It hasn’t been attractive, free-flowing football that’s won Boro their games.
Their well-drilled defensive shape has proved extremely effective in frustrating the opposition and accumulating points and when the defence has failed, goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos has been there to keep the ball out.
Earlier in the season Middlesbrough had lost 3-0 against Hull City, making it just three wins in seven league matches. What followed was a run of complete contrast, with 9 consecutive clean sheets (8 wins, 1 draw)
The 37-year-old goalkeeper has an undeniable presence. For defenders, just the knowledge that Dimi is behind them and capable of heroics is a boost. He’s an imposing figure and has been an obvious plus to Karanka’s side.
However, it would be simplistic to merely attribute all praise to the goalkeeper. Karanka has been insistent on playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, and while it sometimes can cause more harm than good, the players are now slowly mastering the art.
Karanka has often spoken of his desire for Boro to play the tactical system, but after some indifferent displays, he could have abandoned his philosophy. Instead he persevered, and could now hopefully start to reap the rewards.
George Friend’s energy at left-back and Emilio Nsue’s clear attack-minded mentality on the other flank has allowed Karanka to field three interchanging attacking midfielders behind the lone striker.
Adam Clayton’s ability to read the play, eliminate danger and his instinctive relationship with Leadbitter has been exceptional; the two constantly compensate for each other, sweeping up passes and allowing the opposition no time on the ball. When you add in those two fully-fit and determined defensive-minded holding midfielders, it’s easy to see how Middlesbrough are so hard to break down.
Karanka has consistently rotated Albert Adomah, Cristhian Stuani and Stewart Downing in the three behind to try and keep everyone fresh and hungry.
As for Clayton and Leadbitter, they are a menace to the opposition, tirelessly hunting down the ball and breaking-up play with timely interceptions, tackles and, quite often, fouls. Their opponents often struggle to establish a passing rhythm, and are forced to play a kind of game they didn’t want to.
This kind of play is generally considered a negative. But when it’s exhibited by an upwardly mobile team it may be viewed differently.
It’s not pretty, but it tells part of the story of why teams have struggled to fashion chances against Middlesbrough. If this solidity at the back is added to a sharper edge in front of goal, Middlesbrough can once again be aiming for automatic promotion.
A collection of smaller factors have converged at once to morph Boro from a side that was, before the Christmas period, a supremely efficient machine marching towards the end of the season, to one devoid of confidence and ideas.
The sign of a good manager is someone who can endure in the bad times and adapt to find a way to improve. Karanka’s developing managerial experience, with a little help from some excellent goalkeeping and harrying midfielders, has made Middlesbrough an extremely difficult side to play against, if more goals could be added to the clean sheets the sky could be the limit.