Sacking a manager the season after they achieved promotion is often an unpopular decision. Disposing of the man responsible for an upturn in fortunes can often embody the cold, heartless side of football but, when it came to Middlesbrough, Aitor Karanka simply had to go.
The former Real Madrid assistant manager’s work during three-and-a-half years at the club was undoubtedly appreciated by supporters and the club’s hierarchy, but under him, they were only heading straight back down to the Championship.
Right time for Middlesbrough to sack Karanka
It all ended so poorly for Karanka at Boro. His ideas and instructions were clearly not resonating with the players, leading to a series of dull, listless performances that have seen them slide down the Premier League table to the point where they now sit 19th and five points from safety.
The Teesiders have fewer wins and have scored fewer goals than any other team in the league, creating a predominantly grim mood around the club which has deepened in recent weeks with fans confronting the increasing likelihood of relegation.
Perhaps the FA Cup exit to Manchester City was the final nail in Karanka’s coffin. His plan was designed to defend in front of Boro’s own supporters, immediately handing the advantage to Pep Guardiola’s side. Boro were toothless, dispirited and had it not been for the goalkeeping heroics of Brad Guzan, the 2-0 scoreline would have been significantly more damaging.
It has become clear that Karanka’s refusal to adopt a more attacking style of play contributed to both a breakdown in his relationship with key players like Stewart Downing and, ultimately, his downfall.
Karanka’s post-match comments illustrated his disconnect from reality: “But I’m really proud of my players because they’ve given a massive effort, from the first minute until the end. We were trying to apply high pressure and the effort has been amazing.”
That so-called ‘massive effort’ and ‘high pressure’ certainly didn’t seem as evident to the watching world as they did to Karanka.
How Steve Agnew can instigate a revival
— EverythingMFC (@EverythingMFC) March 19, 2017
Steve Agnew is the man, highly-respected at the club, charged with the unenviable task of arresting Boro’s slide. His first order of business is simple: reinstate a sense of freedom. For so long, Boro looked like a collection of individuals haphazardly carrying out a set of rigid instructions, rather than attempting to entertain or thrill in any manner.
Players like Downing and Gaston Ramirez, whose natural instinct is to attack and create, were stifled by Karanka’s unwavering conservatism and freakish control. It’s up to Agnew to unshackle Boro’s attacking talents so they can make an honest attempt to turn the team’s fortunes around.
Luckily, there were at least encouraging signs of progress already being made during the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United. Yes, the result does not immediately suggest the most comforting of opening games for Agnew, but for a 15-minute spell in the second-half Boro had United on the back-foot, applying pressure and showing a genuine appetite to fight back.
Switch in system may bring rewards
— Middlesbrough FC (@Boro) March 22, 2017
Perhaps the main takeaway for Agnew can be that Boro resembled a decent attacking unit when Rudy Gestede replaced Grant Leadbitter. That saw Boro switch to a 4-4-2, with both Negredo and Gestede in attack, while Downing and Adama Traoré – who replaced Ramirez – out wide. With two natural wingers and two target men in the box, Boro put United on edge as they gained momentum and created chances.
They may have trudged back into the tunnel empty-handed, but Agnew’s willingness to adopt a more attacking approach at least provoked a response from his players.
Moving forward, it would be a tad naïve to deploy the 4-4-2, especially with Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool to negotiate before the season’s end.
On the other hand, Agnew – who is using the next lot of matches as his extended job interview – can ill afford to revert back to the extreme caution exercised by Karanka.
Instead, it will be more a case of picking when to attack as opposed to not attacking at all. Boro’s next three matches represent a great opportunity to secure a first league win in 2017 and haul themselves out of the relegation zone, with clashes against Swansea, Hull and Burnley.
Their next encounter is a trip to the Liberty Stadium, who are 17th, so Agnew may well approach that game with more enterprise and bravery than say hosting Arsenal on April 17.
It’s certainly worth noting that Swansea would be unnerved by an emphasis on attack considering that the Welsh club have the worst defensive record in the league this season. It’s time for Boro to throw caution to the wind and seek to exploit that, and that’s definitely more of a possibility now that Agnew is at the helm.
The Adama Traoré conundrum
Agnew’s brief extends beyond merely taking off the handbrake. One of the pertinent issues is how to effectively utilise Traoré. The 22-year-old is Boro’s most explosive attacking weapon, possessing plenty of pace, power and an unfettered willingness to run at defenders.
However, he’s also rash, unrefined and often fails in making the right decisions. He also lacks an end product, with no goals or assists to show for his exploits on the wing this season, but perhaps that would change if Agnew decided to deploy him in a central role.
5617 take-ons have been completed in the Premier League this season.
Eden Hazard (119)
Adama Traoré (110)
Wilfried Zaha (104) pic.twitter.com/M2OP0ZtAEp
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 26, 2017
Playing just off a striker, that would allow the former Aston Villa man to influence the game from the middle, while leaving the craft of wing play to seasoned campaigners like Downing.
At the other end of the spectrum, Agnew may look to give 18-year-old Mikael Soisalo a chance. The Finnish winger has impressed for the U23s recently and an exciting new winger could be just the right ingredient to add some spark to Boro’s woeful attacking.
In defence, Agnew will hope Calum Chambers can overcome his injury for the run-in after a less-than assured performance by Bernardo Espinosa against United.
The 27-year-old’s lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed by Marcos Rashford last time out and, if Chambers remains unavailable, Agnew may well seek to ask Adam Clayton to sit deep and provide defensive cover for Espinosa, even though Fernando Llorente represents an entirely different proposition to Rashford.
Without a league win since December, Boro have plummeted, but their situation is not irretrievable. If they can discover a verve and freedom in attack that was painfully absent under Karanka, then unlike neighbours Sunders, there may yet be a chance that can pull off the North East great escape.