Having replaced Tony Mowbray with Aitor Karanka in November, Middlesbrough continue to languish in mid-table with just one win in their last eight games. James Stevenson from For The Love Of Boro tells us what to expect from the home side…
What were your expectations for 2013-14?
After reducing the wage bill in the summer by offloading high earners it was a case of trying to use the resources we had available wisely and bringing in players that would make us competitive and challenging in and around the play-offs. That was always the goal for this season. We had the nucleus of a good side last season we just needed one or two new players that would add a bit more quality going forward.
As it turned out we brought in a few new players and the fact that only one of them shone (Albert Adomah), while the team as a whole didn’t, resulted in the end of Tony Mowbray’s reign. Aitor Karanka has come in and we’ve definitely improved, perhaps not greatly, but we have seen the team playing more as a unit and, until our recent goal drought, we looked to be heading towards the play-offs again. Sadly that doesn’t look like a possibility now but a top 10 finish is certainly achievable and a top-half finish is probably about what I and other fans should have hoped for before the season began. If we get that we will definitely have a platform to build on next season.
What is the fans’ general opinion of Aitor Karanka?
I’m not sure there is a general consensus on Karanka just yet considering he has only been here three months, with results and performances quite varied. We can see what he has implemented since he arrived, what he is trying to do and how he wants the team to play. But it’s hard to know if he has exactly the right personnel for the system he wants to play. He seems very set on playing a 4-3-3 formation with two holding midfielders and two wingers either side of one front man. It has meant we don’t concede many goals, which has been positive, but we haven’t scored nearly as many as we should either.
This does make you wonder whether he will look for players in the summer who can play this system and that some players will be out the door. Karanka’s recent fall out with Mustapha Carayol suggests he isn’t afraid to drop one of our best players if he isn’t getting the desired attitude from them. Although it could be seen as having a detrimental effect on the team, especially as we haven’t got too many options in our squad. Training well seems to be the key for Mr. Karanka. If you train well during the week, you play. If you don’t, you won’t.
Have there been many changes since last season?
Clearly the biggest change has been the manager and the new ideas he has brought with him. He hasn’t changed much of the backroom staff and recently he brought back Boro old boy and fans’ favourite Craig Hignett as his number two which can only be seen as a positive because he knows the club so well and many of the players too.
He quickly made his mark on the playing staff in January with the help of his former mentor Jose Mourinho and the loan signings of Kenneth Omeruo and Nathaniel Chalobah. After slow starts they are both now firmly established in the first team. Chalobah in particular looks like a tremendous talent. If rumours are true then our partnership with Chelsea for loaning players should continue and I certainly wouldn’t mind one, if not both, returning for a second spell next season.
Karanka has made additions throughout the team since his arrival. Impressive loan singing Daniel Ayala’s loan deal was made permanent (I’m sure Forest fans will know plenty about him) for what sounds like a nominal fee. While deadline day brought us two new strikers in Danny Graham and Lee Tomlin to replace Lukas Jutkiewicz and Marvin Emnes who both made loan moves away from the club earlier in January.
The other notable arrival was Real Madrid B team keeper Tomas Mejias who was brought in to cover the departure of Shay Given back to Aston Villa. This was considered a big blow by many fans after his exceptional performances in goal. But with Jason Steele, Dimi Konstantopolous and Mejias we should be well stocked in the goalkeeper department.
What can we expect tactically?
Well, like I said earlier, Karanka has been set on a 4-3-3 formation since he arrived and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. Getting the ball out to the wingers – our best outlets going forward – is where we are most dangerous. We have something a bit different with the three options: Carayol loves to use his pace to beat his man; Adomah tricks his way through and has a decent burst of pace combined with good close control; and Ledesma enjoys cutting inside on to his left foot to open up for a shot, short pass, or long crossfield ball.
Our full-backs also like to get forward. George Friend is probably more effective at doing so and has a great understanding on the left with Muzzy Carayol. Jozsef Varga on the right, is a tad lightweight but he makes up for this with plenty of grit and determination.
The two holding players protect the back four as you would expect. But both Grant Leadbitter and Chalobah are given licence to push up field when the opportunity arises. The other midfielder or in some cases deep-lying centre forward links the play to the boys in attack and when Lee Tomlin finally gets a run in the team in this position he will be expected to link up with Danny Graham to contribute not only assists but goals too.
Who are the key players to watch out for?
Without a doubt Carayol is the player you should watch out for – your right-back will be in for one tough evening. On Saturday he tore Ipswich captain Luke Chambers apart pretty much every time he received the ball on the left-hand side. Carayol’s link-up play down the left with Friend is a pleasure to watch at times and I would go as far as to say we could have the best left-side in the Championship.
Albert Adomah was the star man in the first half of the season and he has so much quality on the ball that an upturn in form must not be far away. But Carayol has come on leaps and bounds in the second half of the campaign. We are still waiting for these two to both play well at the same time because when they do, whoever we play is going to be in big trouble.
What’s going to happen on Tuesday?
We have been beaten only twice at home in the league all season – both times by a solitary goal – which shows we are difficult to beat on home turf. Our matches are low scoring and we don’t concede many goals. In fact, the last goal we conceded from open play was a controversial goal against league leaders Leicester on 25 January.
On paper though it is the two sides with the most amount of draws in the league. Therefore it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if this match also ended level. A 0-0 or 1-1 scoreline is the most likely outcome I feel. But don’t expect a goalfest – There won’t be one.
And For The Love Of Boro is well worth a read.