After a January to forget, and a patchy start to the new year, Middlesbrough needed a shot in the arm and that’s exactly what have they been granted.
In Gaston Ramirez and Jordan Rhodes, Aitor Karanka finally appears to have added to a forward pack now capable of justifying his faith in his own tactical principles. Whether this concoction of passing, hard work and positional fluidity can improve Boro on a long-term basis remains to be seen but so far many of the signs have been good, even in Adam Forshaw who’s inclusion has been more by accident than design.
One-touch passes, balls to feet and tricky dribbles, snappy skills and a few clever lay-offs to keep defenders guessing, has provided Karanka with the high tempo inter-play his philosophy needs in order to function rather than fall flat. Rhodes has been particularly important over the past three games.
He has been described as something of a poacher. Given that he has scored 166 league goals in his career, it’s a tempting category of player to file him under.
Yet there is more to Rhodes than him being a finisher in the mould of a classic, out-and-out No. 9. Although it may have been his ruthless displays of opportunistic efficiency in the opposition’s box that marked him out, Rhodes has also shown that he has plenty more to his game than a conversion rate.
On top of his strong positional sense, knack for timing and in-built bursts of acceleration, he has displayed a willingness to drop deeper to knit together moves and instigate attacks, darting wide when required to stretch the play and taking his markers on with the ball at his feet. His attempts to dribble past defenders haven’t always come off, but that doesn’t stop him coming back for more.
Forshaw had originally been drafted into the starting line-up due to a suspention to Clayton. His performances saw him retain a place to play against Wolves, who he also punished with his passing accuracy (91%).
Ramirez clearly enjoyed being the centre of attention as the number 10 against Wolves, and looked more threatening the more confidence he took from his success in isolating defenders and dribbling into the box.
Despite his individual qualities however, the Uraguayan is a footballer who has looked best when he has been able to form an understanding with those around him, from George Friend’s lung-bursting support runs on the over-lap to Adomah and his own desire to run at defenders.
With Ramirez placed in the slot occupied by Nugent in the previous game, and Stuani restored to the attack, the trio behind began to find their rhythm. They looked far more fluent in attack and Stuani appeared more involved as Boro were trying to force much of their play down his flank (34%).
Has a sense of attacking balance been restored ?
Configured correctly, with the versatile Adomah on the left, Rhodes up front and Stuani coming in from the right, Boro’s front line mingled together well. Rhodes’ play on and off the ball may not have brought goals directly but there was clearly something there in the combinations and runs. More time together as a unit will see more tangible breakthroughs for the team as a whole in the fixtures to come.
Ramirez has easily looked Boro’s best in the number 10 role and with Adomah’s wide-ranging runs and work rate tracking back, their desire to look for each other looks better supported than at previous points this season. Up front while Nugent can provide a similar function, Rhodes is a player not to be ignored, and is a footballer with far more to his game than goals, regardless of what first impressions may suggest.
The attacking aspect hasn’t always come easy for Karanka but in his new-look front four he may finally have an attacking unit capable of eliminating the bluntness in the final third over the past few months. With their speed, slickness and a confidence in their own abilities and each other, Ramirez and Rhodes may be just the Player’s Boro have been looking for.