When Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri some weeks ago, the attention of the millions across the world had shifted to the Foxes, who were floundering in the relegation zone at that time. The decision to bring the axe down on someone who won them the Premier League, achieving what has gone down as the greatest achievement in sports history, seemed contentious and attracted varying reactions from everyone even remotely associated with the game. Amidst all the struggles that Leicester were facing under Ranieri, Middlesbrough attempts to wrangle away from the scuffle down the bottom the league went unrecognised.
Currently 19th in the league and having been knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester City days ago, things just can’t go more wrong than this for Aitor Karanka’s side. They have failed to win a single league game since the 17th of December, when they had picked up an overwhelming 3-0 win over Swansea at the Riverside. Since that result though, the Boro have picked up only four points in the league, fewer than every single side in the first division. And with sides around Middlesbrough managing to pick up crucial wins, Aitor Karanka barely clings onto a job that he took up four years ago.
Much like Ranieri, Karanka’s contributions to a club that was finishing rather regularly in the lower half of the Championship table can certainly not be ignored easily. He is probably the man who deserves almost all the credit in the world for bringing Middlesbrough back in the Premier League and making them a side that has looks quite tough to beat on some occasions. Surprisingly so, Middlesbrough are currently the fifth best side in the league defensively and have conceded just 30 times this season – one more than Manchester City and just ten more than second-placed Tottenham. More so, Karanka’s emphasis on defensive organisation and structure at the back has made them look like a stiff opposition to get goals against for almost all of the top six sides. But, it is at the other end that the Boro are struggling. And shades of what seems like a excessively defensive replication of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side of 2010-13 are being seen, at least to some extent.
Karanka’s men have scored the least amount of goals this season – 19 – and that has to be a concern for any side in the world. Middlesbrough’s highest goalscorer- Alvaro Negredo, has scored just six times this season after having arrived for a loan spell from Valencia this past summer. Despite the presence of the likes of Gaston Ramirez, Christian Stuani and the pacy Adama Traore in the side, Boro haven’t shown any bit of attacking threat going forward in a lot of games. This situation is quite contrary to how Middlesbrough played in the Championship. Karanka’s approach to games was more positive, expansive and attack-minded than it is.
Traore, particularly, has a massive flip side to his extravagant style. The La Masia graduate has attempted the most dribbles this season, 5.3 per game, which is more than the likes of Eden Hazard, Sofiane Boufal, Mousa Dembele and Alexis Sanchez. The Spaniard, who was acquired on swap-deal from Aston Villa as Albert Adomah went the other way, always looks to go past defenders and adds more unpredictability to the attack himself than the whole side. He always lifts fans off their seats, but his perilous final product has been a massive problem for Karanka’s side. He doesn’t have either a goal or an assist in his bag this season, clearly suggestive of the problems that the side is facing when it comes to getting the final pass right.
Traore’s improvement in picking out passes in the final third, apart from in terms of decision making around the box, could have given Middlesbrough a real lift. Quite often in games, they have a flurry of two or three opportunities that they fail to take and that comes back to haunt them. They have attempted the seventh most number of dribbles per game, but have the lowest shots per game statistic at 9.1. If these dribbles are converted into opportunities, Middlesbrough could have scored far more goals than they currently have.
Even against Manchester City in the FA Cup quarter-final clash, Boro had begun to press high up the pitch minutes before the first half had ended. With the help of Traore’s threatening burst of pace, they had managed to catch City off guard quite few times by playing the ball out to the former Barcelona man. And this has been one of their most prominent attempts to get closer to the goal this season. It does impress the fans and gives them hopes of nicking a goal, but nothing of that sort happens. It’s not just against City that this transpired, but instances such as these have been witnessed during their games against almost every Premier League side too.
David Moyes’ Sunderland, who are bottom of the pile currently, have attempted only 8.8 dribbles per game, but have more shots on goal than Boro. They have scored five more goals as well. Burnley make a unique case too. They have attempted the least number of dribbles this season- 3 but have registered an average of ten shots on target in every game. Their style is more direct and players like Ashley Barnes, George Boyd and Andre Gray, who have succeeded in getting their passing accuracies right, unlike Boro themselves.
If the men in red had not faced this problem, the vital defensive contributions of players like Ben Gibson, Calum Chambers and George Friend would have been lauded far more than the amount of recognition that they’re getting right now.
With a game against Manchester United coming up and the pressure well and truly mounting on Karanka, the former Real Madrid assistant boss will be aware of the problems in the final third that his side is currently facing. It may not seem as if the manager is to be blamed for the laxities, but when things start going wrong, it’s the manager who is found guilty of not performing his duties well enough.
And football is a cruel game, as evident from Ranieri’s guillotine. There may be a lack of sentiment in the modern-day game, but a club is always bigger than the manager. If things don’t turn around soon enough, Steve Gibson could well bring down the axe on Aitor Karanka.