The rationale behind Steve Gibson’s long-standing reluctance to sack Aitor Karanka and the reason he ultimately felt impelled to dismiss Middlesbrough’s first foreign manager were, paradoxically, both encapsulated by the Basque’s handling of Adama Traoré.
A force-of-nature type winger, the former Barcelona prodigy turned Aston Villa flop was invariably instructed to switch flanks at half-time by Karanka. This, Boro’s manager revealed, was to ensure Traoré always operated within earshot of the home technical area so he could receive coaching throughout the game.
Such micro-management succeeded in producing a startling turnaround in Traoré’s game and, most specifically, his decision-making, but it also sometimes unbalanced a team whose improvisational instincts were quashed by an ultra-controlling coach.
The detailed managerial instructions stemming from the mind-boggling 80-page dossiers Karanka compiled on opponents left Boro playing with the handbrake on and go a long way towards explaining why they have won four Premier League games this season and scored only 19 goals. They are set up to play on the break and their conservative formation has left them lacking attacking outlets.
Debates behind the scenes between the manager and senior players anxious to adopt a more attacking approach are understood to have led to dissension between José Mourinho’s former Real Madrid assistant and, among others, Álvaro Negredo, Gastón Ramírez, Antonio Barragán, Stewart Downing and Patrick Bamford.
Matters came to a head after last Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup defeat at home to Manchester City when Karanka was asked why Downing and Bamford had been excluded from the squad and replied he “only wanted fighters” playing for him.
Whereas Bamford, a £6m January signing from Chelsea, has clearly been struggling, the omission of Downing – a Teessider the manager never really wanted to sign last season – stemmed from a training-ground row with the former England winger. Downing, a popular and influential dressing-room figure, proved the wrong man for Karanka to fall out with.
All-round relations had been deteriorating for some weeks, months even, with the new year seeing Karanka turning on fans for shouting “attack, attack” and the board for failing to sign Robert Snodgrass in January, and even blaming a member of the club’s medical staff for confusion over the fitness of the left-back George Friend.
As grudges festered results declined to the point where Boro have gone 10 league games without a win, scoring only three goals during that run.
Somewhere during the transition from autumn to winter the stubbornness that served the former Real Madrid defender so well in winning automatic promotion last season changed, almost imperceptibly, into an increasingly self-destructive force.
One of Karanka’s favourite motivational slogans is: “Tough situations don’t last; tough people do.” But his mistake was to see compromise and delegation as signs of weakness.
Intensely proud of his Basque heritage, the 43-year-old has a volatile side that led to the 2014 departure of Craig Hignett after nine months as his assistant, when the former Boro midfielder crossed him once too often.
Almost exactly a year ago a managerial tantrum led to his suspension by the club after a training-ground disagreement on the Friday before a Sunday defeat at Charlton. Briefly placed on gardening leave and denied admittance to the club, Karanka remained at home while his team played. Dismissal was widely expected but instead Gibson offered him the benefit of the doubt and was rewarded with automatic promotion.
Although the squad was strengthened appreciably during the summer – Negredo, Barragán, Marten de Roon and Traoré were among the arrivals – and the boardroom harboured hopes of a mid-table finish, Karanka consistently maintained finishing 17th would be a triumph.
Resisting repeated calls to field two strikers, he persisted with one up front, resulting in a litany of draws and one of the division’s best defensive records. In reality the system itself was not so much a problem as his rigid, low-risk interpretation of it, which often left Negredo isolated and led to his team-mates being censured for attempting to “mix things up” by sometimes unleashing long, early balls.
This purist philosophy drew admiration. “Boro are so sophisticated,” enthused Alan Pardew, the then Crystal Palace manager, but it was Sean Dyche’s highly direct, distinctly non-frilly, fellow Premier League new boys, Burnley, who cantered into mid-table security.
Hints of tensions had emerged last summer when Steve Agnew, Hignett’s replacement, appeared tempted to join his friend Steve Bruce at Aston Villa. Ultimately Agnew stayed but there were strong suggestions the respected coach was not consulted and confided in as much as he should have been by a manager whose controlling characteristics were possibly made more pronounced during those seasons in Madrid spent studying the Mourinho mind games songbook.
Agnew was disappointed to see Jordan Rhodes, his nephew, sidelined by the manager and offered no chance to show whether his Championship goalscoring feats could be replicated in the top tier. Part of the problem was Karanka felt Rhodes, now at Sheffield Wednesday, did not fit into his 4-2-3-1 system and could not operate as a lone striker. Although Rudy Gestede and Bamford, Rhodes’s January replacements, theoretically fitted the configuration, both have proved alarmingly ineffective.
Tellingly Ben Gibson, the nephew of the owner, Steve, recently indicated a flawed philosophy was costing Boro dear.
“We might have a very good defensive record but it’s hard to defend for as long as we defend sometimes,” said the centre-half. “It takes 11 people to be working their socks off and pulling in the right direction.”
The Guardian Sport