Thursday, 24 December 2015

Command, Composure And Confidence From Boro: Just In Time For Christmas

It hasn't always been easy to enjoy Boro's league games in 2015-16.

Despite regularly hovering around the top, if not at *the* top, of the Championship, doubts have lingered over whether Boro can make it count by May.

That the team's attacking qualities aren't being fully utilised, that they might not be able to fully bounce back from the most serious setbacks, and so on.

Almost every single element in those doubts was extinguished by a display of clinical, composed professionalism on Saturday afternoon: a crucial, confidence-building, hoodoo-breaking victory, the ultimate riposte to anyone who thought Aitor Karanka's Boro were simply all about stifling the opposition, winning ugly, clinging on to one goal leads and anything else associated with catenaccio.

Last season, when Boro had visited Ipswich and a promotion rival on the South Coast, they had walked away with 2-0 and 3-0 defeats respectively.

How delightful it is to head home for the Christmas season knowing that both scorelines are reversed, in performances that fully merit the scores, making it three wins out of five against top six teams this season.

(It may have been four but for Johnny Russell's late goal for Derby in August. No wonder Aitor was angry.)

In many ways, I believed Brighton to be 2015-16's Championship Bournemouth: South Coast Underdogs turned Top Dogs who seemed to regularly get the right result at the right time, with the added bonuses of an attacking style and some players who can really make a difference, including a talented Wilson up front.

A closer inspection will tell you the similarities stop there: where the Cherries scored by the bucket load, the Seagulls hadn't won by more than a single goal and had drawn too many.

Furthermore, Boro arrived at the Amex with a hugely impressive recent record at the stadium: three consecutive victories prior to Saturday, with one goal conceded.

Still, those were no reasons to take Brighton lightly. Chris Hughton's spirited side have, at least so far, shown themselves to be more than up to keeping pace with the other promotion challengers. Their until-recently-unbeaten league record is testament to this.

It was an occasion that called for organisation, creativity and ruthlessness from the men in red. All three qualities were present in the performance, the perfect table-topping Christmas present for Boro fans.

Even at 3-0 up, and with his currently unemployed mentor watching in the stands, Karanka had undoubtedly drilled a "no slacking" mindset into the team, his determination to keep yet another clean sheet passing through to them once more.

Every time, when one Boro defender slipped up, another player was ready to clear, tackle or bring the ball out in his place.

For a clean sheet is a statement of three C's – command, comfort and confidence. The less goals you concede, the more results you will get, and the more confidence will build, encouraging more openness in your play.

And there was plenty of that on Saturday. The first goal was as good as any Boro team goal I've seen this year, a string of passes featuring intelligent link play and off-the-ball movement along with individual skill from Adam Clayton and Albert Adomah.

It seemed a given that the hungry and eager-to-prove-a-point Kike would convert Adomah's cross. He later provided a cross of his own, converted by Cristhian Stuani. A resurgence worth celebrating, although we might not be celebrating it at all but for David Nugent's recent moment of madness. But that's football; one player's absence opens the door for another to surprise us all.

More surprising still was that Boro looked like they were doing a Typical Boro to Brighton! That is to say, it was not Boro, but Brighton who choked when the opportunity to establish themselves at the top presented itself, conceding at the worst possible times. All their possession simply didn't, or couldn't, matter.

With Emilio Nsue, Diego Fabbrini, Clayton and especially the imperious Dani Ayala all having notable cracks at goal, you felt Boro could score from anywhere, any time.

But perhaps most commendable was the way Karanka organised the "attacking three" behind the lone front man.

Kike, or Nugent, plays as a combination of a “False 9” and an actual number 9; that is to say, someone who can hold up the ball and run for the team, in addition to scoring goals. A true team player.

Sometimes, however, too much is demanded of the No. 9, to the point where he may be too exhausted to take the chances that come his way.

In my view, AK got around this at Brighton by playing Stewart Downing in his now favoured No. 10 role, giving Downing and Adam Clayton the freedom to pass the ball around in attack while Grant Leadbitter shielded the backline.

The offensive flanks, meanwhile, were nicely balanced: one orthodox winger to take on defenders and cross, one "supply striker" to carry the ball forward and cut inside if need be. Stuani was very good at this, especially on the break; his powerful presence on the right allowed Kike to move around accordingly in the area. By Kike's substitution, on the hour mark, they looked to have formed a good understanding.

If you then go with John Powls' theory from late November, that Nugent can be effective on the left, you have two options of a well balanced flank, with Adomah moving to his natural right in that case. Even if Adomah's not available, there's always Nsue; and with Tomas Kalas still around and with injured players to return, there will be plenty of cover at right-back.

That's all very well. But there is still room for improvement as we approach the transfer window. The idea of two wingers on the flanks as a game changing option is still tantalising: will AK recall Adam Reach or Yanic Wildschut while Carlos De Pena continues to settle in? And if he does, how will they adapt?

But that's for another time.

For now, Happy Holidays... and Up The Boro!

(Originally published online at the Teesside Gazette on December 23, 2015.)

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Why Boro Can't Let Rivals' Results Affect Them

If I could have posed a question to Aitor Karanka at this week's press conference, it would have been this.

"At this stage of the season, do you let our rivals' results and playing styles affect you personally, or do you remain wholly focused on the job in hand at all times?"

It is a question, I feel, that needs to be asked in relation to the frustration that surely enters many a Boro fan's mind when our promotion rivals' win at the most irritating of times, in a manner we seem incapable of emulating.

Under Karanka we have regularly seen fit to either win matches by taking the lead or not win them at all, while our competitors appear to either blast away teams with a swagger or pull impossible escapes out of the bag when they have looked set to lose.

Last season we managed four goals against Charlton and Blackpool at home. Watford managed three times as many. We also strolled to a 2-0 win over Birmingham, only for Bournemouth to mercilessly quadruple that tally at St. Andrews.

And when they went 2-0 down to the Blues at home later in the season, we must have thought we'd gain some valuable ground on them. Then Callum Wilson and his penalty winning "skills" bailed them out.

Something similar happened last Saturday for Brighton against Charlton - two goals in the last ten minutes turned around a 2-1 deficit just when Boro thought it was safe to assume top spot would still be theirs.

Cue potential hurt and disappointment, brought upon by another team enjoying the position of leadership that we would love to be enjoying ourselves.

How hard done by we repeatedly feel when a commanding position is snatched from our grasp by external forces. It's a Typical Boro thing.

"If they can be that exciting and dramatic, why can't we?", we may ask.

But, despite the scoreline and the way everything unfolded, I don't believe Brighton's win was all that different from Boro's, in a way.

Like ourselves, Brighton were given the chance to bounce back from a below par first half, and in the second half, they kept knocking at the door until class told, although playing against ten men helped.

I am aware that an apples to apples comparison can't be made here, as, with due respect to the Addicks, an away fixture against Ipswich is a much sterner test than a home fixture against Charlton these days.

I am merely suggesting that we need not be discouraged by how our rivals win when everything is still there to be won.

The race to join the Premiership has been very topsy-turvy so far, and will continue to be so.

Furthermore, those who score lots of goals don't always win. What did Brendan Rodgers' swashbuckling Liverpool of 2014 have to show for their efforts?

The key, I think, is to keep the pressure on everyone until it is mathematically impossible to succeed. In 1998, we didn't think Sunderland could throw away a four point advantage over Boro. But they did. And Bryan Robson's men built their success on - wait for it - a solid defence.

Perhaps it is not so much about relying on other results as laying down the gauntlet, a challenge, to our rivals. A "we've won, and won well, so let's see if you can do better" mentality.

We aren't going to win every game. And neither are they.

That's something to be remembered as we now look to build upon our superb second half display at Ipswich by giving the Blues the blues. Something we can do, and do well - because that's what AKBoro at their best are all about.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Boro Are Looking Stronger Than Ever... But A Little More Magic Wouldn't Go Amiss

As the final whistle blew at Hillsborough nearly a fortnight ago, ending a hoodoo stretching back six years, my attention turned to the man-of-the-match performance of Aitor Karanka's Mr. Reliable, Daniel Ayala.

Towards the end of last season he brought a tear to the eye for both good and bad reasons – against the same opponents. Directly after a Carrow Road victory that would do more harm than good in the long run, it was impossible not to admire Ayala's progress under Karanka.

Once upon a time, he had been erratic, inconsistent and temperamental. Now he was a tower of strength, an indisputable force. (So too, incidentally, was Fernando Amorebieta in his brief substitute appearance, which is why Karanka's re-signing of him pleases me. Although I don't know what that means for Dael Fry. Maybe AK still wants him under the radar?)

That was just one of a series of consistently excellent performances from Ayala in 2014-15. Unfortunately, one tends not to be remembered for the quantity disappointing showings, no shows or mistakes, but the quality. When Ayala slipped up, it just happened to be in the play-off final at Wembley, and the one time he was beaten in the air at Derby this season, it led to an equaliser from the home side.

It's possible that AK couldn't turn on his protege, so he turned on Albert Adomah: one of many things that led to Albertgate. Although hopefully that's all water under the bridge now Adomah's back in training this week. We'll have to wait and see.

But any fears that Albertgate might wear the team down against Sheffield Wednesday were unfounded. UTB, aka Up The Boro, became UBK, aka United Behind Karanka, as Boro pulled together and produced the away performance of the season so far.

Naturally, there were pre-match grumblings. Why Adam Reach? Why is Muzzy Carayol being sent out on loan again? Why can't AK and Albert just work out their differences? Why is Christian Stuani playing on the right wing (even though he has played there for Uruguay)? Why Emilio Nsue, not Tomas Kalas? And so on.

But those issues shouldn't have mattered, and ultimately didn't. What mattered was that the players Karanka put out on the pitch had a job to do, and they went out there and did it well. Kike, Reach, Stuani, Diego Fabbrini, Stewart Downing, David Nugent and every other red shirted player on the pitch all stood up to be counted, exhibiting a strength in depth that was amplified with another cracking cameo from Adam Forshaw.

Ah yes. Adam Forshaw. I'm sure many will be hoping that Karanka “comes to his senses” and starts him in place of either Grant Leadbitter or Adam Clayton in the next game. And I personally admit that it would be good to see him given a start against MK Dons. But I'm also aware that many were clamouring for Reach to be given more games under Tony Mowbray when virtually all we knew him for were those Reachy Rockets. We may want to see more of the Frys and Forshaws at the expense of more established players, but AK will be all too aware of the danger of getting ahead of ourselves.

He'll also be aware that we have hardly had the most consistent opening to this campaign, despite a record that pretty much mirrors that of 1997-98's first five league matches: two wins, two draws, one defeat and seven goals, with the defeat at home to an unheralded side (for Bristol City today, read Stoke City back then).

Then again, it is arguable that consistency can be over-rated in some ways.

As Len Masterman has said on Untypical Boro, fear of failure, or making mistakes, is damaging to creativity. Over-emphasis on control and the right result at all costs runs the risk of nullifying spontaneity, mystery and imagination.

Take the record-breaking Wayne Rooney. He may have been scoring goals regularly for years, and may continue to score them regularly. But what happened to those eye-popping runs, jaw dropping finishes and game-changing moments that briefly had numerous punters and pundits believing they'd seen the English Pele?

We will always welcome consistency (there's that word again) and teamwork, yet it is football's unpredictabilities, even its frustrating imperfections, that make the sport, those who play it and the clubs we follow what they are. It's what separates the Adam Claytons of this world from the Diego Fabbrinis and Lee Tomlins: we will always admire the former, but with the latter, there will always be the chance that you'll see something you won't quite believe.

This is why I wholeheartedly applaud the arrival of Carlos De Pena.

He looks like a genuine "wild card", the relatively unknown joker in the pack who might just turn a game or amaze us all with a pass, turn, shot, dummy or cross. Or maybe all five.

He's given us another reason to look forward to Saturday: the possibility that there might be a little more magic on the pitch.

And for that, I am exceptionally grateful.

Up The Boro!

Friday, 28 August 2015

Raised Expectations May Be Boro's Biggest Problem

Anthony "Paulista Park" McCarthy, one of the great contributors to Untypical Boro's comments section - joining such luminaries as Len Masterman, Werdermouth, Redcar Red and Nikeboro - made the cutting statement that "Karanka is Mourinho lite, Boro are a Diet Chelsea", before the season began.

It's a comment that may have been a little extreme, but it was effective in bluntly highlighting Boro's strengths and deficiencies in nine words.

Really, it seemed more a warning of what was to come if Boro didn't sharpen up over the course of 2015-16.

Now, having read Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Northcroft's match report and column on Manchester United's draw with Newcastle United, I ask myself another question: is Aitor Karanka, love him though we do, displaying elements of a Championship Van Gaal?

In analysing the United game, Northcroft concluded that United's class of 2015-16 have many positives: a solid defence, an organised midfield, and tactics and passing worthy of controlling games. But he also wrote that "teams who want to win titles, or finish in the top four even, need surer ways of turning the good things they do into goals."

The gist of his match report, and Newcastle's defensive showing, threw light on United's predictability and rigidity, hinting that United needed more pace and variation, or opponents would "get too used to them".

I got uncomfortable deja vu reading those words.

Northcroft may as well have been talking about Boro in the Championship: like United in the Premiership, we appear to have an enviable amount of attacking resources to go with a solid defence and organised midfield at this level. But, apart from the first half against Bolton: to what end?

We have only conceded two goals in four league games, but two very crucial goals they have turned out to be. Take them out of the equation, toss in one converted chance against Bristol City, and we may well have had 10 points from 12 instead of five. Fine margins indeed.

I wasn't actually alarmed at the last starting line-up, despite Tomas Kalas' unease at centre-back. He had Daniel Ayala alongside him, after all, and the same back four, with Emilio Nsue in to (allegedly) provide extra attacking threat, had worked against Bolton.

Even the presence of Yanic Wildschut at Albert Adomah's expense didn't appear to be too much of a problem - his pace, and Stewart Downing's deliveries from the left flank, would surely provide plenty of opportunities for the goal-hungry Christian Stuani and David Nugent.

Then I found that AK had pigeonholed them into his traditional 4-2-3-1 formation with Stuani on the right wing, Downing in the centre and Wildschut on the left. Ouch.

But there were still enough good players out there on the pitch to defeat a winless Bristol City. Surely.

Except the Robins have established a reputation as regular Riverside party-poopers.

Joe Bryan's early strike made it three wins and three draws from six visits.

Another chance for AK to prove that his Boro did not need to take the lead first or establish control to win a match passed him by, in a virtual replay of last year's home encounter against Leeds; huffing, puffing, chances, a man-of-the-match performance by the opposition goalkeeper, but no goals for the home side.

The burden of being promotion favourites is clearly weighing heavily on Boro.

And the fear, again, is that if opposition sides can weather the opening (as Bolton didn't do, and as Bristol City did) get stuck in and prevent Boro from establishing a pattern of control, they will have at least a point to take home with them.

It's worse for Boro if the opposition nick an early goal and derail their host's big plans, as Leeds, Reading and now Bristol City have done in the course of a year.

The home team's entire mentality is burdened by pressure and panic, especially if they don't equalise soon: what initially looks like a commanding walk in the park becomes all about damage reparation, a question of whether or not the team is strong enough to mentally and physically adapt.

It really is psychological, isn't it? And it's telling, I think, that none of our promotion rivals last season quite felt the pressure like Boro do now.

Bournemouth had never played in the Premiership, Watford had never established themselves in the Premiership, and Norwich had parachute payments, Premier League experience and the hot young manager of the moment.

Karanka may yet be "hot" again, but his ways are no longer "new". And the backdrop of recent prosperous history in the Premier League – more than a decade of cup finals, big names, European runs and a cup win – strongly lingers in the Boro psyche.

Furthermore, having believed that we had finally found a coach to break the Typical Boro curse, we find ourselves experiencing it all over again. It is upsetting.

To think that, when Boro were 1-0 up and seemingly on their way to victory at Derby, we were all singing about AK. A matter of footballing minutes later and there are mutterings about tactical cluelessness.

Please! I know what AK was doing against Bristol City didn't seem logical, but on the other hand, whoever said football was logical?

Big Jack Charlton fielded four centre backs, placed the legendary playmaker Ronnie Whelan at left full-back, and won 1-0 with Ireland at Hampden Park. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't.

Maybe there's logic to Karanka's rotation. Maybe he wants to keep opposing sides guessing, or take full advantage of squad depth.

That's all very well, except that rotation can create unsettling friction amongst our own players. And AK may also find, as he did last season, that too many gifted individuals want to play in similar areas.

While it's easy to say this in hindsight, playing Lee Tomlin and Patrick Bamford on the wing ultimately stifled Boro's class of 2014-15. No matter how well Jelle Vossen worked with Kike or Bamford, having all those centrally minded players on the pitch at once left Boro lacking in attacking width.

So how will AK approach our upcoming visit to Hillsborough? Bring back what worked well against Bolton? Perhaps. Obviously the cup win against Burton Albion will have given AK ideas; it will have been a learning experience, for better or worse.

It'll have to be. Because if we fail to achieve our end-of-season goals, it will not be because of recent dropped points. It will be because we didn't learn from our foibles, vices and mistakes while the chance was still there.

So let's get it right next time. Shall we?

Up The Boro!

(Originally published at GazetteLive on August 25, 2015. For my thoughts on the Albert Adomah situation, click here.)

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Brilliant Boro Can Leave Derby In A Daze

On Saturday afternoon, thousands of football fans marched into the Riverside Stadium with a relatively newly-titled match day programme in their hands.

For this year we have said goodbye to Red Square and hello to #UTB, and there was certainly no square fare by the banks of the Tees as brilliant Boro battered bemused Bolton in a manner that already suggests that it will be a case of Up The Boro in 2015-16 – to the Premiership, that is.

The terrified Trotters were no match for the stylish craft of an absolutely Fab Fabbrini, as Deadly Diego enhanced his already blossoming reputation as a Boro cult hero with a genuinely curtain-raising long range strike before laying two further goals on a plate for the unfairly-maligned Enrique Garcia Martinez, aka Kike.

Three goals, three points, a clean sheet and home debuts for both Christian Stuani and David Nugent. It really doesn't get more promising or tantalising than this. What a pity that Channel 5's Football League Tonight, aka The Football League Show with adverts and a more showbizzy spin (yes, I'm already not fond of it) could only spare around thirty seconds for our heroes.

Some will understandably point out that the win was against a very poor Bolton side, but you can only beat who you are playing against. And the importance of passing your first big test in front of your own fans can never, ever be underestimated. Gordon Strachan will tell you that: remember when his “title hopefuls” limply collapsed to Ipswich on the opening day of 2010-11? Within weeks Boro were hovering outside the drop zone, he was out of a job, and it took time before Tony Mowbray's rescue operation restored everyone's confidence.

Opening league wins can be misleading, but they can also set the pattern for what to expect for the season. The latter is far more likely, with the Boro squad looking stronger than it ever previously has under Aitor Karanka.

The challenge now is, of course, to maintain the positivity both on the pitch and off it. With that I turn to the much harder test of Derby County away from home.

Paul Clement's side will know all about promotion heartbreak. An undeserved loss to QPR in the 2014 play-off final was followed by a season in which Steve McClaren's men all too often looked like they couldn't not go up. Similar to Boro then, although at least we had a play-off place and final to show for our efforts in 2015, while they ended up with nothing.

Hence they will be even hungrier to put things right this time, despite a rather dodgy start to the season. And the question now is: what starting eleven will AK pick to combat Clement's?

Up front seems to provide the biggest dilemma, with Kike providing the most recent goals (form), Christian Stuani arguably the greatest physicality (fitness) and David Nugent the largest price tag (reputation and talent). It's a real head scratcher, but logic suggests that strikers thrive best on form, meaning that AK should start with Kike again and keep his other two front men in reserve.

With Albert Adomah, Fabbrini and Stewart Downing all having exceptional games against Bolton, the attacking midfield trio should pick itself, and I believe the dual defensive shield, regardless of how much it may stifle our own creativity, should remain in place to contain Derby's attacking threat. It worked well last season, after all; we had two wins and two clean sheets against the Rams to show for it.

What might not work so well is the presence of Emilio Nsue at right back instead of Tomas Kalas, regardless of how well he and Adomah linked up at the weekend. I'm aware that the absence of Dael Fry from the starting line-up at Nsue's expense raised more than a handful of eyebrows on Saturday – including mine – as Nsue is not renowned for his physicality. The fear is that the best sides in the Championship, and Derby are certainly one of him, will have him for breakfast on their home turf.

Fry, on the other hand, looks like a truly remarkable defensive talent. When watching him at Preston I saw elements of a teenage Daniel Ayala – a good header of the ball with strong positional sense who is sharp in the tackle and reads the game well, even though his ball-playing skills have yet to fully develop. He seems a defensive rarity, the sort who complements a similarly inclined partner rather than imbalances him.

He also looks extremely keen to prove he is ready. We must be equally keen to remind him that it's early days. AK will also be aware of the attention the young man has been receiving from Manchester United scouts and will surely be keen to keep him under the radar.

What to do, then? Play Fry again and use Kalas to keep the right flank tight? Or move Kalas to the centre again, giving Ayala the extra physical presence that a fit Ben Gibson would provide, while having faith in Nsue to come good away from home?

So many questions, so little time. Here's to AK and the players finding the right answers, and getting the right result, tonight.

Up The Boro!

(Originally published online at GazetteLive on August 17, 2015.)