A year ago today Middlesbrough appointed Aitor Karanka to be their new head coach. He was unveiled at a well attended press conference at Rockcliffe Park. How did he come across? What initial impression did he make? Don’t ask me, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it.
Karanka ticked a lot of the wrong boxes. He had no experience of football in this country, either as a player or a coach. His English was not so much broken as a category A write-off; how on earth was he going to get his message across to the players ? He had unfortunate associations with characters like Peter Kenyon and Jorge Mendes which quite frankly scared me rigid and his last job was assisting Jose Mourinho , the egotistical embodiment of most of the things I hate about modern management. How was this Spanish novice equipped to take over a struggling team, 16th in the league, whose players, and indeed fans. were devoid of belief or confidence?
Yet, fast forward a year and our team is transformed. In fact, only the hardest of hearts would disagree that Karanka has not only improved the club’s fortunes but has also significanly lifted the mood of the town. There is a real sense that the good times are, if not around the corner, then only a short bus ride away.The fans are excited again; Boro’s got its mojo back.
Just how has Karanka achieved this dramatic turnaround. It’s down to substantial improvement in five key areas:
In the latter months of the Mowbray era Boro’s defending was, let’s be charitable here, unconvincing. Basic individual errors combined with slack team discipline to produce the kind of defensive displays that would be shown on the Comedy Channel in Italy.
The low point? Perhaps the collective Gentleman’s Excuse Me that allowed Paddy McCourt to open the scoring in Mowbray’s swansong at Barnsley, or, my favourite, conceding three at home to Bournemouth despite the fact the Cherries didn’t manage an effort on target in open play.
Since Karanka’s arrival Boro have been, virtually from day one, very difficult to score against. Good team shape and a collective will to defend in all areas of the pitch has meant that in his time at the club Boro have been the best defensive team in the Championship. The forwards press to win the ball, the midfield likewise, the full backs get tight on the opposition widemen to stop them getting crosses in and, if the ball does get into the box, the centre backs are strong and tough enough to deal with it. Karanka has correctly identified that it is a miserly defence, not a free-scoring centre forward, that is a priority for a promotion team. He has laid down the foundations on which any successful Championship side is built.
For the first time since the Scrachan McSplurge of 2010 Steve Gibson has loosened the purse strings and allowed a manager to spend a substantial sum in the transfer market. That’s money both for permanent deals and expensive loans. It’s allowed Karanka to build, without doubt, the best squad of players we’ve had since being relegated in 2009.
In recent years we’ve been let down by a lack of competiton for places and a paucity of overall quality- not now. Although it might pain you to do so, imagine if Zemmama, Haas or Parnaby were still at the club and consider the kind of injury crisis or epidemic of Biblical proportions that would be required before they got a game.
Karanka has identified the players he wants and with very few exceptions his first choice targets have arrived. We’ve been uncharcteristically business like and efficient in the transer market for the first time in a long while. It’s paying dividends.
Too often the teams of Southgate, Mowbray and Strachan were caught between two stools. Not good enough technically to outclass opponents but too easily bullied out of a game by limited yet physical opponents. Nobody bullies Karanka’s Boys. They’re physically and mentally tough.
They can play but they also relish a tussle and a scrap. They can play but they can also dig deep and fight if needed. They’ll even take a few cynical bookings if that’s what it takes. Already this season opposition fans and managers have referred to our “physicality” and “doing the basics well”, that’s music to my ears and I’m sure Karanka’s too. All a far cry from the soft touches that collapsed week after week during that awful end to the 2012/13 season.
4. Team Ethic
Karanka is a disciple of Mourinho which means the team ethic is central to everything he does. No matter how talented you are unless you do the hard yakka and put a shift in for the team you won’t play. For Mourinho and Juan Mata read Karanka and Mustafa Carayol. Nobody is above anyone else, there are no favourites. If you don’t deliver, both on match day and in training, expect to be dropped or even sold. If you do buy into the team ethic you are likely be a key member of the squad, witness for example the change in attitude and new defensive discipline of Albert Adomah which has helped him to secure a new 3 year deal .
The job at Boro is Karanka’s first as Head Coach but you can bet that he was preparing for it for many years. He has thought about his own weaknesses and has put together his management team carefully to compensate for that. For example, Craig Hignett brings english football experience that Karanka doesn’t have , Leo Percovich has an outgoing personality to contrast with the more introverted Head Coach. In that sense he reminds me very much of Steve McClaren who brought in Steve Harrison and Bill Beswick to perform a similar function. He’s also like McClaren in his attention to detail and how he strives to get every aspect of the job right. They’re both ruthless and driven.
I love that story about Karanka sending back scouting briefs if they contain spelling mistake. If it’s not spot on, it’s not good enough. It contrasts with the reportedly more “relaxed” mood around the camp in the latter days of Mowbray and Southgate.
Of course, it’s only mid November and there’s a lot of games left to play. Nobody should be getting carried away.There are concerns that the foreign players and inexperienced loanees may not cope the relentless grind of a Championship season, particularly when the games come thick and fast after Christmas. We’ve fallen away dramatically before in the second half of a season, might we do so again? I would be surprised if that happened. I believe this team are made of sterner stuff.
Not long before Karanka arrived Boro played Doncaster Rovers at home. It was labelled “Spirit Of Teesside” night and although we hammered Doncaster four- nil it all felt a bit gimmicky and hollow, particularly as the game was played on the Friday after Tony Mowbray was sacked, a man who epitomised that concept.
How strange then that it has taken a Spaniard, who nobody had heard of two weeks before he was appointed and who had no previous connection with the town, to give us back a real sense of pride in our club.
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