Michael Walker: Case for the defence of Aitor Karanka
Goal-shy Middlesbrough are relegation-bound if their current form continues
Aitor Karanka: facing an uphill struggle to keep Middlesbrough in the Premier League. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA
On Teesside the narratives are restless. The storylines at Middlesbrough have changed over the past few weeks, moving from agitated tolerance of Aitor Karanka’s safety-first, safety-second and safety-third approach to outright vocal frustration with a manager yet to oversee an away goal in 2017.
It might be thought that the prospect of hosting Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the FA Cup would spark the odd lively tale or two around Boro, but the club as a whole is too consumed by the menacing shadow of relegation to properly consider the consequence of a victory over City: a Wembley semi-final.
The here and now is that at Stoke last Saturday Boro’s large travelling contingent chanted: “Attack, attack, attack.”
It is Guardiola’s motto, coincidentally, though not Karanka’s.
A simple refrain, heard before at other clubs, ‘Attack’ is one chant that should always concern a manager. It is, in essence, blunt criticism, yet its danger lies not in its angry immediacy but in the fact that it is on the way to irony, and no manager wants to be in that territory with a club’s fanbase. Once mockery arrives, it’s over.
Then, after the 2-0 defeat at Stoke – 2-0 at half-time – defender Ben Gibson publicly questioned some of his team-mates’ attitude.
“It takes 11 people to be working their socks off and pulling in the right direction“and for the first half I didn’t feel like that was happening,” said Gibson.”
Gibson is 24 and, if it matters, the chairman’s nephew.
Gibson’s words offered a glimpse into the Boro dressing-room, where the opinions are unlikely to be framed with equanimity. Sure enough, a couple of days on and the local Evening Gazette reported “hints of damaging dressing room splits”. The Gazette is well-informed.
Therefore when Karanka turned up at his regular pre-match press conference on Thursday, the conversation was not about the FA Cup but about him, his future, his relationships, the state of all things Boro.
Karanka can be prickly, impulsive – one year ago this weekend he went missing as Middlesbrough lost 2-0 at Charlton – but he was calm given the sensitivity of the questions.
“But when someone told me what they were singing, as a person you could feel something hard. But as a coach you understand, and you have to separate the person and the coach.”
Since Stoke, Karanka added, he had also come across a new word in English: “quitter”. He insisted he is not one, and as someone with a contract until 2019, it is likely his agent agrees.
Since Stoke, there had been a lunch in nearby Yarm, a get-together featuring coaches, staff and players. They had a quiz afterwards.
“The idea was to have fun,” Karanka said, “to laugh together, to forget for 15 minutes football and other things. It was funny.”
And since Stoke, there had been a meeting with chairman Steve Gibson, though whether this meeting was in person or by telephone was unclear. Karanka sounded reassured, however, and said chairman Gibson had reminded him of December 2013 when, after a home defeat by Brighton in front of 13,000, Boro were left 19th in the Championship. Indeed it was bleak.
Karanka has done this before, returned the topic to early days at Middlesbrough and how bad it was. That Brighton game was one month in for him.
Perhaps it is the same for every manager, but few mention it as frequently as Karanka. The message is: this is where I came in, look at where you are now.
Karanka does have an argument about status and health. Yet, just as Leicester City players and backroom staff – and Nigel Pearson – might say (quietly) that there was more to their title fantasy than Claudio Ranieri’s public bonhomie, there is more to Boro’s recovery these past two seasons than Karanka’s defensive organisation – Middlesbrough had the best defence in the Championship last season.
First and foremost, as ever, there has been investment. The term ‘undisclosed fee’ presents a barrier, but Boro have spent an estimated £50m (net) over the past four transfer windows. There is money to come from Sheffield Wednesday for Jordan Rhodes so that total will decrease, but then as the chairman might note, there are the loan fees and wages for players of the calibre of Alvaro Negredo to include in the accounts.
For all the effort and expense, Boro are third-bottom of the Premier League, having scored 19 goals in 27 matches. They have not won a league game since before Christmas, when Swansea, managed by Bob Bradley, were beaten at the Riverside. Ten games on, Boro have four points more. On current form, they will be relegated.
Thus it was understandable that Karanka called the Man City Cup-tie “nice” – as in distraction.
Then when he was asked about his rapport with Guardiola – Karanka was Jose Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid – the Boro boss said he looks forward to sharing some cava – not wine – after the match.
But old Mourinho habits die hard. Jose, not Pep, is the best manager in the world, Karanka said with a smile. Jose has already won a trophy this season, has he not?
Does that mean Guardiola has to win the Premier League to reassert himself?
“Yes, I think so,” Karanka said. “He has shown he can win titles in Spain with Barcelona and with Bayern Munich in Germany and he probably thought he would do the same in England.”
That will irritate Guardiola. He will join a lot of irritated men on Teesside.
Barcelona’s dizzying comeback on Wednesday against Paris St-Germain meant that no-one was talking on Thursday about Sergio Ramos’s ‘two’ goals at Napoli on Tuesday. Yet these were of immense importance.
Madrid, the holders, were looking shaken by Napoli’s drive and neat passing and with the aggregate score 3-2, one more goal and Napoli were through.
Then Ramos stepped up. Two corner, two headers, two goals. In the space of six minutes Ramos had killed the tie. The second header was given as an own goal, but it was Ramos who made it happen. It was a period of play that made you think Real Madrid might be the first team to successfully their title in the Champions League era.