BORO 1 [Your Name Here] 0
Aitor Karanka’s clean sheet kings are absolutely awesome.
The defence – the back four, five, seven, and sometimes all ten outfield players in a orchestrated display of toe-to-toe street fighting – have created a rock solid foundation on which a Premier League promotion push can be built.
Boro went back to the top of the table temporarily by beating Sheffield Wednesday 1-0
– Derby are yet to play – in yet another “narrow “yet ultimately comfortable victory as the rigid rear guard once more proved to be completely inpenetrable.
Boro scored in seconds flat and could have wrapped up in a blistering start before losing some fizz but for all the nerves in the second half as the Owls gave it a decent crack, Boro were barely troubled. Dani, Dani Ayale headed one off the line – that’s what he does – and Dimi caught a long range effort without breaking sweat. And that was it. Another Plain Jane game and another three points in the bag. Standard.
If Boro score they win. Here Cristhian Stuani scores after 43 seconds.
I’m starting to really enjoy the way Boro put a strait-jacket around games leaving the opposition to wriggle and sweat and scream to no avail as our heroes tighten their grip and shroud all attacking intent with a relentless, mechanical, high-energy blur of closing, tackling, blocking – and when needed, strategically fouling 30 yards out on the rare occasions the victims manage to get an arm free. And when the Owls were chasing the game Aitor put on foul magnet Diego Fabbrini to break up play. Absolutely ruthless.
The well drilled team have put together an incredible binary sequence that has taken them into the automatic promotion places leaving eye-catching statistics and the pundits’ superlatives scattered in their wake.
At the Riverside Stadium the last few league results have been 1-0, 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-0 and before that, spoiling the mathematical base two beauty 3-0, 0-0 and 3-0.
There was a blip midway through that as Boro lost 2-0 at home to Everton but that was in the Capital One Cup and we don’t talk about that. Besides, Dimi wasn’t in goal for that one and it was a much changed side so we can put that safely to one side. And the results since then have shown that Boro shrugged that set-back off with barely a second thought.
Only promotion counts this term and that will come through by-hook-or-by-crook victories over our Championship peers.
In the Championship Boro’s current hermetically sealed streak is now eight games, 637 minutes, TWELVE AND A HALF HOURS… stretching back to September 15 and a 3-1 win over Brentford.
That equals Boro’s all time record of eight consecutive home clean sheets in the league.
That shut-out sequence came between November 1986 and February 1987 in the 1986-87 campaign when Steve Pears proved to be a cult hero.
The safe-hands shot-stopper was a fixture in Bruce Rioch’s first full season as Boro burst out of the liquidation coffin and cruised to promotion from old division three.
That run started with a 4-0 Ayresome Park win over title rivals and eventual champions Bournemouth and included wins over Bolton, Doncaster, Bristols Rovers and City, Fulham, Newport and Rotherham. Four of those were 1-0s and two more goalless, before people with dodgy memories weave a narrative about that side being far more prolific.
For most of that run Brucie’s Boro were in top spot with occasional slips in away games that saw them drop back to second and once even third.
The Boro defence from 30 years ago was an amazing collection of mainly young and local talent and from that group Colin Cooper and Gary Pallister played for England while both Tony Mowbray and Brian Laws made £1m moves at a time when that meant something.
This side though are playing at a higher level and look stronger. And if they can keep up the current trajectory they can win promotion, build a bond with the crowd and become legends for a generation in the way that the Class of 86 did.
Boro’s defence have proved to be the most important component of this season’s success so far – and the one that has proved the toughest tactical nut for opponents to crack.
No Paseran! Our Spanish stopper marshalls a massed defence.
All the focus is on Dimi Kontstantopoulos as the man with the gloves but ironically, as Boro battled to the record mark against Sheffield Wednesday, the Greek keeper barely had a touch. In the first half he was limited to a casual catches from hopeful punts forward and taking a few goal-kicks and a free-kick.
In the second half Boro were under more pressure as the Owls rallied and gave it a go but all Dimi really had to do was clasp a harmless long range Barry Bannan effort to his chest.
It was Dani, Dani Ayala that took the plaudits once more as the Spanish stopper cleared the Owls one real chance off the line to maintain the run.
Ayala has grown in stature this season to become arguably head-and-shoulders the best defender in the division and one who could easily step up a level.
He is physically strong and excellent in the air but his main asset is his spatial awareness.
The combination of his positional play and his ability to read the flight of the ball and the movement of the man he is marking is incredible. In all the games Boro have played against top flight teams in the past year or so he has never looked out of place.
He can mix it if necessary but he is silky smooth for long spells, a well oiled defensive machine that rarely looks flustered. The number of times he simply stepped in from of an opponent to cut out a dangerous Wednesday ball into the box was gob-smacking.
It is all a far cry from the fledgling player at the start of last season who seemed to have a mistake and/or a booking in him every game. He has come on leaps and bounds under Aitor Karanka and has dragged the rest of the back four with him.
Certainly he has brought the best out of his brother-in-arms Ben Gibson. The Teessider look a far more solid prospect when along side Ayala. Last term their stats were incredible. Boro only lost once in the regular season when the pair played together – and that was in the final away day madness at Fulham. And Wembley. But we don’t talk about that.
But this season they have moved up a gear and no matter what the other personnel of the defence is the dynamic duo look calm and commanding, read each other superbly and are never bullied. The brittle Boro backline breeched so frequently only a few years ago is now a thing of the past.
But it is not just the defence; the whole team pursue the collective goal of the clean sheet with a religious zealotry that would shame the Jesuits. They are water-tight. If Boro’s back-line was in charge of national flood defences there would be a hosepipe ban in Lancashire and York right now.
And it is fantastic to watch. Such consciously drilled and meticulously organised collective defending – Karankanaccio – is an art form that is woefully under-rated in England but which Boro are perfecting in front of our eyes . And the miserly run is producing tangible results. Boro are top – but just as importantly the pack is thinning out behind them as the underlying trends start to be reflected in the table.
Gravitationally challenged foul magnet Diego Fabbrini in a familiar pose.
Boro are now five points clear of third placed Hull – who lost 1-0 at Preston – with a game in hand. And there is a yawning 13 point gap to seventh. Compare that to last season’s summit squeeze when at times the top six was covered by two or three points.
The table has a very healthy look to it: top; joint best goal difference; fewest goals conceded; only second placed Derby have scored more – by one – in the top six… things are looking good.
Obviously, there is a long way to go yet and we’ve been here before and slithered away so there is no room for complacency as Aitor was quick to point out.
But this team looks better balanced and mentally stronger than last year and is almost unrecognisable from the thin and fragile Tony Mowbray that were twice well placed at Christmas.
Boro are strong, well drilled, have strength in depth, and they are very difficult to score against and so to beat and those are important ingredients of the promotion skill set.
The statistics are all pointing in one direction.
Beyond the mechanics of the league some eye-catching if ultimately irrelevant stats have also been floating around that shows Boro in a very good light alongside the elite.
Boro’s win over Wednesday took their total points haul in 2015 to 91 and puts them joint top with Barcelona in a table compiled by bookies Labrokes from all Europe’s professional leagues. Boro are just behind Barca in the most wins column with 29 in 2015, just ahead of Real Madrid on 28, Bayern on 27 and Manchester City on 22.
And – I don’t know who digs all these stats out – in the last 100 games Boro have kept a whopping 50 clean sheets under Aitor while Barca are just behind on 49 and leaky Real Madrid are way behind on 39. Obviously none of these things mean anything. We don’t get a trophy, not even an engraved plaque. But it does give a glimpse of the performance levels Boro are operating at now and it does give a bit of a Ready Brek glow.
Mighty Middlesbrough: today the Owls – tomorrow the world!
IT’S NOT fair! So says the boss of weary Wednesday as his leaden-legged lads come to the Riverside having barely had time to shower. And they face a Boro side who have had a relaxing nine day spa break to fully recharge their batteries.
He added that would be fair to move the game back 24 hours… not to the near 30,000 fans who have made arrangements for the original fixture it wouldn’t. Including Wednesday fans. And you can’t imagine Sky Sports would think it a suitable arrangement either.
It is an unfortunate set of circumstances but I’m not sure it is “not fair.” That implies some level or morality or injustice or machination. It is not a situation of Boro’s creation. We were all left frustrated it by it. It is just football. And you just have to get on with it. Like you do with fixture changes because of TV or cup replays. Boro have wasted two days on a frustrating and fruitless trip to Blackburn-by-the-Sea and now have to fit in a midweek game that they hadn’t budgeted for but you can’t moan. You just have to deal with it.
Carlos Carvalhal has created an interesting mental landscape for the Owls going into the game, flagging up that they will be tired and at a disadvantage (and possibly getting his excuses in early) in a way the echoes they way Steve McClaren talked down the prospect of playing Thursday-Sunday as if it was a quantum leap from Wednesday-Saturday. That may affect his players. It may be attempted mind games. We’ll see.
But if it is a con, Aitor won’t fall for it. The Owls always knew they had two games in three days and will have planned accordingly, managing their playing resources through recent matches with one eye on the trip to Boro, just as Karanka did, because until 10am on Boxing Day he too was preparing for the quick-fire fixtures.
Jinx-busting Cristhian Stuani celebrates the end of the Hillsborough Hoodoo
Yes, it gives five bars Boro an advantage in terms of energy terms but Wednesday are a good team, they are professional athletes so will be fit enough and they will be as motivated and organised as any side in the league. It won’t be easy. And Boro won’t expect it to be. We won down there in quite casual fashion and smashed an ancient hoodoo but Wednesday they have improved dramatically since then so Boro will have to be at their best. As always.
They will be raring to go and determined to make up the ground they lost in the tidal wash at Ewood Park. Derby took the opportunity to nudge a point ahead but Boro can hit back against Wednesday and pile on the pressure as the Rams – away at Leeds – don’t play until Tuesday night (which is “unfair” as it gives them and extra days preparation over some of their rivals… see where this can lead you?)
Boro could actually be down to third before kick-off as Hull go to Preston and a win against a side who are tight at the back could squeeze them into second. That gives Boro – who have lost just once and leaked just twice in the league this term – a great incentive.
That and a bumper holiday crowd can drive them on to victory. Boro are flying right now and have shown in recent games that the team is growing into the pre-season mantel of promotion favourites. We need that potential to continue to be realised.
A win – especially an emphatic one – would pile the pressure on Derby who are at the Riverside next Saturday. Bring it on.
All season I’ve been backing 2-0 and 3-0 and up to now I’m quids in. I see now reason to change that optimistic outlook and flutter pattern. Boro should remain rigid at the rear and have too much up front for Wednesday to contain. Karanka’s team probe and stretch defences and recycle the ball effectively and the make the opposition work to wear them down so if fatigue is a factor then I expect Boro to be ruthless and take advantage.
Now, over to you. Usual drill: predict the score and how the game will pan out and then every back here later to swap notes. I’m taking the Vickers clan to our traditional busman’s holiday ‘Boxing Day’ beano so I’m in the restaurant (it’s our version of the family trip to the panto only with more booing and worse jokes) but I’ll still be tweeting and stuff.