On Saturday Boro played out a dour 1-1 draw at Wigan Athletic. By all accounts, it was a pretty poor effort which lacked the intensity and style that have characterised many of our away performances this season. It’s not a match that will live long in the memory, in fact perhaps the most interesting thing about it was not the game itself, but the reaction on Teesside to the result.
Not so long ago, picking up an away point at a team who’ve just changed their manager and who possess, at least some, premier league talent would have been considered a decent effort. Yes, they were in the bottom three and we had an impressive away following cheering us on but, applying typical Boro inevitablility, that usually means a crushing defeat. An away draw in such a competitive league is always a decent result isn’t it ?
Not so it appears. An overwhelming sense of disappointment has characterised the post match analysis. They were there for the taking, a club in crisis, there was no better time to play them. A month or so ago fans would have taken comfort from a game “we would have lost last season” but now an away draw is not good enough and certainly not the stuff that automatically promoted sides are made of.
I’m getting a strong sense that anything less than promotion this season will be viewed by our fans as a major letdown. Karanka has transformed the club to such an extent that the pressure is really on him and the club to continue that improvement and deliver premier league football. Unfair? Perhaps, but that’s the price of raising expectations.
So, how can Karanka and the club improve the team and deliver automatic promotion. These are the five key areas:
1. Home Rule
Boro’s home form so far this season has not been good enough, certainly if the target is automatic promotion. Only four wins out of nine games is pretty average. The impressive 4-0 wins over Norwich and Brentford have, to an extent, glossed over some poor efforts particularly against teams who have defended deep, kept their shape and looked to break quickly. Karanka can expect most teams that visit the Riverside to employ those tactics so he must find the right formula to undermine that approach. It may involve more midfield creativity and him biting the bullet and playing more than one centre forward.
2. New Recruits
Steve Gibson has backed Karanka in the transfer market and the club have largely delivered his number one targets for each position. Yet, a niggling doubt remains that Boro still lack that touch of class in the final third to undo resolute championship defences. It might be the lack of a clinical finisher or a clever midfield schemer who can pick out the crucial final pass. Money is tight in a harsh Financial Fair Play environment but I’m sure Gibson sees this season as a real opportunity to push on. He may well be tempted to roll the dice again in January for that special player who can make all the difference. Is he out there? Can we afford him? Will he come ? The answers to those questions may well be crucial in determining which league we’re in next season.
3. Cut out the Cards
Boro have picked up a stack of bookings this season. Leadbitter and Ayala have already served bans and are well on there way to their next one. Adomah and Clayton are suspended for the game against in form Blackburn. Part of the story is our systematic and tactical fouling, cynically breaking up play by deliberately stopping our opponents. That, combined with aggressive pressing high up the pitch, inevitably leads to a high card count but Boro need to be careful. No team, even one with a reasonably deep squad, can afford key players out regularly with suspensions. Some of the bookings have been pointless and petty and need to be cut out. Boro need to be at full strength as often as possible to thrive in this tough league.
4. Bums on Seats
Boro took 5,000 fans to Wigan, an amazing effort. Our away following is brilliant and vociferous but at home things are a little flat. The extra few thousand that went to the Bournemouth game really made a difference and we need to build on that. The difference in atmosphere was marked and was actually mentioned by quite a few of the players on Twitter. Good performances at home combined with some creative thinking can really boost attendances. For example, how about being able to buy a ticket for the remaining home games at any point in the season at a cost per game equivalent to a season ticket. Increased attendances will not only lift the team on a match day but can boost our January transfer budget.
5. You Little Tinker
It’s not in dispute that Boro have their strongest squad since they were relegated. Two good players for each position. The question is how much should Karanka rotate the squad to keep players fresh. Too few changes could leave players jaded for the run in, too many could disrupt team pattern and hinder consistency. It’s a difficult call for Karanka but one that he must get right if the team are to challenge at the very top of the Championship.
If Karanka and the club are successful in these key areas then Boro fans may well be looking forward to a long overdue return to the Premier League. If not, will the fans ever forgive the club for throwing away our best chance of promotion in years?
The stakes are high, let’s hope we make the right calls.