation due to a cautious approach and lack of ambition. The challenge is now to try and navigate an immediate return.
Middlesbrough have truly missed their big opportunity and supporters will be hoping that they do not need to wait another seven years before they have their next crack at the top flight.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved Mark Fletcher (Mark Fletcher)