Northern Sports Correspondent, The Times
First of all George, what have you made of Middlesbrough’s season?
George: "A bit of a grind, relatively solid, a sprinkling of grumpiness. They started pretty well, drawing with Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, beating Sunderland, but I’d be lying if I said they’ve been blissful and they’re in a run of one victory in their last nine league games. Aitor Karanka has attracted attention in the last couple of weeks, criticising supporters who have returned to the Riverside Stadium since promotion and suggesting he was unhappy with the club’s transfer business in January. He’s close to Jose Mourinho, who he worked with at Real Madrid; that tone of creative tension is familiar, isn’t it?"
We notice in the Premier League table that Boro have drawn most games (level with United on nine) and conceded noticeably less goals than anyone else in the lower regions - it seems reasonable to ask ‘why are Boro down there?’
George: "Because they’ve struggled at the other end of the pitch. They kept 22 clean sheets last season, but none of their players reached double figures for goals in the Championship and the pattern has been similar this time. They’re well organised and drilled and they have a sturdy defence, but Karanka’s approach is naturally cautious and they’ve struggled for fluency in attack. Alvaro Negredo has pedigree as a striker - remember all those goals for Manchester City a few years ago? - but is not the most mobile, which partially explains why Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede arrived during the window."
Below: Aitor Karanka
How do you think Aitor Karanka will approach this game at the Lane? Again, it’s noticeable that Boro have away draws at City, Arsenal and lost 2-1 at United due to two goals in the last five minutes...
George: "He’ll look to contain and frustrate, to keep things tight and to counter-attack if and when circumstances allow. Adama Traore has the pace to trouble anybody, even if his final ball has not always been reliable. They’re not equipped to blow other teams away and they’re not set up like that, in any case."
Below: Marten de Roon levels for Boro at City
Who have been the stand-out performers for Boro this term?
George: "Ben Gibson, nephew of Steve, the owner, has been fantastic at centre-half for Middlesbrough. So has Adam Forshaw in midfield. Both have been monitored by Gareth Southgate, the England manager. Calum Chambers, who is on-loan from Arsenal, has been good, Traore has had his moments and so has Gaston Ramirez, although the Uruguayan tried to leave the club last month."
Below: Ben Gibson scraps it out with Watford's Troy Deeney
You watched Spurs at Sunderland on Tuesday night - we didn’t quite fire on all cylinders - but what have you made of Spurs this season?
George: "I did. The North East hasn’t seen much wonderful football this season, so I was really looking forward to seeing Spurs on Tuesday; from a personal (and aesthetic) perspective, the game was a disappointment. That said, I’ve enjoyed watching your team from afar, and from what I’ve seen you’re where you are in the table on merit. So much attacking promise, such energy and threat. And a manager that it’s impossible not to admire."
Below: Alvaro Negredo levels against West Brom in Boro's 1-1 draw last time out
Last but not least - how do you think it will go on Saturday?
George: "I hate predicting and I’m terrible at it, but if you insist...a narrow home win. 1-0."