5 Ways That Aitor Karanka Has Transformed the Boro

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.

I hated the appointment. Partly for irrational and emotional reasons, associated with sadness and frustration at the dismissal of my Boro hero Tony Mowbray, but for sensible  reasons too.iloveak

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:

1. Defending

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.

3. Strength 

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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34 thoughts on “5 Ways That Aitor Karanka Has Transformed the Boro”

  1. PP, I don’t normally read blogs (AVs excepted of course) as being a Yorkshireman/Teessider (albeit darn sarf) I already have enough views of my own, I know they’re right, and I’ve got better things to do than waste time on what others think!

    But nonetheless this is a good honest ‘not getting carried away but the foundations for success are solid’ review of where we are. Good reading, thank you.

  2. Lovely piece and a lot I agree with. I’d be interested in hearing you elucidate on ‘things I hate about modern management’ and your criteria for differentiating between traditional (for want of a better word) and modern management.
    I’d suggest management is either good or poor and that there is far more common ground than distance between Mourinho and (to pluck an egotist out of the air) Brian Clough.
    Or to paraphrase whatisface; all good managers are alike and all poor managers are poor in their own ways.

    1. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you Chris.

      Thanks for your comments.

      I associate modern management with the cult of personality, spin, irritating mind games and a complete disregard for authority of the officials. I never forgave Mourinho for his comments about Anders Frisk which led to that experienced official having to leave the game because of death threats he received. Ferguson was another master of that dark art – remember Alan Wiley and the “unfit” slur. For all Clough’s self promotion and ego he always preached respect for referee.

      Having praised Karanka I would say that the role of the manager is probably overstated. The situation you inherit and the resources at your disposal are the most important factors. No matter what your coaching or personal qualities, if you take over a mess and have no money to spend you’re going to be up against it. I’ll stop there before I go into Mowbray mitigation mode.

  3. So this is what other blog’s look like…..

    I’m glad to see that someone else recognizes the huge part that Craig Hignett is playing here.

    Good Cop, Bad Guardia Civil springs to mind.

    1. Yes, Craig is a far smarter cookie than he’s given credit for. He wasn’t the desperate fourth choice appointment that some suggested. It’s good to be out of your shed by the way, I’ve binned the empty guinness cans!

      1. Yes, The Shed has been likened to The Priory for its therapeutic values, the main difference being that Guinness is a mandatory part of the treatment. My long sojurns there have made me a much more rounded observer of all things Boro.

        On the manager front I am reminded of something Arsene Wenger said, “You’re never as good as people say you are, neither are you as bad as they say either”

  4. As I said on Vic’s blog a good read, I should have commented on here earlier.

    Adding someone like Craig to the coaching team was always going to happen because Aitor was El Higgio to Jose at Real. Karanka first came to my attention as the link between Jose and the rest of world during the latters super sulk at Madrid.

    CroydonBoro, it is worth remembering the words of Arsene Wenger when Fergie was getting a lot of flak several years ago from the press. You are not as good as the press say you are nor are you as bad.

    We tend to polarise opinions.

    Anthony, your next blog article should focus on the Fifa ‘ethical’ committee. Now there is an oxymoron.

    1. Thanks Ian,

      Almost all managers end up getting sacked. It will no doubt happen to Karanka at some point. Even Fergie got the chop at St Mirren. I remember they spoke to the Chairman about it after Man Utd had won the treble. He remained absolutely convinced he made the right decision, maybe he did.

  5. From the core of the soul Anthony, well written and well said.

    Now here’s a difficult question for you. Just what has happened to the pulled, tweaked hamstring epidemic that we used to have every week?

    AV should do a blog on that during the international break.



    PS The game larder is being stocked successfully too.

    1. Yes Crockliffe has been fixed it seems. I think they made a few cuts too many on the medical/sports science side and employed a few duck eggs. They’ve revamped it significantly, which started at the fag end of Mogga’s reign. Karanka is reaping the rewards. Mind you, he’s also brought players in who don’t tend to get injured which helps.

      1. It’s also a lot harder to “Tweek” a hamstring if you know you might not get back in because of the competition for places…competition is key to any squad !!!

      2. You can also throw in the fact it is no train. no play. Nor does he follow the I bought them so they have got to play mantra, only when they are fit and ready.

        Part of the problem of Strachan’s jockification was that they were never fit. Mogga took over a squad with a full team plus subs in the treatment room. The good run started when the players started coming back from injury.

      1. I just read a piece by the Australian lady, part of the Aussie FA. She wrote about how the FIFA report that was recently released was commissioned by FIFA to investigate FIFA and was paid by be FIFA !!! The result a glowing reference for the Head of FIFA.

        It’s so bad that is laughable and often just laughed off by all of us which results in nothing getting done.

        FIFA could be the most corrupt organization the world has seen.

        The next thing they will come up with is maybe bigger goals so more can be scored……oh wait

  6. John

    I tended to use Septic Bladder because it seemed more appropriate but each to their own.

    Their is also the poison dwarf in charge of UEFA.

    Other insulting names are available.

    Anthony can rovide guidance on the legal implications. 🙂

    1. Thanks Ian,
      I stick with ‘Splatter’ because he talks absolute s—- all the time, the man absolutely enrages me. He seems to be above any law and the fact that FIFA have an ethics committee amazes and staggers me in equal proportions. But he/they sail on. I really do not understand how he/they get away with it.
      You are right about UEFA, FIFA would seem to be their role and business model, is the poison dwarf Platini by any chance?



  7. Well, that was a surprise, considering your early chunterings, pessimism and general negativity toward the new regime, but I’m really impressed with the thought that you’ve put into it. I’m also impressed with the fact that you seem to have come over from the dark side.

    Although I haven’t seen the Boro play since 1968, I have followed them as I roamed around the world, stopping here and there. (Believe it or not, the daily newspaper in Iran used to print the English Football League Tables back in 1973. ) I digress; the point is that I can’t offer any of my own opinions on how the Boro are playing now versus when Tony Mowbray was the manager. I rely heavily on what everyone else on AV’s blog says. As a result, I reckon I could go into any pub where Boro supporters are present and hold my own in a discussion.

    Your comments, along with all the others on AV’s blog are always interesting to read.

    Maybe you could address Croydon Boro’s question about the difference between modern and traditional management in another blog and I don’t just mean football management. There are certainly differences and it would be good to read a thesis on that.

    Thanks for blogging. It was a great read.

    1. Thanks Johnny,

      The passion of the diasboro is amazing. Perhaps not having watched them since 1968 has helped . I dread to think how many stinkers I’ve watched in that time.

      On Karanka, I’ve seen the light I suppose. I just hope I haven’t jinxed him, Ian Gill style, with such fulsome praise.

      1. Regrettably, being a non attendee does not prevent one from being thoroughly depressed when the Boro play those stinkers and get clattered, or lose to a simple mistake.

  8. Now then PP, just as a few other have done I thought that I’d drop in for a quick gander, I’m impressed, not just by this thread but I’ve had a shuffty at the earlier pieces in the catalogue.

    I detected a thawing of your stance towards AK on AV’s blog, but I never expected a full blown ‘hats off to the man’ piece from you, if only I could drop my Yorkshire/Teesside stubbornness and admit my opinion was slightly astray now and then. Married life would be so much sweeter!

    Well done Sir, keep up the good work and as Big Arnie said, “I’ll be back!”

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