2016-17: Middlesbrough’s Aitor Karanka makes a case for defence

Middlesbrough have signed striker Alvaro Negredo from Valencia on a season-long loan. (Picture: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire)
Middlesbrough have signed striker Alvaro Negredo from Valencia on a season-long loan. (Picture: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire)
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AITOR KARANKA may be Basque by birth, but he might as well be a born-and-bred Teessider given his liking for iron and steel.

The stock of Karanka remains high after bringing an end to Middlesbrough’s seven-year absence from the big time and while it remains to be seen how his promoted side step up to the plate back in the Premier League furnace, one thing can be guaranteed.

Namely that Boro’s footballing DNA will continue to be forged on the defensive structures that have served them so admirably during the reign of the ex-Real Madrid centre-half.

Take a look at the statistics and there is a common theme.

When Karanka arrived on Teesside in November 2013, instant attention to the defence saw 15 clean sheets recorded in the club’s last 30 games of 2013-14.

In the promotion near-miss season of 2014-15, Karanka’s Boro took things to a whole new level, conceding 37 goals in 46 matches; the best record in the Championship.

But when it comes to parsimony and stinginess, last season was another thing entirely.

Boro shipped just 31 goals, the best record across the whole Football League and Premier League, with their concession of eight goals on Teesside turning the Riverside Stadium into the most imposing of citadels and the most unaccommodating venue for visitors in the country.

All told, the Teessiders have conceded just 20 home goals in two full league seasons – 46 games – under Karanka. Figures that enable you to sleep comfortably at nights, with Boro having made some record-breaking history along the way.

Karanka is savvy enough to appreciate that things will be a lot more testing in the top-flight and it should surprise no-one that the lions’ share of the attention ahead of the big kick-off should focus on the defence.

Having seen a move for giant Borussia Dortmund centre-back Neven Subotic break down when he suffered an injury and with Ayala and summer recruit Bernardo Espinosa still struggling for fitness, Karanka is circling his wagons around other defensive targets.

Both Ayala and Espinosa will be back in the fray in the not too distant future, but regardless of that, Karanka is determined to add some top-level competition for twin peaks Ayala and Ben Gibson, who have served Boro so manfully in the past two seasons.

In front of the back four and within the 4-2-3-1 structure that Karanka hardly ever deviates from, some midfield ballast has been provided in Marten de Roon, with the rangy Dutchman arriving from Atalanta for £12m.

The 25-year-old’s reputation already precedes him with the midfielder making more tackles in Serie A last season than any other player and he is likely to form a protective screen in front of the defence alongside Adam Clayton, who has reinvented himself in outstanding fashion as an engine-room enforcer.

Further forward, Boro’s bases look covered, with the marquee business arriving in the capture of Valencia’s Spanish international striker Alvaro Negredo on a season-long loan, with the 30-year-old taking to English football impressively in a previous spell at Manchester City.

There is a distinctly Spanish feel to the Teessiders’ dealings, orchestrated by the club’s acclaimed recruitment ‘guru’ Victor Orta, the ex-Seville ‘technical director’ utilising his contacts to facilitate moves for Negredo, Victor Valdes and ex-Sporting Gijon defender Espinosa.

The Iberian contingent is backed by an English core including the likes of Clayton, George Friend, Grant Leadbitter and Albert Adomah and while the Teessiders and Karanka endured some much publicised ups and downs en route to promotion last season, the pain was all worth it.

Karanka will pit his wits against the likes of his good friend Jose Mourinho, who he assisted at the Santiago Bernabeu and another esteemed manager who he knows well in Tottenham Hotspur chief Mauricio Pochettino.

He said: “I have been here for two and a half years and I have been happy since that day.

“I have always said that it was my best decision (to join Boro). Now that we are in the Premier League, I cannot be more pleased.

“I have liked this pre-season, especially as we have changed a lot of players and changed divisions.

“This season, we will (come up against) different teams and play in full stadiums with great atmospheres and I am looking forward to it.”