Ever since Aitor Karanka became Middlesbrough Head Coach in November 2013, he has built from the back and made sure that his side have been strong defensively above everything else.
He’s received criticism for his lack of emphasis on attack, but it’s the method that got the club back in the Premier League. That all-out attack system make work for some teams – Leicester City are a prime example that it can work – but Karanka will always stick to his disciplined defensive regime.
However, last weekend’s game against Crystal Palace exposed problems that Karanka has rarely had to deal with since he stamped his authority on the side.
Boro looked shaky at the back for the whole 90 minutes and, in truth, there have been times this season when Karanka’s side not been the usual solid unit that they are. There have been a few occasions since the Charlton Athletic game last season, but being in the Premier League has only exposed these shortcomings.
The back four were exposed against Fulham in the EFL Cup, but the pace and trickery of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend caused Boro all sorts of problems. Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson also struggled with the physicality of Christian Benteke and Boro will have to rediscover some of their unit-like defending in they are to do well this season.
The Palace game could have just been a one-off, George Friend & Co. may have just been having a bad day. Friend would probably be the first to admit that he wasn’t at his best, but fans refuse to criticise the left-back, given their adoration for him.
However, if defensive errors are going to be a common thing, then they need to be cut out if Boro want to survive.
The club don’t score many goals. Fans know that, Karanka knows that and presumably opposition sides know that. No doubt, Karanka and his coaching staff will have his players on the training field this week working on their defensive play.
Boro travel to Goodison Park this weekend and manager Karanka will make changes to his back four if he thinks that the defensive misgivings from the Palace outing will continue against the Toffees.
Calum Chambers and Bernardo Espinoza are both yet to feature in a Boro shirt, whilst Emilio Nsue could come back at right-back. It’s true that Karanka doesn’t have another natural option at the left-back at the moment with injuries to both Fabio and James Husband, but Friend will be keen to make up for his error last Saturday.
Karanka will face a tough side on Sunday, but he will be determined to see the hard work he has put in since his appointment back in place.
His priority when he arrived at the club was to make the defence stronger, and he’ll do everything in his power to make sure that there are few occasions this season that Boro are as weak at the back as they were against Crystal Palace.