Everyone has bad memories of the Gordon Strachan led Boro team. They were not easy on the eye and Strachan had a poor reign as manager. His teams will never be revered or remembered for anything on the pitch beyond mediocrity (at a push). Even taking a look at the type of players Boro brought in during Strachans’ reign feels like reading a Who’s Who of the SPL: Kevin Thompson, Kris Boyd, Willo Flood, Chris Killen, Stephen McManus and Lee Miller to name a few.
In the most literal sense, Middlesbrough have changed. One only has to look at their most recent signing in Jordan Rhodes. A goalscorer who during Gordon Stachan’s days would have had as much a chance of getting playing time as you or I – judging by his international appearances.
Back in Gordon’s day, the closest Boro would ever come to having someone like Gaston Ramirez is if someone played manager mode on FIFA and bought him. Now they’re stocked up with good (albeit flawed) midfielders: Downing, Ramirez, Adomah, de Pena, Kike Sola and Stuani (the last two not technically midfielders).
It’s pretty funny to see how much of a U-turn Boro have taken when you remember the old days of Kevin Thomson, Marouane Zemmama and Mikael Tavares.
There’s no question that the transition to Real Madriddlesbrough has been aided nicely by Steve Gibson’s appointment of Karanka and with a little help from Mogga. Go through every squad in the Championship and you’ll find big signings finding a home. Five years ago Middlesbrough couldn’t offer the type of wages that were needed to attract the talent they’ve got, but here we are now and Boro have a trio consisting of Downing/Ramirez/Stuani. What a time to be alive!
Certainly Middlesbrough do not play the eye gouging levels of football that once was their staple and now rank as one of the top passing teams in the Championship. That type of stat would have never come close to happening a under a Strachan led squad.
Where the Real Madriddlesbrough mystique starts to go haywire is, go past the admittedly fun tagline and the novelty; Boro this season haven’t been a good attacking team. For all the potential, Middlesbrough have concocted an average attack. Whether using a model that value’s key passes and through balls or just goals, Boro are average in attack and they rank 14th in shot generation.
Everyone remembers the penalty shoot out loss against Liverpool last year or the wins against both Manchester clubs and the 4-0’s against Norwich & Brentford. Those types of performances put together have furthered the narrative that there’s a football renaissance going on.
Having said all that If you do look hard enough, you do see a growing improvement to Boro’s attack. Passages of play nowadays would never have happened under Strachan.
The best attacking teams in football are able to throw multiple looks. Dortmund and Barcelona often alternate attacks that are counter attack based with others that are from established possession. Even in the PL, the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Man City at their best can overwhelm teams offensively by varying their offense. Boro are nowhere close to that but you can see the makings of something interesting, particularly in that attacking midfield trio.
What’s also been interesting has been the use of Cristhian Stuani as a right sided midfielder. Throughout his career, he’s been used on the right but one of the reasons for joining Boro was that he felt he had been played out of position for much of his career. The reason for why this is the case is probably down to the signing of Nugent and the need for someone to become the second striker in play.
Despite positive aspects to Boro’s attack, there are problems. 7th in the Championship for shots per game – and shots on target – is not good enough for the level Boro are at.
Jordan Rhodes is honestly the closest thing to an out and out striker that Middlesbrough have had in recent years, Rhodes at his best will buzz around like a little bee and score for fun. Him or Stuani are Boro’s best striking options.
If Middlesbrough do eventually become a Premier League side, Karanka’s work will be looked upon favorably by the media which is somewhat understandable on a basic level. However there is some apprehension with the amount of praise that Aitor Karanka has garnered for recreating Boro’s attack. Yes, he’s changed them into something that’s considerably different from his predecessors and as a result, that’s helped in some small part to recruit better talent. But even taking those factors into account, there’s loads of evidence to suggest that Karanka is more or less just a defensive manager no matter the talent or vision at hand.
Again though, I don’t want to criticise Karanka as a manager because there’s something noble about his vision of recreating Middlesbrough. Signing Ramirez was a really smart use of asset managing and another sign that Karanka at least knows what he wants Boro to be (even if his ability to actually take good players and make them fit into a healthy shot generating team has rarely been proven).
Boro are in the beginning phases of a revolution and there are some positives. They’re slowly but surely diversifying their attack and some of their recent signings show that the club is aware of what’s needed to compete in the Premier League. There was a massive hole at striker which seems to have been addressed, David Nugent has had an okay season but he’s 30 and for where Boro are going, he’d be much better off as backup to the two aforementioned strikers.
The term Real Madriddlesbrough when it comes to Boro’s new era of football can either be looked at in an endearing manner or a term purely based on banter. There are issues at hand that need addressing both currently and in the near future. But hidden through all the narrative and hyperbole, there’s a project going on that’s very intriguing.