¡No Pasarán! Boro’s New Look Steely Defence Starts From The Front

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.


32 thoughts on “¡No Pasarán! Boro’s New Look Steely Defence Starts From The Front

  1. This article pretty well sums up the match today AV but you missed one integral point of the team, namely our experienced goalkeeper who organises the defence so well and even when he has a quiet spell pulls off a top class save.
    If we only make one signing during January then it has to be Shay Given who has brought so much to the back four.
    It was interesting today to see how Ben Gibson shouts and organises the senior players around him and makes Ayala such a better player (do we have an option to buy him AV?)
    I also noted how the forwards tracked back and Adomah chased down the wing into our half and with a superbly timed tackle prevented a dangerous cross into the box.
    Pleased to say that I was sat with more people at the match than I usually am it must be the Xmas aftershave!
    Ledesma is exactly like a new signing and it is down to good managent to get the best out of your players.
    Let’s hope we can go all the way to wembley and the play off final in 2014
    Happy new year Boro fans everywhere
    Fat Bob

  2. Or, to put it another way, the manager has gradually instilled winning ways to the team, increasing the confidence of the players and the crowd and giving rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    If we get stuck in to this tackle, that block, sneak the ball away and attack the opposition at pace, we can score. If, when they get the ball, we get in front of their players, block their way to goal or to the easy pass, we can get the ball off them more easily, or watch as they gift it to us. And lo! It works!
    Today was a good day. There have now been three good days in a row. There WILL be disappointing games, too, but at least we can now see games in which we sicken off the opposition, which is something we has seen a lot of, in reverse, recently.
    Very enjoyable. The first two goals were excellent. A lovely ball through by Varga to Ledesma, who crossed the ball from the right onto Jukes’ head so that he could nod it back for the onrushing Admomah to hit into the net – a really well worked goal. The second also came from a good ball by Ledesma, on the left, invitingly put into the path of Leadbitter who crashed it into the net from 25 (?) yards. The penalty also came from a run by Ledesma into the area, and Leadbitter calmly stroked it home for 3-0.
    I thought Given looked good in the little he had to do. He exudes confidence amongst a defence that had, hitherto, leaked goals alarmingly. He tells the players in front of him, what he wants them to do. We need that.
    All in all – a very enjoyable afternoon was had. Onwards and upwards seems much more realistic now than it did a month or so ago.

  3. Can i refer to all of our good runs in the Championship
    i sense a common theme
    – a keeper on loan
    **AV writes: That’s too simplistic. Who was in goal when Boro won six in a row last October/November to go top? Who was in goal when Boro won a club record eight away games in a row? When Boro twice got into promotion spots going into New Year?
    It is more about how the team as a whole functions than individuals..I am enjoying the collective man-crush on Shay but wasn’t he in goal when Boro let in soft late goals to Leeds, Derby, Birmingham? Or was the defence at fault then?

  4. What a result and a performance especially in the first half. Three wins and – more importantly – three clean sheets in a row. Great improvement.
    Let’s not get carried away just yet. But after the traumatic year of 2013, I hope every Boro fan enjoys the current results. Don’t worry about the future but please enjoy the game now. We have definitely deserved the break.
    Enjoyable football and good results. Thank you Mr Karanka. Up the Boro!

  5. AV –
    Couldnt agree more, the higher tempo, further up the pitch, pressing game has been mentioned many a time over the last few years.
    When Neil Maddison took over from Higgy alongside Mr Brownlee I wondered how he would get on. Craig was forever asking us to take the game to the opposition, to be on the front foot, play 20 yards up the pitch, pose the opposition problems rather than sitting back. He must have left his script behind because Maddo was saying the same things.
    It is still early days but the signs are there.

  6. Great result, great effort, commitment and flashes of skill. But what happened after the sending off? Why didn´t we just play as we had been all game?
    Playing keep ball across the back four just invited them on and they had their best spell up to the penalty. I noted that Karanka mentioned the amount of possession Reading had after the sending off but surely they were playing to his instructions.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted with the way we played against Burnley and Reading up to the 56th minute but I honestly don’t believe we deserved the 3rd goal. I guess perfection is hard to achieve!
    Anyway, I’m in the airport going back to sunnier (but not necessarily better) climes after my annual Xmas visit and I take this opportunity to wish everyone on the blog a happy new year. I feel 2014 is going to be far better for all things Boro but hopefully we can put a in a full season some time soon!

  7. Great post AV as usual.
    I have to say I agree with the whole Given “love fest”. Every good team starts from the no.1 and what good keepers do is act as eyes for defenders. For me, communication comes above shot stopping in a keepers armoury. Sadly thats where Steele falls down but I think with age and confidence he will improve.
    I used to play in defence for a pub team (Don’t laugh) and used to love it if the keeper kept shouting at me and tell me to Go here or go there. Fantastic result yesterday and can see the green shoots of recovery, arise Sir Aitor….

  8. There is also a downside to our run of form, we have played ourselves out of the title of worst team of the year.
    As we prepared for the Millwall match we were well place to take the title with 32 points in 2013 but three wins in a row holed our chances under the waterline.
    In the end it came down to the result at Bristol City. City had 38 points before the match but the other Boro aka Stevenage were comfortable winners with 36 points after being beaten 4-1.

  9. Boro Doug said:6th dec 10.48:
    Dear Santa,
    Many thanks for answering my Christmas letter to you. Not only have you delivered back to back to back games with no errors, no pens against us and everyone one on the pitch you even let them all be wins!
    Father Christmas, you are the man!!!
    This simply the best Christmas present I have ever had.
    Now I know you maybe sleepy, but I was wondering if you could possibly help out further. What I need now is a minor miracle but for this i might need one of the bigger bosses address. I don’t suppose you have Jesus’ address lying around some place do you? I think my next request will need his touch. To be honest any deity would be good. I’d ask for Mohammed’s details but I don’t think he will look to favourably on Boro right now. I hope he knows it wasn’t all of us and collective punishment simply isn’t the way forward.
    You have helped us out of a might hole. Hopes have been raised, standards improved and the sparkling crown of the Premier League seems much closer than a hobbit’s afternoon stroll.
    Only January to face now. It’s pretty close, so if you could dig out that contact it would be much appreciated. To go five on the bounce would really turn our season around and allow us to have a look at the league and to see what might be achievable.
    You are great Santa.
    Many thanks,
    Boro Doug

  10. What’s going on – this is so NOT typical Boro.
    When did we last win three on the trot? When did we last win successive home games? When did we last keep three clean sheets in a row? I suspect we have to go back to the 70’s for a Boro defence as sound as this one is shaping up to be.
    Reading had lost a few games prior to this match. Therefore Typical Boro mentality dictated that they would come out fighting and use the Riverside game to turn thungs round.
    Not this time. We are tentatively taking the first steps towards a new mentality. It’s early days yet but we are starting to be able to think: ‘they’ve lost the last few so we should be able to beat them.’
    Now the new tactics and new attitude are taking root, it seems so obvious. As the saying goes, it ain’t rocket science.
    Many South American countries have been playing this way for over a decade, their coaches introduced the approach to Spain in the noughties and Bayern adopted the tactic a few years ago. As Boro are demonstrating, you don’t even need top class players to make it work. It’s an approach that can get the best out of merely competent players, making 2 + 2 = 5.
    Why did Mogga perservere with tactics that didn’t work and, over a considerable period, were consistently proven to be flawed?
    **AV writes: The last time Boro won three in a row was last October/November with wins over Hull, Bolton and Charlton. It was part of a run of SIX wins on the bounce that included away victories at previously unbeaten Brighton and a League Cup win away at Sunderland.
    The last time there were three clean sheets in a row was in September 2011 when Boro ground out three goalless draws against Ipswich, Leicester and Reading. That came after a 2-1 League Cup at Palace but before that were two more cleam sheets at Palace and Burnley. Carl Ikeme was in goal for those games, scapegoat fans.

  11. Nikeboro –
    I think someone mentioned on twitter (on #borolive) that Karanka as a Spaniard does not know the traditions at Boro. His untypical Boro won all the matches during the Christmas time.
    Secondly, I don’t think our defence is playing well just because of Given. The WHOLE team is defending now including Emnes and Ledesma. As AK said after the match, you must prevent the long-ball teams from shifting the ball into your defence. But of course an experienced goalkeeper helps but he cannot steer the strikers.
    Also I said it in the twitter that Karanka is a new Big Jack – a former and very successful CB with little of experience in management. Hopefully AK will be as successfull with the team picked-up by Mogga. Charlton made tweaks and couple of additions to the team of Stan Anderson and made a top team. Let’s see if Karanka can do the same with Mogga’s.
    Up the Boro!

  12. Well three on the bounce i can get used to this.
    It will be very interesting to see if we bring anybody in. It would be great to get Given until the end of the season. It might be getting harder by the week to find anyone we could afford to improve the team.
    Will be happy with a draw against Bolton but they are beatable.
    Well done Boro.

  13. Well they use to say a week is a long time in politics circa Harold Wilson. Equally it is a different world now with the Boro basking on three successive wins.
    At the risk of being sycophantic your dissection in pure footballing terms of how the Boro have changed under AK was superb and journalism of the highest order.
    I like the way we play,efficient,economical,functional but with a purpose and clearly assigned responsibilities in the team. This team will improve and develop and that is what I want to see along with Given in goal and the rumour of an out of favour Chelsea striker coming in January.
    I also made the bold decision of buying my wife a mid season ticket, a considerable outlay and at the time a wasteful one, we had just lost to Brighton. After two wins, she is well pleased with a beaming grin as we leave the ground.How long can it last?

  14. Pause for thought.
    You might just have something there AV.
    l (amongst others) first alluded to the ‘defence’ issue almost a year ago and since that time for the most part it’s been frustrating to see little done to rectify it.
    Young Steele is not a bad keeper per se, but there is a deficit . It maybe lack of communicative/organisational savvy or something else. Whatever the reason results and general opinion tell us conelusively the defending prowess ot the team was flawed. Presently it is not.
    What is clear for the moment is how essential it is to keep this run going and if that means doing whatever is necessary to keep Given between the Boro sticks or bring in someone like him in terms of experience and ability then it has to be done.
    ln my humble opinion, it’s not rocket science, it’s simply a case of getting the right people in the right place at the right time.
    That’s the key to good management.

  15. AV –
    I have posted a couple of times in the last year, on both occasions I commented that Tony Mowbray “had lost the dressing room” you commented that was not the case.
    Obviously I had not made myself clear it was not that the players did not wish to play for him, they did but could not grasp the tactics. Talking to some of them on a one to one basis they could not understand how the game plan changed from game to game and was more concerned with stopping what the opposition could do to us rather than what we could do to them.
    Players played out of what they believed was their best position,as I said at the time ‘jack of all trades master of none’ A prime example is Varga played in mid field earlier in the season rather than in his international position.
    A big concern was the ‘airy fairy’ marking of spaces at corners and into the box free kicks the players were not keen on it. As I am sure you have noticed we are now ‘man to man ‘in the box although a certain player is not too sure who is supposed to mark the substitute. The game against Reading was the first game in many when I have been so relaxed at corners convinced we would not concede.
    What has impressed me the most is the work-rate of the players in the last two games I would love to see the stats of the ground covered by individual players in these game compared to games played in say September, October, November. Perhaps you can get hold of them?
    So to Bolton and the new ground. I have been supporting the ‘Boro longer than I care to remember and can only call to mind a couple of wins there. There is no pub for away supporters now, but a great supermarket next door ideal for taking the wife/girl friend along although I suspect they will now want watch the game and what I time to buy them one, at greatly reduced prices.
    I go full of optimism. Boro, do not let me down.
    J C Marske

  16. Very good article AV – Interesting analysis and critique on the change in emphasis of Boro’s style of play under Karanka.
    Sometimes it’s easy to say that the option is either a passing game or a more direct approach – but subtle changes in what players do without the ball can make a massive difference. The good thing about playing a pressing game higher up the pitch is that it will be harder for opposing managers to counteract it.
    Suddenly it seems Boro have a capable squad and options on the bench – players who a few weeks ago seemed destined to disappear into obscurity now look like important players for us.
    I’m sure Karanka will keep any play-off talk off the agenda until further progress has been made. OK Boro maybe only six points off sixth spot but there are still nine clubs ahead of us, so failure to win at Bolton would see that gap increase back to 8 or 9 points.
    At least we now go into each game with the knowledge that Boro are capable of winning it rather than culpable in losing it.

  17. Once is an accident, twice is unfortunate but three times is deliberate!
    As Mardy said we didn’t push on after the sending off but with another clean sheet and three goals then I guess its a struggle for any of us to find something to be critical about other than that. After 2013 to date I would have gnawed my right arm off to have three clean sheets in a row.
    There wasn’t a single poor performance, I cant remember the last time I watched Boro and had that thought, especially two games in a row. Even the Juke looked a real handful and deserved the applause as he left the pitch. We appear to have several new signings in just Ledesma and Varga but others such as Whitehead, Emnes and as mentioned Juke all seem to be different to how they were a few months back.
    We said earlier in the season that the side looked as though they were capable of better but it never happened. For me the Andreas Hinkel comments on Mowbrays time at Celtic was just as applicable when he said “Tony had the right intentions. He wanted to do the best he could and make changes to our style but he confused the players by stopping too much. The players didn’t know what to do. He would stop training and say, ‘You need to do this or that better’. He thought about it too much. The players just stopped playing the way they could. There was no freedom to their play.”
    Karanka seems very clear on what style and tactics he wants to employ with his Team. Most importantly it is consistent and not constantly being altered because of the opposition thus ending confusion and building confidence through understanding.
    We were all desperate for January to come and see some new signings. Well based on the here and now I’m not so desperate to see new signings. We can score goals despite it not being via the conventional centre forward but who cares so long as we win as a team. We now appear to be adept at defending as a team also. Maybe we should hold our nerve, keep our powder dry and see what diamonds Karanka is currently finding in his existing acres.
    I would say that I am firmly in the pro Given camp. He cannot single handedly solve defending problems nor can he he be the catalyst for us to win more games but what he does do is to lend his experience to the rest of the squad. His organisational and shouting skills are noticeable from the stands. The impact along with the others positional issues being addressed may be purely coincidental but I firmly believe they are complementary and related.
    Having experienced and model professionals around the club is important in the development of players generally, especially the younger ones. A Head Coach can only do so much in creating the right attitude and professionalism with his charges. Having Given around creates the right attitude both on and off the pitch and considering he is famed for his association with the Barcodes it is testimony to him that he has been accepted so quickly and universally by the fans.
    A minor illustration of how he conducts himself was during the warm up prior to the Brighton game. He was having shots fired in at him and he was leaping, jumping, palming shots away and reacting to the balls coming in at speed and from different angles.
    Then he raised his hand and told the lads to stop firing the balls in, the reason was he simply noticed a troupe of youngsters walking around the cinder track waving their flags and were approaching the area behind the goal. He obviously not only was focussed on preparing for the game but also had enough vision and awareness to know what was going on around him and had the foresight to anticipate that there was potential danger should a wide ball hit one of the kids.
    Once they had passed he resumed. Its only a minor thing and probably went unnoticed by many but for me it spoke volumes about the man and put alongside his performances on the pitch to date I firmly want him to remain on a more permanent basis. To build successfully you must have solid foundations.

  18. Great game, thoroughly uplifting. But one performance has not been mentioned. I thought the Duke was outstanding. Not just because of the marvellous cushioned header – from, in truth, an indifferent cross from Ledesma – but because of the way he held the ball up so well and his ceaseless running. He appeared shattered, possibly injured, when he came off but we certainly missed him.
    We’re not there yet and certainly the play offs are for next season. But we can probably stop looking anxiously at the results of teams close to the drop.

  19. Our seemingly ineducable defenders, my comment post Brighton, have suddenly passed their XI plus! And I mean XI…a team that defends together, wins together.
    How heartening to read of forwards tracking back to make tackles and win the ball, those same forwards who previously lost interest once the ball was lost. Señor K must have the gift to give belief, perhaps we should dub him Special K?

  20. Three very welcome wins but aren’t we getting a little carried away here? Post Brighton we needed a complete clear out, yet now our defence is shaping up to be the best since the 70s.
    The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between.
    Defensively we have, touch wood, cut out the stupid goal gifting mistakes that have blighted most of this season. We are also putting more pressure on our opponents when they have the ball. If you do both of those things then very few teams at this level have the quality to cause you a lot of problems.
    We remain however a limited team particularly away from home and it remains to be seen whether this “revolutionary” high pressing can transform our poor record on the road. Home teams are unlikely to allow us to dictate the tempo as Reading did.
    Aren’t we also making a rod for our own backs with Given?
    I’m struggling to work out how our limited finances and financial fair play are compatible with keeping a highly paid Premier League goalkeeper on a reputed 50k a week. The likely scenario is that, sooner rather than later, Steele will be back in goal and the dalliance with Given will have heaped a whole load of pressure on him.
    When he does return every minor error will be magnified and pounced upon. He will be unfairly compared to a goalkeeper who is vastly more experienced and blamed for goals that are not his fault. It may well set him back significantly. I hope not as he’s one of our prize assets and certainly good enough to have kept three clean sheets against our toothless recent opponents.
    Our pick up in form has also reduced fears of the drop so thankfully we are not approaching the January window in panic mode. It’s possible therefore that the main focus will be trying to trim the squad. Clearly Leutwiler, Parnaby, Richardson, Halliday, Haroun and Park are not in Karanka’s plans and need to be shipped out to free up squad space and a bit of cash. Although I’m not sure who’d want them.
    I hope that incoming players will be kept to a minimum to reflect the fact that the squad Karanaka inherited is nowhere near as poor as some claimed.
    The transfer dealings of the previous regime were mocked by some on here yet, if you include Ayala, five of the team that finished Sunday’s game were brought in by Mowbray this season : Varga, Ayala, Whitehead, Adomah and Butterfield. If Kamara was fit it may well have been six. That suggests that Mowbray’s boast that this was his best squad was not as ridiculous as many thought.
    Let’s hope that Karanka continues to make best use of his inheritance.
    **AV writes: On Given the trump card is that he wants to stay. He has told Villa that. The problem will be persuading Villa to extend the loan in a way that makes the sums add up. I can’t see how Boro could afford more than £10k – and even that would need to be balanced by some outward movement if a couple of others are to come in too.
    I think you are right on the extra pressure that the Given situation has piled on Steele. He has only just got past being compared to Carl Ikeme and Paul Smith.

  21. I can reveal the reasons for the sudden upturn in the teams fortunes. AK and his Cardinals have installed “Soft Cushions” and “Comfy Chairs” in the dressing room. In the words of one experienced pro….”Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition!”
    **AV writes: “NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is closing!… Closing and pressing… Our TWO weapons are closing and pressing… and ruthless efficiency! Our THREE weapons are closing and pressing and ruthless efficiency… and an almost fanatical devotion to the manager… Our FOUR… no… Amongst our weapons… Hmf… Amongst our weaponry… are such elements as closing and pres… I’ll come in again.”

  22. The concerns with Steele is that he is a cloned product of the Boro goalkeeping Academy that produces shot stoppers rather than goalkeepers.
    Jason’s athletic prowess is up there with the best in terms of diving and saving shots but then so was Brad Jones and Ross Turnbull before him. All excellent shot stoppers. Unfortunately the ability to read the game, organise his defenders, take control of his box, deal with crosses etc are his weaknesses (along with Jones and Turnbull).
    Hopefully with a new goalkeeping coach there will be a different approach and new skills to be learnt. Having Given around and watching him up close both in training and in games can only be a benefit to Steele. He has a long career ahead of him and as it was in my opinion he was heading along the same Jones/Turnbull type route.
    In terms of the cost for Given it depends on what his wage demands are. With his age and his historical ties to the NE plus the game time he is getting he may be amenable to something more realistic for Boro with “bonuses” for wins and promotion etc. I would reckon he has amassed a reasonable bank balance over his playing career and would rather end his days playing and perhaps achieving something rather than bench warming in the Premiership on bigger wages and being a forgotten man.
    Time will tell but there is also Dimi to consider who I would reckon if needs be is capable of performing to the levels of say a Paul Smith at least so all may not be lost.
    As has been pointed out above most of the players against Reading were all Mowbray’s signings however the same was also true about Strachan’s Players being the ones that gave Mogga his best sequence of results. Mogga may have been correct in that this was his best squad of Players, its just a shame that tactically he couldn’t turn them into a cohesive unit.
    **AV writes: With Given it doesn’t revolve around his wage demands. He is on £55k a week and if there is a loan deal agreed he will still be on that. It revolves around how much of that Aston Villa will ask Boro to pay. If they agree to a longer loan. And possibly whether any other clubs are interested and will match or beat Boro’s contribution.

  23. I’m sure it is more complex than this, but to my highly untrained eye we now appear to be defending. By this I mean that the four lads across the back are determined and have a thou shall not pass attitude. In the past it was more a case if defenders waiting for their time on the ball so they could play a nice pass inside or stroll out with the ball.
    Several times on Sunday, Gibson found row z or hit a 50 yard clearance in the direction of the Juke to battle for it. Simple, solid, effective defending. When the option was there to retain possession he did it but not every single time and never played himself in to trouble. Previously we were trying to keep possesion at all costs and that requires a level of skill our players do not posses.
    And remember, clean sheets win matches
    Happy New Year

  24. Paulista –
    The pressing game should work away as well as at home. What we dont know is what the results would have been with eleven men against Leeds and Derby. The fact we equalised in both games but lost to late goals is a measure of defensive lapses and in the Derby match some pure bad luck mixed in.
    And we certainly should have won at Birmingham.
    Being in the oppositions face away from home is the way to disrupt them. How often have we come out at home and the opposition caused us problems. In many ways it should be easier because there is more space to counter attack.

  25. Regardless of what happens in the next few matches, that was a wonderful Christmas.
    It wasn’t perfect – the first forty-five at Millwall were dreadful, on any other day in 2013 the Burnley game would have been a draw and we had a handy schedule in having both festive fixtures at home so let’s not get carried away – but we just needed some points and some confidence. We got both.
    I posted shortly after Karanka’s appointment that I couldn’t see how he could solve our defensive problems. What do I know? They may not be “solved” – it is only three games – but he’s made a very promising start on that front. Defending as a unit, starting up top, and reigning in the fullbacks is exposing our fragilities much less and in turn the defenders are growing in confidence.
    Given has made a very good contribution as well but I don’t share others foreboding if he can’t be retained. He would be a loss, but in Steele we have a bright young ‘keeper who will only progress with games and being less exposed will help him no end.
    That takes me onto Redcar Red’s point about the Academy only producing shot stoppers.
    True, but the other thing that Steele, Turnbull and Jones have in common is that they were all young, certiainly in goalkeeping terms, when taking the first team gloves.
    I suspect that shouting, pointing and organising your defence takes confidence and experience. If we want Steele to be that kind of ‘keeper then I’m sure good coaching will help but the best thing we can do is show confidence in him and give him experience.
    I disagree with most, it seems, that an experienced goalkeeper is key to us pushing up the table. Continuing the determined teamwork in front of him is.

  26. Given’s contract with Villa expires in the Summer of 2016 when he will be 40 years old. At the time of signing for Villa he probably figured that was his final contract that would see him up to retirement. He is now caught between a rock and a hard place. Villa will not want to loan him to another Prem club especially if he helps to keep them up while Villa perhaps struggle to avoid the drop again or flirt nervously with it which is entirely likely.
    His wages plus the £3.5m Villa paid for him is reminiscent of the type of deals McClaren struck whilst with Boro: big fee, big salary with no sell on value. Villa will either have to let his contract run down with a contribution being paid towards his salary from a loan club (unlikely until 2016) or reach a Scott McDonald type agreement to enable him to move elsewhere. Should the latter happen then a large one off payment from Villa to agree to terminate the contract may open doors.
    I doubt any club outside of the Premiership would have the finances to get even near half his current wages, but I also doubt that Shay relishes the prospect of the rest of his career being spent in limbo. I can’t see any other solution other than Villa writing off a significant sum of money.

  27. If we want to keep Given but can’t afford to, why don’t we just agree to forget Joe Bennett’s sell on clause. The way he’s ripping up trees at villa park, that would prob get cover the rest of the seasons’ £10k per week.
    We’d be Given it away!

  28. So Boro have confirmed that Shay Given will stay at riverside until the end of February 2014. Good news keep on coming from AK and Boro, again. Great.
    Up the Boro – the ‘Borough is going up!

  29. Not much evidence that we have turned the corner at Bolton.
    This was a game structured around its many errors. Bolton’s were the most catastrophic, two late Christmas present goals wrapped up for us well before half-time. But a string of the most basic errors in the first-half by Friend, Williams, Carayol (twice), Adomah and, most culpably of all, Given, kept Bolton interested. Giving the ball away, or simply failing to control it in vulnerable areas continually put us on the back foot against a team seemingly determined to lose without very much intervention on our part.
    That said, there were some heartening performances. Main grafted, harried and chased throughout. Both of Bolton’s fatal mistakes were, at least in part , induced by his pressure. I loved the way he scurried to ensure that he got the final touch to the wayward back pass that was already going in. He fully deserved to have the goal credited to his name.
    Butterfield, playing up front, in the hole behind Main, kept the ball well and passed incisively ,as well as doing more than his fair share of defending from the front. Leadbitter also played very well,passing crisply and never giving the ball away.
    At the back both Ayala and Gibson produced towering, faultless first half performances. Gibson was caught on the ball in the second half, and the pair looked a little less organised as Bolton put on the pressure, but on the whole the centre of our defence was generally sound.
    Not so the full backs. Friend continues to make basic defensive errors, was continually beaten in the air by a much smaller winger, and virtually gave the game away by wrestling his opponent to the ground, off the ball, with some ten minutes left. The ref fortunately turned down what looked like a very plausible penalty claim.
    I feel sorry for Williams. He has gone from club captain ( a position he seemed to take very seriously, and which may well have contributed to a lessening of concentration on his own performances) to bit part player, in a matter of a few weeks. Here he looked lacking in confidence, though he looked threatening going forward, and produced a hearteningly crunching tackle towards the end of the game.
    Adomah had a disappointing game with little in the way of end product. Carayol scored a good goal, and put in some inviting crosses, but, for me, is still playing at half-throttle. He generally plays for little more than half a game, and exerts himself less than we have a right to expect. Where are those surging runs, those irresistible bursts of pace of which we all know he is capable?
    He is one who appears to take the pre-match warm-ups less seriously than anyone else, and to some extent the same can be said about his match performances. Is there an attitude or application problem here? On ability he should be an automatic choice, and the most potent part of our strike force every game, rather than an intermittently flickering talent.
    No doubting the commitment and enthusiasm of Smallwood, who gave another wholehearted display in front of the back four. Some doubts about his passing ability remain, however.
    Given is a great loan acquisition, but it is regrettable that some wish to use him as a stick with which to beat Steele, our most consistent performer over the past year. I cannot recall the lad making the kind of mistake perpetrated by Given today, or indeed any one of the catalogue of errors made throughout this season by the likes of Hart, Lloris et al.
    This was a hard-working, hard-running performance by Boro, and all credit to them for that at the end of a gruelling week. What has been sacrificed on this performance has been a coolness and composure on the ball that has been the hallmark of our best displays. But perhaps more important than that, we have re-discovered what it is like to put together a bit of a winning run.
    Whisper it, but it looks like we are probably too good to go down. But on today’s performance, I do not have overwhelming confidence in the much hoped for surge into a play-off spot.

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