AITOR KARANKA may be a close confidante of the ‘Special One’ but in terms of plotting Middlesbrough’s route to Championship success, he is following the route of the ‘Ginger Mourinho’, Burnley manager Sean Dyche.
Karanka, who served as Jose Mourinho’s assistant for three years at Real Madrid, saw Galaticos arrive like London buses during his time as both a coach and player at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Not that he is in any way afflicted by his past associations with a plethora of prestige names at arguably the planet’s leading footballing empire. For him, it is all about the team, not self.
Amid his baptism part way through the ultra-competitive Championship last season, the Basque learned plenty and is continuing his education of the English game.
What he primarily learned was that teams in the truest sense of the word and not sides massed with talented individuals are the ones who last the Championship course.
If he marvelled at one side in that respect last season, it was Dyche’s Burnley, despite Boro being the only team to do the double over the Clarets in 2013-14.
Karanka purred: “Burnley are a good example for Middlesbrough to follow.
“When I was a player, I quickly learned that you can have some very good players in your squad, but if you do not play as a team, that is not very good.
“I prefer to have a very good team rather than a collection of talented individuals.
“Leicester or other teams might have had better players – and by that I don’t mean that Burnley do not have good players – but Burnley was the best team as a team.”
Karanka is only part way towards getting the requisite team and squad he requires to be fit for purpose over the slog of a nine-month campaign.
But he is making progress, with the collective team ethic, mentality and renewed defensive solidity Boro showed from Christmas suggesting they are beginning to get their act together again after a calamitous 2013.
The bookmakers are noticing, too.
Boro, whose goals against home record was bettered only by QPR and Burnley last term, are able on a season-long loan to call upon Chelsea defender Kenneth Omeruo. He impressed many during a loan stint in the second half of 2013-14, crowned by his feats in the World Cup with Nigeria.
With England Under-21 defender Ben Gibson, Daniel Ayala and Jonathan Woodgate also vying for a place at centre-back and James Husband competing for left-back duties with former Doncaster Rovers team-mate George Friend, Boro’s main focus of defensive recruitment is at right-back.
Tomas Mejias will challenge for goalkeeping duties with Dimi Konstantopolous with Jason Steele’s star having dimmed to the extent he finds himself as third choice.
Real Mallorca player Emilio Nsue, a right-sided midfielder able to operate at wing-back or up front, will provide pace and versatility, with Karanka also tellingly expressing his satisfaction at the player’s quick integration into the fold.
Karanka has glowingly spoken about Nsue not wanting to stay close to the Spanish players but to ‘be in the middle of the dressing room as he wants to speak English as soon as possible.’
Similarly, Boro’s other Iberian arrival in former Real Murcia striker Kike, at a considerable outlay of £2.7m, may bring the promise of goals, having netted 23 times last term, and other assets.
As fans are starting to expect from a Karanka acquisition, his team play – in Kike’s case, clever movement and work-rate – is just as key for the Boro chief.
Not that the fastidious head coach is clearly finished in his recruitment, with his game of patience set to be rewarded this week by signing summer target Adam Clayton.
Karanka, expected to use his friendship with Mourinho to bring in more Chelsea loan recruits along with Omeruo – with Patrick Bamford and George Saville linked – added: “The team is improving all the time, but we need more players. The club is working to do that, but the squad has certainly improved since the beginning of the season.
“I’d like to have had all the squad from the beginning of pre-season, but that was not possible. It was concerning that we had not brought in many but the club is working and I have to be patient.
“I feel the squad is stronger than it was at the end of last season.
“We already have some very good players, but the ones that have come in will make us better and we also have a lot of young players.”