KARANKA: the first 100 games.
It is the vogue in political reporting to assess strength of a new President or Prime Minster by the impact of their opening 100 days in office.
That is when the framework of any new policies can be seen, the road map to the future is laid out and the clear philosophy of the new administration starts to emerge. The energy and zeal of the first 100 days is also when the trappings and personnel of the previous regime are removed and key appointments made. Out with the old and in with the new.
It is a time of possibility and hope and if the new man catches the zeitgeist it can fire the imagination. First impressions last. That fresh and open minded phase is when images are fixed and it is hard to win the hearts and minds if you don’t do it then.
So which that broad sheet think piece perspective in mind, let’s look back and review the impact of Aitor Karanka’s first 100 games in some of the key areas: defence, employment, foreign policy, economics, education and law and order.
Aitor Karanka swept into Hurworth in November 2013 with the season and the club on the cusp and the once powerful Mogganaut spluttering in a lay-by.
The Tony Mowbray era had started with emotions high as the local hero returned with a whiff of Holgate Bovril to repair the damage of the Gordon Strachan Caledonian cul-de-sac. The Great Tartanisation had failed and Strachan had spent all the money and left the team demoralised, low on quality, unbalanced and heading for relegation.
Mowbray did some important work behind the scenes, balancing the books, rebuilding the infrastructure and the fractured relationship with fans as well as signing some good players who are still in the first team now.
But on the pitch it didn’t quite gel. The first year there soaring hopes and significant progress as Mogga reorganised, re-energised and got the team performing. But as time wore on the side lost momentum and twice fizzled out in the final straight. There was no fixed shape or system and quick-fix signings were hit and miss while he was hampered with the toxic legacy of the Strachan years in the wage bill and on the training ground.
Then after his one summer of spending his side stalled at the start. It was “his” side for the first time and while they could score they couldn’t defend. They couldn’t hold on to a lead. Self-inflicted goals were flooding in and there was no confidence in the team or in the crowd that they could get a point even with a two goal cushion.
The Spaniard came in with an interesting background in the Spanish FA youth set-up and a spell as Jose Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid but no experience in the top job. It was a risky appointment but he came with a pedigree. He had the option of joining Premier League Crystal Palace but preferred the project at Boro and saw more potential.
And he set about establishing his authority and ideology quickly. Aitor soon defined his image: a disciplined uber-coach with a definite shape, system and philosophy who demanded everyone in the club subscribed to a culture of excellence.
It was my way or the highway and those that didn’t buy fully into the project – on or off the pitch – were quickly weeded out as he started to reshape the club in his own image.
Karanka swiftly set about building his own loyal power-base and command structure.
Within days his backroom staff arrived at Rockliffe, speaking Spanish and carrying laptops: analysts, fitness and conditioning coaches, a wild looking goal-keeping coach/cheerleader.
The old apparatus was dismantled and Mogga’s men left quickly. The coaching staff were dismissed, the entire training regime radically restructured and youth team boss Jamie Clapham was initially made assistant – taking a leaf out of Jose’s book an appointing a domestic sidekick who knew the nuances – but he was then equally quickly edged out when it became clear he wasn’t on the same page tactically.
Former assistant Mark Venus, briefly caretaker boss, was left in limbo for six months before he too was cut adrift. He had been promised a role of some sort but was kept at arms length from the team and estranged from day to day involvement. And as time wore on new sports science, medical and scouting departments were established.
Karanka quickly set out his methodology and ideology and soon the key policies of the new administration became clear.
Defence was key
That was true on day one and it holds true now.
The new boss – a Champions League winning centre-back with Real Madrid – made no bones about his emphasis on a rigid rearguard, high pressing and he demanded collective effort and non-stop industry from the front to stop the opposition.
The fledging work on defence policy then is bearing fruits now 100 games on with Boro – who the best back-line in the Championship last term – having the most miserly record in all English football in this campaign with just six goals conceded in 10 games this term. In his first 100 games, Karanka’s side have kept 45 clean sheets, which is incredible.
That fundamental shift in emphasis came at a price in the short term though as the goals that had flowed freely under Mowbray – at both ends – quickly dried up. In fact, as the new outlook took a fierce grip Boro went through a Biblical spell of goal drought that tested fans’ patience as a run of six clean sheets at home overlapped with a club record run of seven-and-a-half games without scoring: 12 hours and 14 minutes of goalless grind.
Karanka wanted his ideas and shape to be ingrained in the team and preferred high-tempo front men ready to press high and chase down defenders and run and run rather than more natural strikers who may have more technique or trickery and instinct in the box but lacked the work-rate he demanded. So it was Curtis Main and on-loan Danny Graham ahead of Marvin Emnes and Lukas Jutkiewicz, both soon farmed out on loan.
And that policy remains, although there has been an upgrade of the component parts with tireless David Nugent his first choice frontman now. Of course, Karanka, has the luxury of now buying players like Nugent, Stewart Downing or that suit and improve his team.
There is no doubt his regime has benefited greatly from an economic boom over the course of his first 100 games, a statistical breakdown of which you can read here .
The significant market muscle brought to bear by the chairman – a net spend of £12m this summer is a massive statement of intent – will decide exactly where Karanka takes the club from here. It gives him a huge advantage in trying to achieve his goals and you can forgive Mogga a pang of regret at not having the same resources available.
But the fact he has transfer clout now shouldn’t be allowed to disguise the excellent job of underpinning on the cheap he did in his first half season. It was not cash that transformed the unbalanced team in his first few months. There were a few loan tweaks, yes, Shay Given, Kenneth Omeruo and Danny Graham played important roles at various points as the season unfolded, but it was tactically and mentally that Boro changed.
Last summer’s relatively modest spending moved on from a quick-fix framework to having a promising look of solidity but was again largely dependent on loans on key areas.
Now Karanka has made some massive investments in squad infrastructure in a bid to make the Great Leap Forward that will determine his legacy.
There was some initial raised eye-brows and concern (some of it couched in mildly xenophobic terms about being ‘swamped’) after his early hints he would bring in hot prospects he knew from the Spanish big boys’ B teams.
It was assumed that Boro would tap into the Spanish market and indeed Damia Abella, Emilio Nsue and Kike arrive din his first full summer transfer market. But the boss is a pragmatist and he had quickly realised that youngsters, no matter how talented, would be mincemeat in the attritional physicality of the Championship and mooted moves for teenage talent in Spain were swiftly shelved.
But that didn’t deflect him from recruiting players he knew. So long as they added to the skill-set and met his exacting standards and he thought they could bridge the culture gap. And so the Riverside has quickly taken on a distinct Spanish accent with more than enough players to add a few more verses to the song: Kike Garcia, Dani Ayala, Tomas Mejias, Cristhian Stuani, Carlos de Pena and Fernando Amorebieta while if Diego Fabbrini is in the musical mix despite being Italian, so why not Michael Agazzi?
Law and order
This is always a political hot potato in the first 100 days of any administration and Karanka has not ducked the issue. In fact, his no-nonsense approach to professional discipline and the absolute demand for excellence has been central to imposing his ideology on the squad and throughout the club. Everyone has heard the tales of scouting reports being sent back for spelling mistakes. The bar is set very high at the club.
But there have been plenty who have suffered for not buying into the ethos, for cruising, for not continually striving to improve, for questioning the direction of travel or for being seen to cross the boss and his zealous approach.
And if you are not on the same page as the boss on the big issues of tactics and training and selection then chances are the tale will not have a happy ending.
Jason Steele was frozen out and moved on after a first day keeper clanger and not getting on board with the regime change. He was injured and missed the cultural shift in training and never really got to grips with the new regime; Craig Hignett left because he wasn’t singing from the same hymn sheet amid lurid tales of a bust-up; Muzzy Carayol was publicly blasted for “a bad attitude” and dropped then after his injury struggled to prove he had bought into with the new ethos; light-hearted Kei Kamara was doomed from the off after turning up at work in his Tigger onsie with a film crew in tow; and Albert was put on the naughty step after a frank exchange of views and a transfer request and while he is back in the fold you imagine the issue is not forgotten..
Many bosses, and some very successful ones, have the same hard-line approach. Tough discipline doesn’t always work in football (and less so in real life) but if the personality blend is right, the squad is receptive from the off, if the ethos is supported higher up, if results go well and a sense of progress on and off the field is evident, then it can underpin great success for a club. It takes all the ingredients to make it a work.
Right now, that seems to be the case. Crucially the players know where they stand, what the demands are and understand what the sanctions will be. And if things are going well, they respond to intense training and demands for high standards and success. Every time you ask the players they are buzzing over their working environment and while Aitor is a tough taskmaster they all appear sincere in their praise for his training and vision.
There is no question that many key Boro players have flourished under Aitor’s administration with Adomah and George Friend probably the best examples of that incremental improvement.
That has been the real secret of success. Slow, steady, progressive incremental improvement. And not just by individuals but also within each unit, between each unit and the team as a whole. The team, the squad, are mentally and physical stronger and are tactically coherent. Every team at every level plays the same style. The backroom is scientifically sharper, the medical and conditioning staff better and preparation for every game is meticulous. There is an energy about the club that can only bode well.
Aitor Karanka is in the process of creating a club with a strong DNA and a culture of excellence and hard work that everyone “from the chairman to the tea lady” shares and contributes to. That was the chief plank of policy laid down on day one. Now 100 games later we are seeing the fruits of that.
Who knows where we will be after 200?