BY DAVE HEARN
Trudging out of Wembley Stadium having watched Middlesbrough’s season completely unravel within fifteen minutes of our play-off final against Norwich City kicking-off, wondering what might have been if only Jelle Vossen’s delightful half-volley had found its intended target rather than crashing back off the crossbar, was not a particularly pleasant experience but it is testament to both Aitor Karanka’s skills as a coach and a fundamental restructuring of the club’s recruitment strategy that the Boro were ever in such a position in the first place. It was a season in which the team had remained competitive for the full campaign rather than tailing off at the midway point, as had been the case under former manager Tony Mowbray, and Karanka’s methods and professional approach were a pivotal factor throughout.
Having finished the 2013/14 season strongly, winning six of the last eight games and securing a top-half finish after a brief flirtation with the relegation places prior to Karanka’s arrival, Boro went into the 2014/15 campaign in a positive frame of mind. Once again Steve Gibson dug deep to back his manager in the transfer market, with the £2.7m addition of Spanish striker Kike being the most eye-catching of the deals completed before the season opened with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Birmingham City. But with the restructuring of the squad not completed until the very last day of the transfer window, an unbalanced Boro side lost three of the first five league games. An insipid defeat at Leeds was followed up with a 2-1 win at Bolton, the only time Boro recovered from a losing position to win a game all season, and home defeats against Sheffield Wednesday and Reading meant the team went into the first international break of the season under a cloud of uncertainty.
The two-week period in which Karanka was able to concentrate on working with his squad on the training field on account of that international break, however, proved to be the catalyst for a superb run of form that the saw Boro lose just twice in the league between the win at Huddersfield on September 13 and the home defeat to Leeds on February 21, the only time we lost a home game outside the month of August. The defensive solidity which has been a feature of the team since Karanka was appointed Head Coach in October 2013 provided the foundation for that run of form and, as the new players began to settle in and develop a clearer understanding as to what was expected of them, they started to play with a real sense of purpose.
Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson and George Friend were generally excellent at the back and Dimi Konstantopoulos provided a calm head and an assured pair of hands in goal behind them. The team had a fine balance about it and the performances of Adam Clayton in the midfield holding role afforded Grant Leadbitter the freedom to play the best football of his Boro career to date. Of all the 72 Football League clubs, only Shrewsbury Town conceded fewer goals than Boro and it is that solid platform that enabled Boro’s season to gather so much momentum so quickly, and for it to last as long as it did.
Boro won 24 of the 28 league games in which they scored the first goal, losing just once, and some of the football the team played throughout the season was both highly effective and good to watch, particularly during the middle-third of the campaign. It quickly became apparent that there are two approaches within Karanka’s overall framework when it comes to winning games, both of which rely heavily on the keeping of a clean-sheet and the quality of our counter-attacking play. There is a careful, considered and meticulous approach that requires a measure of patience, with the team confident both in its ability not to concede a goal and to be able to score one courtesy of a well-timed intricate pass, often from the boot of Lee Tomlin, before playing on the counter and exploiting the space as the opposition chase the game. The second approach is something we see less of and relies on a high-pressing game that, when successful, is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise to watch. The team did it several times over the course of the season, most notably in the home games against Derby County and Wolves and the 1-0 win at Carrow Road, a game in which Boro pressed from the first minute and scored an early goal before sitting off and taking great pleasure in watching the Norwich players faff about in front of them for an hour or so.
Perhaps the most notable performance of the season was at Manchester City in the FA Cup, a game in which Boro went to the home of the champions of England and strolled to a 2-0 victory. It was a great example of the quality of Boro’s counter-attacking play and the only disappointment was that Lee Tomlin’s exquisite Bergkamp-esque pirouette past Vincent Kompany didn’t end with a goal.
It took until the month of February for the momentum to be genuinely disrupted. The importance of Daniel Ayala to the team was perhaps not fully appreciated until he limped off injured at Blackpool. Boro started to struggle for consistency in the six or seven games he would go on to miss, going on to lose three of the next six matches for which Ayala was unavailable having lost just two of the 24 games prior to the trip to Bloomfield Road.
Ayala never fully recovered from his injury until the middle of April, by which time we had been comfortably beaten at Bournemouth and Watford. Boro rallied and won three straight games to give themselves a chance of winning the league title with only two games left to play but, ultimately, the two short periods of inconsistency within the season had left the team with too much to do. The two play-off performances against Brentford were of a very high standard, with the 3-0 win in the second leg standing out as one of the best team performances at the Riverside in years, but having watched the lads fail to reach those standards again at Wembley it feels as if Karanka’s Boro had peaked a little too soon.
It was undoubtedly a very good season for Boro but there are two particular areas of the team that will require improvement over the course of the summer. There was an over-reliance on Patrick Bamford for goals and of the sides to finish in the top eight places in the division, Boro were the lowest scorers. Bamford had an exceptional season and tucked away 17 league goals in his first full season at second-tier level, plus a further two in the cups, and if one of Kike or Vossen had come anywhere near to equalling Bamford’s output – they managed 17 league goals between them – then in all likelihood the team would have avoided the play-offs and gone up automatically.
The second key area is the ability of the team to come back from losing positions and collect points. Boro conceded the first goal in 13 league games over the course of the season and came back to take just five points, winning just once, and it is fair to say that a sizeable number of the remaining 34 points were lost on account of Karanka not having a ‘Plan B’ to call upon in times of difficulty. Adding a little more variety to the group of strikers at the club next season, as well as providing Lee Tomlin with some genuine competition in the No. 10 role, will surely be a priority for Karanka as he begins to assemble his squad in the coming weeks and months.
Having come so close this time around, there will be pressure on Aitor Karanka to deliver promotion next season but there are several reasons as to why I’m extremely confident that he will achieve it. The improvements under Karanka are impressive and the club has gone from 18th in the table at the time of his appointment to a place in the play-off final in the space of 18 months. The team is genuinely competitive and the core of the squad is made up almost exclusively of players in their early-to-mid twenties with plenty of time to improve further. I’m certain that Karanka and his staff will be using the disappointment of missing out on promotion at the death, and the collective failure of the players to do themselves justice on the Wembley turf, as a motivational tool going into the next campaign and throughout the duration of it.
Strengthening the squad and replacing the contribution of Patrick Bamford within the constraints of FFP will prove tricky but Steve Gibson has always provided his managers with the backing they need, whether it be financial or otherwise, and there is no reason to suggest this summer will be any different. Average attendances at the Riverside last season were around 24% higher than the previous one and Boro fans are travelling to away games in big numbers, culminating in over 38,000 Teessiders making the trip to Wembley. There is a strong sense of stability around the club and a belief that Karanka’s Boro, with a handful of sensible additions over the summer, will be able to go one better next time out and seal a return to the top flight at the seventh time of asking. It would take a brave man to bet against us doing just that.