He has long been hailed as a defensive mastermind by a lot of Boro fans, setting out his team to undermine his opponent’s strengths, and expose their weaknesses.
However, it could be argued that he has derived his success through psychology more so than tactics. Karanka has a motivational approach to managing players, “confrontational leadership” – small arguments, ratcheting up the tension and setting his dressing room up in order to try and drive up standards.
It’s a method with which he has enjoyed a level of success. He is a manager that footballers not only want to play for but will fight and fall for. Instilling a siege mentality to galvanise and unite a squad to give him their maximum in terms of effort and commitment to the cause.
Karanka has a low-level form of paranoia, making comments in the press about the agendas he pretends are out to get his team.
It is football management as war, with all of a club’s mental, physical and financial resources fully mobilised to serve the triggers he needs, players subbed off or dropped, isolated, ignored to see how they respond. Those who pass these tests, with all their buttons pushed and anxieties probed, come out at the other side as players he can trust to do whatever it takes to win games.
Confrontational leadership is when you are ready to provoke players to try to create some confidence.
He can try to provoke a reaction from a player out of not being happy, they then try to show him he is not right. The intention is to bring out the best in them.
Boro fans have already seen this confrontational leadership style in action, and the results it can offer also.
Albert Adomah and Mustapha Carayol have left The Riverside after having been on the end of this style of management from AK, who would build up only to ignore them. Stewart Downing has had similar experiences, and then there was the dressing room revolt before Charlton after losing trust and control.
It has been noted that attacking players are particularly prone to this treatment over his suspicion of their ego’s and work rates. He expects such a high amount of defensive work from his wingers, playmakers and strikers that sometimes these demands become another challenge in themselves.
Yet Daniel Ayala has also been put through the “process” this season, all the while being praised by Karanka.
Alvaro Negredo was signed in the summer on loan from Sevilla due to his affiliation to Karanka as a hard working Spaniard. He is now an example setter who already knows what it takes to impress Karanka and deal with the way he treats players to thrive. He will be looked to as a mentor to put an arm round the shoulder of Boro’s other attacking players to help them come to terms with AK’s expectations.
Without an obvious adversary to hand by which he can define himself in opposition to, he creates a problem to rail against when none are to hand. The aim isn’t to only improve those he has chosen to confront but to lift the whole club. His targets are merely the kindling with which he seeks to start a fire and build up the intensity he depends on to ensure the tactical work is as effective as possible.
Boro would not have been able to stifle some of the bigger clubs had they not committed themselves to his plan and to each other to the extent they did.
His desire to step up the pressure through personal conflict or “confrontational leadership” can take a team up to the level he wants so as to win games.
How he treats players such as Downing, Ramirez, Traore etc.. could be the deciding factor in improving his ability to win.