I’ll start by being completely honest – when I arrived at the stadium and heard the team Karanka had selected to start this one, I wasn’t best pleased. To leave out Ben Gibson and Curtis Main after they’d both put in such good performances at Millwall on Saturday evening seemed incredibly harsh on the two young lads but, given that we’ve emerged from a game against a team that went into proceedings at the top of the table with three points and another clean-sheet in the bag, El Gaffer has been completely vindicated in making those changes and left me feeling slightly foolish for questioning his wisdom.
It was clear from the way we started the game that we were well and truly up for this one, which hasn’t always been the case at the Riverside this season, and it made for a really enjoyable opening period. We got into them, we pressed them, we played with a strong sense of purpose, we moved them around the pitch almost at will at times and we showed absolutely no fear in going about our business. Some of the football we played was a pleasure to watch; Emmanuel Ledesma was a constant threat down the right-hand side, cutting in onto his stronger left foot to thread a pass through or have a pop at goal on numerous occasions. Magic Marvin strolled around in the way that only Magic Marvin can, holding it up well and occupying enough of the opposition to allow our other attacking lads to do their stuff in threatening areas. Adomah was a nuisance for us down the left as their right-back, Kieran Trippier, grew to realis it made little difference whether he showed him the inside or the outside because Adomah would beat him regardless. Lukas Jutkiewicz gave us a great outlet also, winning most of the battles with their centre-halves before tiring late in the second-half.
The first half-an-hour, considering we were playing the league leaders, a team that had only lost two league games prior to their trip to Teesside, was probably the best I’ve seen us play this season. Our passing was very easy-on-the-eye, it was incisive and the speed at which we were knocking it around left the Burnley lads with very little time to prevent us creating plenty of chances; Adomah almost got onto the end of a delightful Ledesma cross, Jutkiewicz almost headed home yet another lovely cross but was about an inch too short to make it count. Ledesma lashed one just wide and went fairly close with a well-struck free-kick. The Argentine also played a sublime pass to set Adomah free down the left – as sterling passes go, this one wouldn’t look out of place alongside Dean Whitehead’s Xavi-esque effort against Bournemouth earlier in the campaign. That’s how good it was. It was absolutely no surprise when we did get our goal, and even less of a surprise that it came from Ledesma again. He was given far too much room, or maybe he made the room for himself, who knows, but he had enough time and space to get his head up and blast one past a hapless Tom Heaton in the Burnley net from well outside the area. It was no more than we deserved and we saw the remainder half out with relative ease, though Shay Given did pull off two fine saves from Burnley headers prior to half-time.
At that stage it was difficult to see how Burnley had got themselves to the league’s summit. Their tactics seemed to be boot it daft and long in the general direction of Sam Vokes, whose massive box-of-Roses-shaped bonce might nod something in the general direction of Danny Ings. Other than that, they seemed to be good at trying to switch the play but getting too much on it and putting it for throw-in after throw-in. Whether they were just having a bad day at the office, as they say, or whether the quality of our performance had taken them by surprise a little bit, it’s difficult to say but I’m going to go with the latter. When they did have it for a few moments, they found every long-ball they played was coming straight back at the them via the unbeatable-in-the-air partnership of Ayala and Woodgate. In all fairness, they’re clearly a well-drilled, well-disciplined and well-oiled outfit but them being top of the league, going into this game at least, just goes to show how fine the line is in this division.
As the second-half started to take shape it was clear that Sean Dyche, a man who always seems to sound like a Sesame Street character on the edge of a nervous breakdown, had been into the collective ear of his team and had them much more ‘at it’ and in our faces. They pushed us back and tried to get at our full-backs, particularly Joszef Varga, but they struggled to create anything of note for the most part. Varga seemed to rise to the challenge and flung himself into tackles and blocks like Jamie Pollock in his pomp and did more than enough to make Michael Kightly, a decent second-tier winger, look crap enough to be unceremoniously hauled off after an hour or so. Karanka sensed the growing danger and swapped Marvin Emnes for Grant Leadbitter to try and shore up the midfield and it definitely made things harder for our opponents. Karanka seems to have a canny knack for making substitutions that have a positive influence on how the game is going and that’s a pretty exciting thing I think. He seems shrewd. Anyway, Burnley pressed and pressed and tried to press some more but it did feel like it would be us who got the next goal, if anyone were going to get it, with Adomah and Ledesma running up and down the flanks and the industrious midfield trio of Whitehead, Smallwood and Leadbitter providing a great shield in front of the back-four. Adomah had a good effort that kissed the bar on it’s way out for a corner, Jutkiewicz turned his man and shot wide from a tight angle and Ledesma forced Heaton into a tidy save from twenty-odd yards out. And Curtis Main, on for the knackered Jutkiewicz, almost got on the end of a Leadbitter cross at the death.
Burnley’s best chance came in the last few minutes when they sneaked in behind George Friend and whipped one over towards the back stick; somehow, though, Dean Marney contrived to stick his header over the bar from just a few yards out with Shay Given stranded(I’ll refrain from using the term ‘No Man’s Land’ I think – it’s for the best). And that was that really; there were a few nerves around as the board went up and showed there was to be five extra minutes played but we saw things out with relative ease. The whistle went and we’d made it two straight wins with successive clean-sheets, with Ledesma and Whitehead and Varga and Main all emerging from the shadows to look like important players for us going into the new year. Whitehead seems to have developed a nice little understanding with the ever-industrious Richie Smallwood and long may that continue. And if Curtis Main can add a goal or two to his game we’ve got a proper little striker on our hands there.
But it’s a collective effort. It’s beginning to feel like Karanka’s ideas are coming to fruition; we look more solid, more professional and more productive with and without the ball. Most importantly, though, we look much more organised. The defence isn’t being pulled around at will any more, we aren’t being carved open time and time again and we’re starting to look less ponderous on the ball than we were prior to Karanka taking over. We’ve started to look like a team that knows what it’s doing, both individually and collectively, and it’s been a while, probably a good twelve months or so, since we’ve looked like that. We’ve got Reading, Bolton and Hull in the FA Cup on the horizon and if we perform in those games like we did in this one then we’ll win all three of them without too much fuss before beating Tottenham in fourth round.