For all the criticisms directed at Aitor Karanka’s attacking tactics, one has to commend his ability to improve Middlesbrough’s defensive resilience. Dani Ayala has arguably been one of the club’s most improved players since the Spaniard took over the Riverside reins back in 2013. The Spanish centre-back’s Opta based performance score this season has been consistently the best in the Championship up until his injury.
Indeed, Ayala’s development has coincided with one of the league’s tightest defences. Only Hull (27) and Boro (25) have conceded less than 30 goals this term ahead of the weekend and Boro have one of the top 10 best defences in Europe.
It isn’t just Ayala who warrants praise, though, with regular centre-back partner Ben Gibson also deserving of the credit due the Boro defence.
When Karanka arrived at Boro he quickly identified the need for a more solid defensive base vital in Boro’s quest to re-establish themselves in England’s top tier.
Kenneth Omeruo made 20 league starts at centre-back last season and Fernando Amorebieta came in this season, but their erratic approach and Rhys Williams ongoing injury concerns suggested they weren’t the long-term solutions.
Indeed, all Boro had to do was look within rather than spend big on new centre-back’s to help improve the backline. Gibson may have only made 1 substitute appearance at the heart of the defence the season before Karanka arrived, but has appeared the seasoned pro in the position since AK’s arrival.
The way he and Ayala marshalled Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney, two of the Premier League’s better strikers, in wins over Manchester City and Manchester United, suggests that Karanka will continue to build his defence around Ayala and Gibson with their impressive reading of the game.
While tackling should perhaps only be a last resort for a defender, Both Gibson and Ayala do what is required of them in order to prevent Boro from conceding.
To match his commendable reading of the game, Ayala is more than capable of playing the ball out from the back to help instigate attacks from defence, matching Karanka’s game plan and helping him become a more rounded centre-back in the process.
Gibsons passes forward may not be probing through balls akin to a deep lying playmaker, but he’s helping apply pressure on the opposition defence and maintain control, thus limiting the opposition’s chances of scoring.
So, as they proved against Aguero and Rooney, Gibson and Ayala are not fazed at the challenge awaiting them from some of the Premier League’s top frontmen.
Hopefully next season we will get to witness them putting Premier League front men in their pockets.