Call me old-fashioned but Boro must adapt
BARELY a month ago, Middlesbrough were eight points clear of third place and setting clean sheet records all over the place. The title looked nailed on. Five games and a major wobble later, the Teessiders trail Hull and are back in the thick of a promotion scrap. For Aitor Karanka, these are worrying times. So what’s the problem?
Defensively, Boro are superb. Dimi Konstantopoulos, along with David Stockdale at Brighton and Tom Heaton at Burnley, has been among the best goalkeepers in the division.
Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson are good, solid centre-backs. These days, people love a guy who can play out from the back, but defenders are there to defend. Over the years, people seem to have forgotten that. They bark on about Adams and Bould and Keown at Arsenal, but those guys weren’t ball-players. They kicked it, headed it, made tackles.
I always remember when I was at Celtic and Gordon Strachan said to me: “You should have the fewest touches on the pitch. The minute you get the ball, give it to someone better than you. Petrov or Lennon – that’s your first pass.”
Centre-halves aren’t there to play. They are there to keep clean sheets. Boro possess that and it’s their biggest strength. But even the best defenders can’t be perfect all of the time. If you aren’t scoring goals, the boys at the back will eventually feel the heat.
David Nugent isn’t scoring as they’d hoped. Cristhian Stuani hasn’t netted in eight. Jordan Rhodes has joined from Blackburn for £11m, but you can’t just expect him to come in and keep scoring if you don’t give him chances.
Jordan is a goalscorer, one of the best in the business. But he isn’t Ross McCormack.You don’t see him drop deep, turn on the ball and run at defenders before belting it in the top corner.
He isn’t Benik Afobe, who is big enough to hold the ball up and quick enough to run in behind. He plays in the 18yard box, waiting for crosses, pouncing on rebounds and deflections. That’s when he comes alive. But, without service, he can go missing for three games at a time.You won’t even realise he’s touched the ball. If Boro want Rhodes to fire, they have to load the bullets.
Personally, I think Karanka’s persistence with one up top works against him. I’ve seen a lot of continental managers and they tend to stick to their guns.
In Europe, 4-4-2 is widely seen as archaic and very rarely will a manager deviate from one up top. But, sometimes, you must adapt to where you’re playing. In the Championship, defenders make more mistakes, and playing two up front gives you a chance to capitalise.
Burnley do it. Brighton do it. Leicester are leading the Premier League with what most people would call an ‘old-fashioned’ 4-4-2.
It does send a message of intent. As a centre-half, I’m not happy seeing Nugent and Rhodes taking the kick-off. I’d much rather have one to mark than two. It also lets you defend from the front, giving the back four a breather.
Whatever Karanka does to arrest this slump, consistency is key. I don’t think people who haven’t played can ever understand the intensity of the Championship. Over the course of a season, everybody will have a rocky patch.
What counts is how you react. When Boro were on that phenomenal run of nine clean sheets, the team looked settled and that fostered confidence. Now, the manager’s started to jiggle it around, trying to find the best formula.
Derby did that last season. Flying in February, they hit a brick wall of bad results.
From that point onwards, Steve McClaren was fiddling with his team, trying to make something happen and, in the end, they completely fell apart.
Karanka must avoid that mistake, but also find a way to create chances.
With fixtures against Fulham, Blackburn, Wolves, Rotherham and Charlton coming up, the next month is when promotion will be won and lost.
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