Evolution, Not Revolution
by Dave Hearn
Blimey, that was a bit good wasn’t it? As opening days of the season go, you’d be hard pushed to come up with something as satisfying as the one we witnessed on Saturday afternoon. Boro oozed class, composure and style as they brushed aside a powderpuff Birmingham City side with consummate ease. On the face of it, a 2-0 win at home to a team that only escaped relegation to the third tier on the final day of the previous season might not seem like much to get excited about but it was the overall quality of the football on show that will live long in the memory. It was some of the most aesthetically pleasing we’ve seen at the Riverside in years.
It was no fluke, either. What happened on Saturday was the latest chapter in the evolution of Aitor Karanka’s Boro team, a continuation of the process that started at the midway point of last season and began to gather momentum as the campaign drew to a close. With Karanka now having had two transfer windows and a full pre-season to reshape the playing-staff and further develop a style of play, the team is unrecognisable from the one he inherited last November. The foundations have been laid and the progression of the team is abundantly clear.
The core of the team is in place. Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo will head balls out of our penalty area all day long. Omeruo’s reading of the game elevates him above anything else in the division and bringing him back for a full season could be pivotal to our chances of challenging at the top of the table. George Friend has matured into a fine second tier left-back who knows when to defend and when to attack and Dean Whitehead’s experience in front of the defence is invaluable, particularly when he puts in performances of the sort of quality he did on Saturday. With Leadbitter alongside him, and such a solid unit behind the two of them, there is a balance about the set-up of the side that bodes well for the future.
The team being so solid at the back allows Lee Tomlin to play the no.10 role with freedom, imagination and panache; his performance at the weekend was unarguably his best in a Boro shirt and some of his touches on the ball were quite simply exquisite.
All of this work, though, would be rendered almost meaningless were it not for a proper no.9 to knit it all together. Kike brings several qualities to the side but what stood out on Saturday was that he plays with his brain; he is clever, he looks equally adept with either foot, he is strong and looks as comfortable nipping in behind a defence as he is playing with his back-to-goal. It has been a while since we have seen a striker put in a performance of such quality. It is only when you watch a player of Kike’s quality play the lone-striker role that you realise just how starved we have been of quality up front over the past six or seven seasons.
So the team is almost there, it is merely a right-back away from being complete. The hope now is that we can add some much-needed depth to the squad, with the central-midfield positions lacking a touch of power and variation and Kike seemingly the only senior striker in Karanka’s thoughts. If we do manage to add they bit of extra quality then the future is even brighter than I thought it was before 3pm on Saturday gone.
This could well be our season, Brian. It really could.