He’s The Real Deal, Isn’t He?

by Dave Hearn

I bloody love Aitor Karanka I do. There, I’ve said it. And I’ve said it because at this moment in time it feels right, it really does. I mean, it’s not very often I can sit here writing something about the Boro on the back of a 2-0 defeat to Leicester City of a miserable January afternoon, as well as needlessly torturing myself by watching three incredibly turgid FA Cup games on the telly, and still feel optimistic about the next few games of football but that’s what’s happening. If I had a hat I’d take it off, if I had a cap then I’d doff it. But I have neither of those things so I’ll have to make do with jotting this down(can you ‘jot’ on a keyboard?) instead.

Karanka being given the term ‘Head Coach’ as opposed to the more familiar role of ‘manager’ may have raised a couple of eyebrows at the time of his appointment as it brings with it it’s own set of connotations but if the role of a coach is to make his players better footballers and set about moulding a squad into an effective team then Karanka has, so far at least, more than delivered on those fronts. He and his staff have taken a bunch of seriously under-performing players and turned them into a well-drilled and effective outfit in a very short space of time, as well as turning an absolutely horrendous defence into a unit that has registered five clean-sheets in seven league games. They’ve taken us from the fringes of the relegation zone to the edges of the play-off places and reinstalled a collective confidence and feeling of genuine momentum.

Pure hard work on the training field coupled with an astute approach to tactics, as well as the signing of Shay Given, has brought about a sense of freshness to not just the team but the supporters too. Gone are the days when we watched the lads ambling around in the middle of the pitch going from side-to-side and back again, the days where the striker spent most of the game thirty-odd yards away from his team-mates whilst trying to get on the end of his own flick-ons. Though we generally enjoy less possession in games than we did prior to Karanka taking over, when we do have the ball we play with an intensity and with a strong sense of urgency about what we’re trying to do. And that is thoroughly refreshing to watch. The improvement in several members of the squad is remarkable, too.

Dean Whitehead is almost unrecognisable from the bloke we saw plodding around on the halfway-line wheezing his head off after hour or so of games and is now an integral part of a disciplined and efficient midfield unit. Emmanuel Ledesma has emerged from the shadows to become an important cog in our attacking armoury. George Friend is showing signs of maturity and doesn’t gallop off like a daft horse in a daft Western any more and Jozsef Varga has come into the side and added some much-needed tenacity to the problematic right-back spot. And Daniel Ayala has come through a shaky first few games and grown into a proper centre-half who enjoys getting his nut on stuff in his own box, and it’s been too long since we had one of those types in the ranks.

In terms of the collective, well the centre-halves no longer being camped on the edge of their own box with a holding-midfielder being perched right on top of them, as well as the full-backs being in the side primarily to defend, means we aren’t prone to being carved open at will any more. The full-backs have one job to do and can concentrate on that instead of having to offer the width in attack, instead of having to try and stretch the opposition. The attacking players on the flanks now have more space to operate in and can do their stuff without worrying about what’s going on behind them and Grant Leadbitter can enjoy not having to do three and four jobs simultaneously any more and focus on getting involved in the middle of the pitch whilst trying to drive the team forward.

But perhaps the most pleasing difference under Karanka, for me anyway, is that we now have a solid platform in place and a solid base from which to build in games. Now the defence has been tightened up the lads can go out and play and not worry about there being a serious traffic accident behind them, as was once the case. The players know what they’re supposed to be doing and go out and do it without over-thinking it. A subtle change from a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 to a more rigid 4-2-3-1 coupled with the burden of being in the side to do multiple jobs now lifted from certain players means we look like a proper football team for the first time in almost a year.

Of course, there is still a load of donkey-work for Karanka to plough through. Marvin Emnes, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Curtis Main have three league goals between them this season and Emnes and Jutkiewicz haven’t scored a goal between them since August. It’s quite incredible to think we are the third-highest scorers in the division when our two senior strikers haven’t hit the target for about five months but there you go. I’m still not sure what Emnes is supposed to be and the longer Jutkiewicz’s abysmal run goes on the more unlikely a goal from him seems. If we are serious about winning promotion, and going off what Karanka has said and done so far then you’d have to say that we are indeed deadly serious about winning promotion, then it’s more than likely that both of those players will have to be moved out and replaced.

But those problems aside, the improvements made over the course of the past five or six weeks or so are startling. This bloke just isn’t going to mess about and watching the way he’s operated in the transfer market this month provides adds even more weight to the feeling that he has a very strong ruthless streak. Richie Smallwood, Adam Reach, Luke Williams and Andy Halliday have all departed on loan as and despite my fondness for young Richie it’s incredibly hard to argue with rationale the rationale behind Karanka’s decision to send them out for a spell of regular first-team football.

Can it continue? Well I don’t see why not. We’ve adopted a seemingly simple yet ruthless approach to the way we go about things and we have enough quality in the side to trouble any team in this division. If we can improve on the strikers we have at the club then I don’t see any reason this charge up the table can’t continue until fag-end of proceedings and take us into the top-six. And when you consider where we were when Karanka took charge it’s absolutely incredible to think we can talk in those terms with any degree of seriousness.

As I say, I bloody love Aitor Karanka I do.