Manager has mixed solidity at back with good quality going forward
7 February ~ Aitor Karanka's Middlesbrough side are completely unrecognisable from the one which he inherited from the previous regime a little over a year ago. It is testament to Karanka's skills as a coach that so many of the players who struggled under Tony Mowbray have gone on to form the backbone of a side currently challenging for promotion from the Championship.
In the top four divisions only Southampton have conceded fewer league goals than Boro (17 compared to 18). Karanka’s team have 14 clean sheets in 28 league games and in the 59 league matches played since he was appointed head coach, they have conceded just 44 goals. To put that into context, the 59 league games prior to Karanka’s arrival had seen the team ship 91 goals. On top of all that, the recent trip to Manchester in the FA Cup saw Boro beat Manchester City 2-0 on their own turf to achieve one of the greatest Cup results in the club's history.
If the quality of defending on show at the Etihad Stadium was to be expected, the quality of the attacking football may well have come as a pleasant surprise to many of those who don't see the team play on a regular basis. Driven on by Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter in the middle of the field, the team continuously exposed City on the counter attack and could well have won by more than the eventual 2-0 margin, with the Bergkampesque turn and shot from the outstanding Lee Tomlin being the pick of Boro's other efforts on goal.
The manner of Saturday's 1-0 win against Brentford at Griffin Park, a hard-fought and scrappy win away to an in-form side on a cold and wet Saturday lunchtime, was a nod towards the kind of mentality Karanka has instilled into his team. In previous seasons it was the sort of game in which Boro would've been quite comfortably down and out of by half-time.
Today's game against struggling Charlton Athletic, a side with just two wins from 18 league matches since the start of October and, in Guy Lazon, a new manager unfamiliar with the Championship, represents a good opportunity for Boro to continue their progress ahead of meetings with Blackpool and Arsenal in the Cup.
Boro supporters are now beginning to believe that the long and arduous battle with the second tier since relegation from the Premier League in 2009 may well be coming to end, and that Steve Gibson's bold move in appointing the club's first-ever foreign manager could well lead to club achieving promotion after six years at the second level. Dave Hearn