Cast your mind back to January 8th. Middlesbrough have just beaten promotion rivals Derby County 2-0 to propel themselves four points clear at the top of The Sky Bet Championship, with a game in hand over their chief competitors. On top of this, the side hasn’t conceded a goal in their nine previous league fixtures at The Riverside, a club record. Manager Aitor Karanka, stood gurning with his award for Manager of the Month, heaps praise onto the recent performances of his squad. “I think this a reflection of how well our team is playing at the moment” claims the Spaniard. “We are a team that is united in every way and there is a great spirit of togetherness at this club”.
Just 68 days later, Boro are soundly beaten by bottom club Charlton Athletic. They are now five points back from the summit of the division, having won only 4 of their last 12. There was a notable absentee from the game: Aitor Karanka. Sacked? Well, not exactly. If reports are to be believed, the boss stormed out of a team meeting after telling his players that he was no longer interested in managing them. Assistant manager Steve Agnew took Saturday’s training session and then deputised on the touchline for the defeat to Charlton. Karanka returned to the touchline for the recent narrow victory against Hull City, however experts are describing the situation as a crisis, and the club’s chances of promotion are seemingly falling apart. The question from the on-looking footballing world, aghast at an unprecedented managerial walkout with no explanation offered, is who is to blame for this late season fiasco on Teesside?
Aitor Karanka is the former assistant of Jose Mourinho during his stint at real madrid, a man who is never far from controversy. In fact due to his previous connection to the “special one”, many Middlesbrough fans may not surprised by Karanka’s recent actions. It does make one wonder whether Mourinho’s influence is rubbing off on his protégé. However, it is worth pointing that until recent weeks Karanka had come across as a calm, well-mannered man. He consistently heaped praise on his players after a victory, and was quick to defend them in defeat. Not only that, it seemed that his relationship with chairman Steve Gibson was absolutely solid. The Spaniard made no qualms over his desire to manage in the Premier League, a target also shared by Gibson. Clearly their issues do not do not stem from their agreed ambitions for Middlesbrough. Since joining the club back in November 2013, this season appears to be Boro’s best chance at promotion, despite making the playoffs last season. Karanka may be starting to panic, if they fail to clinch promotion this season, it may become a harder task in future.
For the first time, after losing 2-1 away to Blackburn Rovers, in which Boro were trying to capitalise on their game in hand over other teams at the top, Karanka called his sides’ commitment into question. “It’s really difficult for me to understand why a team like Blackburn, who is in the middle of the table and which had played five games in the last two weeks, and their players wanted it more than us. Their players are jumping more than us, they were quicker than us, even when they were winning 2-0 they were desiring to score the third one”. A strange statement in an age where it seems managers will go to any lengths to defend their players to the press, even if perhaps it is undeserved. Then again, in Boro’s 1-0 loss to strugglers Rotherham in which Karanka’s team had bountiful chances but limited shots on target. “They decided to win, they were fighting for every ball as if it would be the last ball for them” was the less-than-pleased response to that defeat.
Could it be that Karanka’s worry has spread negativity amongst the players and has triggered the drop in form and this recent bust-up?
The Middlesbrough squad is among the most expensive in the division. It boasts seasoned top division quality with the likes of Stewart Downing, Gaston Ramirez, Jordan Rhodes and David Nugent. With eye-catching names like these comes expectation: and when Boro have been good this season, boy they have been good. Sucker-punching teams with a combination of steadfast defence, and pacey counter attacks. Whilst goals have been mainly shared around, they concede hardly any, giving themselves opportunities to win most games, something Karanka prides himself on.
However, this Middlesbrough side tends to come in for criticism for not having a Plan B. When they are chasing the game, their possession-based style is not direct enough to create chances in behind opposition defences, leading to deeply frustrating sideways passes. After the most recent defeat at The Valley, local journalist Anthony Vickers summed up the player’s performance as “Shapeless. Spineless. Shambolic. Chaotic. Abject. Inept. Brittle. To see a team crack apart so easily under the pressure like that was just shocking”. A stronger set of words used to describe a football match I challenge you to find. These are words that have been echoed by waves of fans on social media sites. It appears that everyone is growing increasingly exasperated with the players’ poor performances, apart from the players themselves. They haven’t taken kindly to Karanka’s recent criticism, and there is an obvious rift forming between the players and manager.
Are the players at fault for not taking responsibility for their performances feeling the pressure of a promotion push, perhaps driving their manager out of the club?
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, relationship strains are far less common when you’re winning football matches, and the league for that matter. But whilst Boro have faltered in recent weeks, Burnley have surged forward. Sean Dyche’s men have been unbeaten since Boxing Day, producing wins over Hull, Derby and Brentford to name a few. They have found themselves a proven goalscorer at this level in the form of Andre Gray. They have leapfrogged Middlesbrough, and are putting pressure on the other top teams to catch up. With only eight rounds of fixtures remaining they are looking nailed on for promotion, leaving their rivals to fight for just the one remaining automatic promotion spot.
It is well documented that Sean Dyche and Aitor Karanka have had their clashes during this season, with Dyche criticising the amount of money Boro have spent on player recruitment. Could seeing his rival streak ahead of the pack have added pressure on Karanka and caused this outburst?
I’m treading carefully here. But if pressure is the cause of this debacle, then the fans unquestionably have added to that. Football in the north is a religion; it’s an escape for working class people from their daily struggles. And Middlesbrough fans are extremely demanding, they are certainly not easily pleased. Even after winning matches the local radio phone-ins are lined up with people ready to provide ways in which the team could have done better. Karanka is criticized for all sorts of reasons, his rotation of the squad, his preferred formation, his team selection.
For example, after the 2-1 loss to Blackburn Karanka suggested in his post match interview that even though Boro lost the game, certain sections of the fans would still be happy due to the fact that he decided to play with two strikers, Rhodes and Nugent, as opposed to the usual lone front man. Even if a match is level on the score-sheet, the stands grow restless. They want to see attacking football, and will not be satisfied with anything other than three points in each and every match. But, in a notoriously difficult league, is this a realistic expectation? From my experience, Middlesbrough fans tend to be somewhat fickle, and happy to boo players one week when they were shouting their praises the week before.
Could the fans have served to further de-unify a squad that was already showing cracks on the surface? It should be said that whilst this drama has unfolded, Boro fans have pleaded to have their manager back at the club throughout.
So, what next for Middlesbrough? Karanka has since returned to the training ground and the touchline in Boro’s recent victory over Hull City, but can he heal the wounds amongst the team? One thing that is certain, the surgery will need to be conducted pretty quickly with limited games remaining.