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.
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.) Read more...