On Saturday, a Jacob Butterfield goal saw Middlesbrough record a smash-and-grab 1-0 victory, their fourth in succession, over Burnley. Notably, their Lancashire opponents could have gone up that day, so Middlesbrough had to do their share of defending to grind out an impressive win. All in all, the difference Aitor Karanka has made on Teesside is encouraging. Though the Spaniard has not made quite as dramatic an impact as Steve McClaren had at Derby, or Uwe Rosler at Wigan, he has seen steady progress.
Karanka has made an average of 3.2 changes per match since taking over, so he falls into the ‘tinkerer’ category. However, the average number of changes he makes slightly decreases per month (aside from the two games so far in April), which suggests he is gradually identifying his best players. Left-back George Friend has played twenty-five of his twenty-eight games in charge, so Friend is perhaps the only player whose position is looking secure. The vast majority of the first team struggle to play two-thirds of the matches - not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
|Aitor was Jose's assistant at Madrid|
The lack of pressure on Middlesbrough for instant success, has perhaps given Karanka the freedom to try out new players and different tactical systems. He has used 4-2-3-1, 4-5-1 previously, and even 3-5-2 in the match against Burnley. While formations have varied, we have seen evidence of Karanka’s preference for high-tempo, counter-attacking football. Attacking wide men and plenty of shots from range are a consistent feature in this current Middlesbrough team, which is showing echoes of Real Madrid’s playing style under Jose Mourinho, to whom Karanka was assistant. In essense, the mediocrity of Middlesbrough’s season means Karanka can approach games with long-term planning at the forefront of his mind, rather than the pressure for three points.
Interestingly, Karanka is yet to field an unchanged side. Whether this is by principle, or by player merit, is unclear. Some may criticize him for this, and the recent success of Leicester and Burnley implies that having a more settled side can be beneficial. Yet potentially, the way Karanka is managing creates a sense of healthy competition within the squad, because nobody is given an excuse to drop standards. The more stalwart members of the first team know they need to work hard to retain their place. Meanwhile, the fringe players are kept motivated in knowing they will get their chance, should performances justify it. Great managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, are known for their knack of rotating the squad effectively, and creating a working atmosphere where standards are constantly improving. Karanka seems to be trying to do this.
Middlesbrough have plenty of advantages going into the summer transfer market, compared to other Championship clubs. Their long-standing chairman, Steve Gibson, has a strong relationship with Peter Kenyon, who has an extensive contacts book. Indeed, it has been Kenyon’s work that has led to a change of regime at the Riverside. The ex-Chelsea chief executive is in close communication with Jorge Mendes, dubbed the most powerful agent in football. It was the link with Mendes that instigated a move for Karanka, who in turn, has a strong relationship with the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho. Already, we can see how these high-profile contacts are accumulating in Middlesbrough’s favour.
Karanka has already imported youngster Nathaniel Chalobah, an energetic talent who can play anywhere in defence and in midfield, from Chelsea. Likewise Kenneth Omeruo joined from Stamford Bridge, another versatile young defender, who has already represented the Nigerian National Team. Both of these players have impressed since their introduction in January, and it is unlikely that the club would have been able to pull those kind of loan signings off, had it not been for a fantastic contact list.
You might think, by making these links and importing players from other clubs on short-term deals, that Middlesbrough are sacrificing their identity and tradition. They are a club notorious for their patience, and willingness to promote from within. Will this new regime take that away?
It seems not. Aitor Karanka has spoken publicly about his readiness to introduce youth, and has backed it up with his selection policy. Attacking midfielder Luke Williams, who was on loan at Hartlepool just a few months ago, has just started four consecutive games. Defender Ben Gibson, nephew of chairman Steve, has missed just one of the last fourteen games he was available for. Forward Curtis Main had only been given one cameo appearance this season before Karanka arrived, now he has featured twenty-two times. Furthermore, the likes of Mark Kitching and David Atkinson have also been more involved with the first team squad in the last few months. The new coach has hardly disregarded the youth academy.
Middlesbrough also have a youth link with Atletico Madrid, currently at the top of La Liga. In fact, a few months ago youngsters Bradley Fewster, Bryn Morris, and the aforementioned Luke Williams, were sent to Atletico to train with the club for three weeks. This suggests that the development of youth is at the forefront of the club’s plans.
Going into the summer transfer window, the task will be to keep hold of the defensive players. The club will attempt to extend the loans of Chalobah and Omeruo, and Jozsef Varga from Hungarian outfit Debrecen, for another season. Furthermore, contract negotiations have begun on Greek goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, who is only at the club on a short-term deal. He has kept five clean sheets from a possible nine, and pulled off a string of great saves to preserve a point at Bournemouth. Since Karanka’s appointment, Middlesbrough have conceded just twenty-one goals in twenty-seven games. This is an average of just over three-quarters of a goal conceded per game, which would equate to the best defensive record in the league. At the back, it is more about retaining their current players, than bringing in new ones.
In attack, they have scored just twenty-nine goals, which gives Middlesbrough an average of just over one goal per game under Karanka. This needs to improve, so the 40-year-old needs to make decisions now on the attacking players he wants. With Ledesma, Adomah, Kamara, Tomlin, Carayol, Butterfield and Williams all capable of playing in similar positions, the manager almost has too many options to choose from, and keep happy. Add to that, Karanka will no doubt have his own ideas on the attacking players he wants to bring in.
In terms of advanced strikers, Lukas Jutkiewicz is performing well at Bolton, and will return from his loan spell. You would question, however, whether a gangly target man is the type of player Karanka wants to accommodate his counter-attacking style of play. Danny Graham has improved in recent weeks, with four goals and two man of the match performances in his last nine games, but he remains contracted to Sunderland. With the Black Cats likely to go down and struggling to score goals, the club might want to hold onto Graham.
Middlesbrough have drawn more games than any other side in the Championship. The key will be for Aitor Karanka to use his contacts to bring in a reliable, out-and-out goalscorer this summer, who can convert those draws into victories. Four consecutive wins right now though, suggests things are going in the right direction on Teesside.