BRIGHTON rocked. Twice. Boro soaked up the pressure – and rode their luck at times – then broke out to score two well worked goals. Keep it clean, take the chances: that is exactly what Aitor Karanka has been working towards. The 2-0 win was a glimpse of a new improved Riverside recipe… now with added goals!
All the basic ingredients of our favourite football-based brand of soul food have been there for months At times the no-frill functional fare has been stodgy and far from mouth-watering.
It just needed some fine-tuning and some seasoning with the most important and tasty ingredient of all: goals.
Adding a few of those to the mix makes the Karanka recipe far more satisfying,
At Brighton, Boro finally delivered exactly what the boss has been working towards: hard work at the back combined with real teeth when they broke forward.
It still wasn’t a gourmet performance – there were some rocky moments at the back and an hilariously awful Seagulls penalty miss – but there was far more fluidity going forward and a coherent lively link between the defence and the sharp end was far more evident.
Boro beavered away to soak up the pressure then scored well worked goals on the counter with much maligned lone targetman Danny Graham making one and scoring one after another hard-working display up front.
They looked composed and organised at the back and swift, confident and potent going forward. They looked like a decent team in all departments, and it looked like every unit was working in unison.
It has taken a while to get there but the signs are that Boro are starting to get the balance right. The team Karanka wants is starting to evolve.
When the Spaniard arrived he was faced first and foremost with the task of plugging the gaps. Tony Mowbray’s side were scoring but they were leaking almost two a game, often in calamitous and chaotic circumstances.
At times their faces were as red as their shirts: two in the first 10 minutes at home to Bournemouth, an implosion at Ipswich, two to lose a commanding lead at Forest. Late goals were leaked on almost a weekly basis, usually from set-plays.
The creative intent going forward in numbers left massive spaces at the back and when attacks broke down Boro were repeatedly sliced open with quick counters down the empty acres where the full-backs should have been. It came to a head with three slapstick final nails in Mogga’s coffin in a farcical first half at Barnsley.
It is hard to believe that this new-look side could ever leak three goals in a single half.
Karanka set about eliminating mistakes, drilling a regimental, rigid rear-guard and instilling a conservative mind-set and industrial work-ethic in a pair of midfield anchormen. The once cavalier full-backs were pegged back to plug the gaps on the flanks to deny the opposition space, time and the width for crosses to come in.
Meanwhile the strikers were urged to defend from the front, closing quickly on opposition defenders to force mistakes, prevent them building from the back and to win back possession early and in dangerous areas. The sight of Curtis Main tearing into full-backs, or Marvin Emnes lolloping in their general direction or Lukas Jutkiewicz working hard but being bundled over in the channels became a familiar part of the template.
When the bits at the back fell into place, a new miserly Boro started to emerge. Boro cut out the mistakes, became organised, mentally strong and water-tight. That was the first part of the Karanka game plan: become hard to beat.
And boy, did Boro become hard to beat. They started to rack up clean sheets: four in a row at home, three in a row away, eight out of ten… now 12 in 19 league games. That is impressive on any level and is a solid platform to build on.
Of course, a clean sheet may give you a point but it doesn’t win you games. Goals win games – and goals became a rarity. That was – is – the problem
Having shifted the mental and philosophical balance towards defence, Boro were found lacking up front. And while the impressive stats stacked up at the back, some damning numbers mounting at the business end. Boro went through an eight game, 12 hour goal drought that saw the season shrivel and confidence drain away.
There was – and is – widespread muttering about the tactical approach of playing with just one up front. These tactics can never work, said the critics. You can only get out of this division playing with two strikers. Look at Leicester and Burnley.
But these tactics were integral to the best run of the season as Boro took 16 points from 18 over Christmas (and beat Burnley) and into the most productive January in a decade.
And while the tactics are not the swashbuckling style most fans crave, and probably ultimately what the manger would really want, they do create chances… but not taking them was the chief reason that wins turned to draws, momentum was lost and morale wavered.
But the team was still doing the basics right. They were still solid at the back, worked like Trojans in midfield and defended as a unit. It was just that the goals wouldn’t go in.
And it was not that chances were not being created. Until recently Boro had clocked up the third highest number of shots in the Championship – although too many of them were off target, powder-puff or from long range and easily saved.
They hit the post from three yards, keepers proved to be on song, balls were cleared off the line… it seemed Boro had lost the knack of putting the ball in the net.
Even when they did – as with Jacob Butterfield’s ghost goal at Hillsborough – the goal was ruled out. Or, when they got their noses in front a quirk of fate intervened: a punched leveller against Forest or a bottle-top bobble against QPR.
Clearly, with the defence addressed, Karanka has needed to resolve the lack of firepower.
That was his aim on deadline day as he shipped out two players who seemed unable to play the way he wanted and were failing to convert chances. Jutkiewicz, in a different system, is suddenly a prolific poacher who is taunting us with his Bolton goalrush but that shouldn’t airbrush the memory of spurned sitters, wayward shooting and being routinely bundled aside. Like wise, Emnes may have played in the Europa League – briefly – since leaving and has his qualities but they were not a good fit with the Karanka style.
Danny Graham came in and has worked hard to settle in the very demanding lone striker role. He has beavered away and earned praise from his team mates even if the fans have been far from convinced. Unseen work off the ball doesn’t spark terrace chants.
It has been difficult to get the combination behind Graham right to bring the best from him and various options have been tried, although injuries and spells in isolation have made it tricky to get a settled trio as the manager has chopped an changed in a bid to find the right blend, much as he did at the back.
But in recent weeks both Butterfield and Lee Tomlin have added a bit of creativity in the “number 10” role behind the frontman in flashes. Both are more comfortable in that role than Grant Leadbitter or Emmanuel Ledesma. And it has been coming together. Slowly. The link-up play has been more fluid, the movement more incisive. That combined with the Trojan work-rate of Graham has given Boro added zest in the final third, even if it has yet to deliver goals consistently.
At Brighton the balance between defence and attack seemed right. The transitions between them were smooth. The team was well drilled. And Boro looked good on the break without being too gung-ho – both Luke Williams and Tomlin had good efforts well saved in the first half while twice Albert Adomah broke through but shot when a better pass was on – and the attacking movement was not at the expense of the solid shape.
And both goals were well worked, combined quick movement, hard work and determination. The opener came as pressure from Graham forced defender Greer into a stumble over a ball played down the inside left channel and the striker was quickly onto the loose ball to sweep an inviting ball across the face of goal for Albert Adomah to shrug off a challenge stab home his twelvth goal of the season from close range.
And it was sealed after Luke Williams drilled in a good low ball and when a defender cut it out but failed to control, alert Grant Leadbitter latched onto it and slotted it diagonally into the box for Graham to dart forward and lash it home. Two finely crafted team goals and well finished. They were accomplished moments in an encouraging display.
Brighton in contrast had a lot of passing and possession and probing but rarely had a clear sight of goal. They passed from side to side with metronomic precision but without a snarl. There was a Mowbrayesque air about it. Forster-Caskey caused problems for a spell after coming on but his early flashing feet were quickly shackled and the Seagulls gradually got longer and more more direct and that was dealt with routinely. The penalty was sloppy but the miss illustrated the stuttering Seasiders’ lack of cutting edge.
It would have been hard to say which of the teams were play-off contenders. On balance, on intent, on threat, on organisation, on work-rate Boro were the better side, as they were for long spells against QPR last week.
But taking those chances is key to turning that progress into points over a sustained spell and shrewd recruitment up front in the summer is needed to turn a work in progress into a side capable of a decent crack at the play-offs
And if Boro can serve up a few more tasty shows like that in the final few fixtures it will whet the appetite for next season.