FOOTBALL is a numbers game: the comfortable victory over Reading made it three wins on the spin, three clean sheets, nine points from nine, six points off the play-offs… they are great digits to wave goodbye to a traumatic 2013 that has been dominated by a long downward spiral of negative numbers that led to Mogga’s P45.
Boro now have 36 goals. Only the top two Derby and Leicester have scored more. Of course, scoring goals was never the problem. Even under Tony Mowbray Boro were rattling the goals in: threes, fours, a cluster of 2-2 draws. The problem was keeping them out and no matter what combination of players were used, goals were seeping through – especially from set-plays deep in the red zone. Being two goals up wasn’t a guarantee of a point.
But the ever open door that was Boro’s Achilles heel has slowly creaked shut under Aitor Karanka.
Boro have had eight clean sheets in 2013 and four of them have come under the new boss. And, crucially, three of them have come on the bounce, each more confident and composed than the last as battling Boro start to develop a rigid defensive mentality. ¡No Pasarán!
From the off the manager has made it clear that the porous rearguard was the chief problem and several time his frustration bubbled over. But with every week Boro have become more organised, more compact, more coherent as a unit.
The early faltering progress was pock-marked with mistakes and set-backs as late lapses cost Boro points but results aside, there was inching progress as the new methodology started to germinate on the pitch.
Boro have slowly started to defend as a unit. They have slowly got to grips with the new shape, the new style, the new high tempo pressing and the collective responsibility to defend. With a The new mentality has been evident in the festive trio of triumphs.
At Millwall it was scrappy and nervy in atrocious conditions and against very poor opposition that did their best to hoof any semblance of flowing football out of the game but Boro coped well with the direct approach and held on against a late bombardment.
Against Burnley a steely cloak of organised industry was thrown over the midfield battle-zone that quickly stifled the then table-toppers’ attacking options and left an in-form team looking blunt and limited before Boro ground down and cracked e Clarets defence to nick victory.
And against play-off pretenders Reading, a confident Boro looked far more convincing in their collective defensive capacities. They were as hard to penetrate and as ruthlessly patrolled in as the North Korean border.
What was once Boro’s weakness – a dysfunctional defence – has slowly and steadily been converted into a burgeoning strength. So what exactly has changed? The personnel are largely the same. The shape is largely the same. But the mentality has been transformed.
The chief difference is that Boro are now tuned in to defend as a unit and far higher up the pitch.
Under Tony Mowbray Boro often ‘conceded possession’ and gave the ball to an opposition who had banked up to defend in order to draw them out and create space behind them to exploit with swift breaks forward, and at times Boro proved potent doing just that.
But it also invited pressure and allowed the opposition to play long balls into the box where Boro were often the architects of their own downfall. It gave the opposition time on the ball and often allowed them to dictate the pace of the game and left Boro chasing the game if they went back..
Then they would patiently pick from side to side and probe then come back and start the midfield ‘windscreen wiper’ passing again, allowing the opposition to drop back and making it difficult to break down and frustrating to watch. It also meant they committed men forward and left them vulnerable to a quick break onto a long ball out.
Boro have ripped up that template completely. Aitor Karanka has imported the Spanish style of high tempo pressing deep in the opposition half. It is now quite Borocelona but the changein approach has been marked and is slowly starting to bear fruit.
Karanka has encouraged his team to close in on opponents quickly in midfield and push further forward and his defence to get into tackles a lot higher up the pitch and harrass, hustle and snap at them as soon as possible to prevent them getting forward and putting in crosses.
It has an added bonus that if they miss a tackle of give away a foul it is 40 yards out rather than on the edge of the box so there is either time for team-mates to cover back or the dead-ball is in a relatively harmless position.
And that is also why he tends to sets out with two combative midfielders sitting slightly deeper (usually Grant Leadbitter alongside either the fast improving Dean Whitehead or the Dormo Destroyer Richie Smallwood), which is a shape that adds solidity in the engine room but takes away some of the creative edge. It has meant, for instance, Jacob Butterfield, perhaps the most inventive and slick of the midfielder, being confined largely to the bench.
It appears to the English eye to be a conservative and defensive formation but it provides a steady platform for the team to stifle the opposition and knock them out of their stride while pushing play into areas where Boro can hurt them.
There has also been a tweaked role for the full-backs. That has been a significant change.
There is far less of the eye-catching cavalier twin pronging over-lapping from full-backs to provide width and extra bodies in attack that characterised the Mowbray assertive ethic, a trait that had a built in flaw as so often a team would counter when a Boro attack broke down by simply pushing the ball into the acres of space where the full-back should be.
From there a marauding forward, even a not very good one, had time and space to either put in a cross towards a defensive at least one man down or cut inside for a shot. A frightening chunk of Boro’s goals against column came via that most basic of routes.
Now the full-backs – and especially the offensively inclined George Friend – have had their wings clipped and their attacking instincts reigned in. They now only rarely wander past the halfway line and that space down the flanks is not there to be exploited so often. Their primary job now is to defend and especially cut out the crosses. The flapping back door has been secured.
And especially – and most obviously – Karanka has encouraged his forwards to press quickly, racing sharply to close down defenders in possession before they can pick out an area to knock the ball forward into.
Defenders (especially in this division where there is a high carthorse count) tend to be less comfortable on the ball and so under pressure they are more likely to make a costly mistakes. The point of pressing high up is to do just that, force them into mistakes in dangerous areas. It they can be badgered into a stray pass or forced into a stumble or a panic-struck attempt to turn or trick out of trouble they can be mugged in areas where suddenly having possession gives Boro a shorter and faster route into the danger-zone and to create a chance.
But such a style demands pace and relentless work-rate from then men up front. They are the ones who really make it tick. They can prevent long balls forward. They can stop teams carrying the ball out of defence. They can stop the keeper rolling it out and forcing poor kicks. They can unsettle teams, spread fear and jitters and exploit what is often the weak link. But it is demanding, which is why so often they are substituted just after the hour as they start to flag.
In the likes of Albert Adomah and Mustapha Carayol – and as we have seen of late, Ledesma too – Boro have pace to burn when it comes to closing the full-backs and the work-rate of both currently crocked Kei Kamara and raw but energetic Curtis Main as frontmen suit that style to a tee. The number of times Boro rob a sluggish back or latch onto a stray pass played under pressure is the most telling feature as the new style starts to stick.
It is now taking root across the team. Just look at rejuvenated former flyweight frustrating flanker Ledesma. In the past he was a Fancy Dan, flashy feet in fleeting cameos but too often a passenger when the team did not have the ball and not one to be praised for his work-rate. Presumably that is why he had more clubs than goals on his CV
Now he is a man possessed. He tracks back 20 or 30 yards to put in blocking tackles, he covers every blade of grass, he drops deep to collect passes, he offers support, he joins in Boro’s steaming posse to rob opponents, he closes down, he slots into gaps to keep the shape solid. He is a different man. He is “like a new signing.”
The second goal – Leadbitter’s sizzler – came directly from his intervention as he spotted a Varga pass down the right flank would be cut out and almost before the Reading man had taken possession our hero was in there snapping and jostling and he stole the ball before cutting inside and squaring to set up the shot.
Even Marvin Emnes has been putting himself about, crashing into tackles, tussling with man-mountain centre-backs and shoulder-charging defenders. Opposing managers have even complained about him “putting himself about” and fouling. Sean Dyche of Burnley compared him to an NFL linebacker after he blocked the run of defender letting the ball run free for Ledesma to collect and carry and crash home.
That is the real sign of Boro’s fundamental change. The more physical edge allied with a desire to get a challenge in quickly. And because of that approach Boro are winning more 50/50s, more second balls and seeing more of the breaks fall their way in dangerous areas.
The defensive solidity, the work ethic and the will to win starts from the front.