Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough return could be as problematic as it is a relief

Football in the North East of England is like no where else in the country. Dominated by the fortunes of Newcastle United and Sunderland, it has become something more akin to a soap opera than a sport in the area recently, particularly this season. Disaster has been held at bay for a while, but as time goes on, it closes in like a dark rain cloud, casting a shadow. Most people see both as intense rivals, while those down the road in Middlesbrough are hardly with friendly with either, too.

The harsh economic climate has raised something of a community spirit. Many bemoan the fortunes of the big clubs, currently struggling for Premier League safety, regardless of which side they are on. It looks more and more likely, with everyone else at least eight points clear of them both and Norwich City, that at least one of them will drop out of the top-flight. Middlesbrough have offered something of a beacon of hope this season, looking good to go the other way and reach the promised land, residing at the top end of the Championship.

‘Boro have endured their fair share of turmoil in recent years, from near extinction in 1986 and relegation in the 1990s to cup final defeats and a first ever trophy in 2004. Five years later they suffered the demotion that saw them drift into no-mans land, from which they are still recovering now. Comparatively, with local businessman and life-long fan Steve Gibson at the helm, they have been heading in the right direction for the main part. When Aitor Karanka replaced legendary former captain Tony Mowbray, who despite his status was in danger of getting the club embroiled in a battle to avoid the third tier of English football, as manager, it seemed like the final stage of the rebuilding process.

Gibson was showing the ambition and faith he was famous for, and the job on Teesside was not only a perfect fit for the Spaniard, but also an enticing challenge. Despite an impressive playing career at Real Madrid, winning the Champions League in 2002, it was his work as Jose Mourinho’s assistant which caught the eye.

When Mourinho took over in 2010, Karanka was working with the Spanish under-16s without any expectation of the promotion that was to come. The former Inter and Chelsea boss has his permanent staff who follow him where he goes, but he makes it his business to employ someone who understands the club to make the transition easier.

Karanka listened and learnt, and his stamp on Boro has been a particularly Mourinho-esque one. Defensively overall this season, you’ll have to go far to find a better side, having only conceded 23 goals and breaking a record for the longest time without letting one in earlier in the campaign. Despite the play-off final defeat to Norwich last year, everything seemed rosy as they challenged both Burnley and Hull City/ Karanka was a calm, intelligent man, the opposite character to those who led the area’s football teams into crisis.

That makes this week’s events all the more bizarre. Boro have struggled to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2009 for a range of reasons, but they have never been stronger than they are now. The January addition of Jordan Rhodes, a serial goalscorer at Championship goalscorer, from Blackburn Rovers plugged the only hole. Having led the table for long spells, a recent blip in form seemed natural, but it brought an explosive response from Karanka, who walked out on training, only to be told not to return the next day, or take charge of the 2-0 defeat at struggling Charlton Athletic on Sunday.

He pointed the finger at his players, claiming they didn’t have enough pride or passion. It looked as though there was no way back, but he is set to continue the charge. How this has helped an already delicate situation is far from clear, but the whole sequence shows that unwanted drama is not solely reserved for their higher-placed rivals.

Most Middlesbrough fans, naturally, have backed Karanka. He has proven to be the most significant appointment the club has made in a decade, and it is him who has dragged the club back towards the big time. Whether he can galvanise those he criticised so intensely again will prove his real challenge. For a long time it looked as though a Premier League return was nailed on because of Karanka, now it isn’t clear whether he is a help or a hindrance.

Everything seems to be falling apart for Middlesbrough at the wrong time again. Aitor Karanka has proven himself to be one of the most exciting coaches around during his time at the Riverside Stadium, but his outburst has called his temperament into question, and therefore he must prove it won’t impact on the rest of the season to save his reputation.

The house he has built is his, and there is no one better for the job. The problem for him is he may have made a small cut which needed healing into an open wound that could kill off Middlesbrough’s promotion hopes once again.

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Arsenal’s rose-tinted glasses slowing progression under Arsene Wenger

There is a sense of entitlement that surrounds Arsene Wenger, only replicated once in England before. Many see him as managerial royalty, in the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, meaning he should have complete control over the destiny of both himself and Arsenal.

Comparisons between the pair, though, do Ferguson a huge disservice. The Scot is unrivalled in terms of both success and longevity, an anomaly in the modern game, which has seen a rise in the quick fix culture. By the time he retired in 2013, he was part of the Old Trafford furniture, making every decision. He had been successful for so long it was too late to call him on any failure, proven by exiting the Champions League at the group stages and surrendering the Premier League title to Manchester City in hid penultimate season.

He vacated his, for lack of a better word, throne, after 27 years. Wenger has been at Arsenal for almost 20 now, which in itself is a great achievement, and the main reason for the similarities with one of his oldest adversary. Both have won trophies, built teams and are the architects of their respective clubs’ recent success, but the difference is Ferguson’s victories were consistent, Wenger has ridden the wave for about a decade.

Stability is a huge part of any club who build some sort of dynasty, as both have under Ferguson and Wenger. The former’s remarkable ability to constantly move with the times kept up his hunger and avoided him becoming stale. Wenger was incredibly intelligent man, years ahead of his time when he stepped through the doors at Highbury in 1996.

Ferguson successfully built about four teams, only failing to win trophies during bedding in periods. Wenger, on the other hand, masterminded seemingly indestructible era, blending the British steel of Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell, with the French flair of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.

The beautiful thing about that team was, particularly in Vieira’s case, it had both skill and grit in equal measure. Three league titles and two FA Cups were won between 1998 and 2004, the latest with that unforgettable unbeaten season. To this day, Wenger both lives off and is judged against the success they brought.

But where he falls down when measured against Ferguson, is his inability to rebuild since the likes of Vieira and Henry departed. His commitment to a change in style, moving away from strength and power, focussing on technique and players with a low centre of gravity shows just how smart the man is, and proves he understands the game’s development like no-one else.

Yet, such a dedication to that has become detrimental, and instead of adding to the good things from the glory days, they have been forgotten. Sunday’s 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford raised questions over the leadership and mental strength of his current side, two things taken for granted before. These issues have been raised for many years, but this time it was worse.

It is not to say Wenger is all bad, and his defence is a strong one. Simply put, the club would not harbour dreams of dominating England again if it weren’t for him, and he has added back to back FA Cups to his collection, becoming the most successful manager in the competition’s history.

His shortcomings in the Premier League title hunt were down to a mixture of the rebrand of his team, their move to the Emirates Stadium in 2007 and the rise of some rather financially wealthy rivals to add to Ferguson and Manchester United. Their neighbours, City, and Chelsea, not to mention the Gunners’ fierce rivals Tottenham, have proven worthy opponents for Wenger in the past.

Now, though, it is time remove the excuses. This season, despite the inconsistent form of City, the continued post-Ferguson malaise of the Red Devils and Chelsea’s surprise slump, allowing Leicester City to top the table, Wenger and Arsenal are in the process of blowing yet another title bid.

There is a perception surrounding Arsenal that there team is young and developing, even now. The idea that Wenger is still nurturing his side has also been part of the narrative, but an average age of 26 last weekend, compared to 24 for Man United, show that, in reality, the problems lie with one man.

Every transfer window is the same for Arsenal, whether they need a striker, midfielder or central defender. Those three positions have not been convincingly filled for a number of years, meaning Wenger has neglected to properly strengthen the spine of his side to launch a real title assault.

Arsene Wenger is an intelligent man whose work has revolutionised both Arsenal and football in England. He deserves the immortality he receives when looking at his early years, but his mistakes have led to disappointments later on. Now was his time to bounce back, the excuses no longer work, but the same problems remain. A parting of the ways in the summer looks best for all parties.

 

 

Victory for Klopp on Sunday will lift an early monkey off his back

Winning is always relative. It is, in it’s essence, the point of football, and can give validation to a style and ideology. Naturally, though, it can mean more in some situations than others, and Sunday is certainly a good example.

Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool in October carrying a weight of expectation. The club found itself in a state of flux after the sacking of Brendan Rodgers, not achieving what they wanted despite almost winning the Premier League title less than 18 months earlier. It wasn’t that Rodgers had done a particularly terrible job, but he lacked the charisma, and past record, that demanded trust from the Reds fans. It all felt as though he had just gone as far as he could at Anfield.

The German had everything, it appeared, to take the club on. His geek-like charm and toothy smile were much more than just a façade. The Borussia Dortmund side he spent seven years in charge of earned numerous admirers across the globe for a unique, if slightly odd, style of play, infamously dubbed “heavy metal football” by Klopp himself. The basic requirement is high pressure, not too dissimilar to Rodgers in a sense, but he backed it up with success, winning two Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and reaching the Champions League final in 2013.

Mixed results on the pitch since, though, have brought criticism of his appointment. His reputation and personality give the impression things will turn around, and of course he will get the time, but he will be looking for victory at Wembley this weekend when they face Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final.

It is a competition which proves that context is key behind victory, taking some stick for the lack of profile in comparison to the FA Cup. English football pays much more attention to the notion of domestic competition than most other countries who only have one. With fixture congestion the way it is these days, and the number of high profile games that need to be played, it is understandable that a pecking order of importance is formed.

With the final being played in March, allowing minimal crossover with both the FA Cup and Champions League, there should be little excuse. That, in a way, can be an advantage to the likes of Klopp. Winning silverware at the first attempt, no matter how prestigious, will be a relief and serve to show he can work his magic at Anfield in the coming years.

There is a similar feel around the opposition on Sunday, with Manchester City looking to win it for the second time in three years. His opposite number, Manuel Pellegrini, will be able to empathise with Rodgers, having announced he will leave the club at the end of the season and be replaced by the most sought after coach on the planet, Pep Guardiola.

Pellegrini matches Klopp on the charm offensive, but is much quieter, more reserved and polite. In his native Chile, he is affectionately known as “The Engineer” for his ability to get teams functioning, and winning, quickly. He certainly did that at the Etihad, winning the double in his debut season and using the League Cup as a springboard. He has not been able to shake the stigma that he is not a top-rate manager, accepting this with such grace and stepping aside nobly.

He takes his side to Wembley under much less personal pressure than two years ago, but Klopp finds himself in a similar position. Jose Mourinho opened his trophy account in England with Chelsea by lifting it in 2005, doing so again last year. On both occasions, like Pellegrini, he accompanied it with the Premier League title. That may be out of Klopp’s short term reach. but victory would be the first step on his journey to re-establishing Liverpool as a British, and European, superpower.

The Capital One Cup certainly has its critics, and it isn’t a priority for most. If Arsene Wenger won it for Arsenal, it wouldn’t be seen as a huge statement because of his longevity in North London, but it can play a big role in some clubs’ seasons.

Since he took the job on Merseyside, there have been some moments that have felt big and defining. That includes a victory at Manchester City, and if Pellegrini shows this competition the same contempt he showed the FA Cup at Chelsea last week, Sunday could see Jurgen Klopp’s most important victory in England yet.