The rationale behind Steve Gibson’s long-standing reluctance to sack Aitor Karanka and the reason he ultimately felt impelled to dimiss Middlesbrough’s first foreign manager were, paradoxically, both encapsulated by the Basque’s handling of Adama Traoré.
An elemental, 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 non-stop coaching throughout the game.
Such micro-management succeeded in producing a dramatic startling turnaround in Traoré’s game and, most specifically, his decision-making, but it also sometimes unbalanced a team whose collective improvisational instincts were quashed by an ultra-controlling coach.
The specific, detailed managerial instructions stemming from the mind-boggling 80-page dossiers Karanka compiled on every opponent effectively left Boro playing with the handbrake on and go a long way towards explaining why they have won only four Premier League games this season, scoring just 19 goals in the process. Set up to play on the counterattack, their ultra-conservative shape has left them lacking the necessary attacking outlets.
Debates behind the scenes between manager and senior players anxious to adopt more attacking mindsets are understood to have led to dissension between José Mourinho’s former Real Madrid sidekick and, among others, Álvaro Negredo, Gastón Ramírez, Antonio Barragan, Stewart Downing and Patrick Bamford.
Matters came to a head following last Saturday’s FA Cup defeat at home to Manchester City when Karanka was asked why Downing and Bamford had been excluded from the match 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 – was hardly meritocratic but stemmed from a bitter 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” from the Riverside stands, 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 George Friend, the left-back.
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 which served the former Real Madrid defender so well in winning automatic promotion last season morphed, 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 which, earlier in his tenure, led to the departure of Craig Hignett, his former 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 an acrimonious training-ground row 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 in south London. 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, Barragan, Marten de Roon and Traoré were among the arrivals – and the boardroom harboured hopes of a mid-table finish, Karanka consistently maintained that finishing 17th would be a triumph.
Resisting repeated calls to field two strikers, he persisted with one up front and was rewarded with 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 saw team-mates censored 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 former 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 behind the scenes had emerged last summer when Steve Agnew, Hignett’s replacement, appeared strongly tempted to join his old friend Steve Bruce at Aston Villa. Ultimately Agnew stayed but there were strong suggestions a respected coach was not consulted and confided in as much as he perhaps should have been by a manager whose control freak 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 this season and offered no chance to prove whether his extraordinary Championship goalscoring feats could be replicated in the top tier. Part of the problem was that Karanka felt Rhodes, now scoring freely at Sheffield Wednesday, did not fit into his hallmark 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 – nephew of owner Steve – recently indicated that 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.”
On Thursday “Uncle Steve” acted on that message.