Leeds United’s opponents Middlesbrough are developing their strategies for next season, Phil Hay feels Leeds must follow suit.
Meh. That’s what they say about Middlesbrough’s season. One hundred and 20 seconds of this afternoon’s game against Leeds United and Boro will set a club record for minutes without a goal.
They’d struggle to find the net in a fishing shop.
They say too that Aitor Karanka, their Spanish coach, has given up on the play-offs for the time being. He is relatively new to the Championship but deficits are deficits and Boro are chasing a ghost halfway down the league. Not this year, realistically. Leeds know the feeling. It would be classed as a waste for Boro were Karanka not using the back end of a mediocre season to model his squad in his own image. Boro were a lax, open team when he brought them to Leeds for his first game in November but their tactics – the Tony Mowbray philosophy – were not for him. Three months on, they are safe as houses; infuriatingly blunt but tight in the area where Mowbray’s teams were often so prone.
The continental streak in Karanka brought with him an addiction to a continental system: a disciplined, organised 4-2-3-1. Boro will play that way for as long as their players take instruction from him. The club have contested 16 fixtures since losing at Elland Road and conceded in only seven of them. They have closed the door. This is all offset by an inability to score goals themselves – the name of the game – and Karanka has been no overnight sensation. He said after their defeat at Watford last Saturday that “some players think they are better than they are. Some players need to be more humble.” So he has work to do.
What he lacks, seemingly, is a proficient number 10 to play behind a lone striker. If loanee Danny Graham goes back to Sunderland then come the summer, Boro will need a lone striker as well. Those who watch Karanka’s team think two astute signings during the close season will bring his ducks into line. And all the while he has the permission of his owner, Steve Gibson, to take his time and do his thing.
That is more than enough about Middlesbrough. Who knows if Karanka has the wit to make it click? But they are a relevant comparison to Leeds – a mid-table team aspiring to be better and wondering how to crack the Championship. You’ll find a vision on Teesside and a fixed plan too; a plan which, like every one at every club, makes the assumption that Karanka will not blow up. But if his ambition comes to pass, Boro will say that foresight and patience made it possible.
Until quite recently they spoke about defining plans at Leeds – three years in Brian McDermott’s case, two years in Gulf Finance House’s and shorter than that in the club’s dreams. There was a period when it felt like the club had a clue where they were going and that their manager was pulling the important strings with a team as settled as Karanka’s. But the clock has stopped while Massimo Cellino waits for the Football League to sanction his takeover, suspending everyday business as it used to be. The signing of Jack Butland yesterday was an unexpected reminder that Leeds United still do football.
McDermott, to hear him speak, is a coach who has no idea where precisely he stands. He touched on last week’s meeting with Cellino – a prospective owner who has already tried to sack him – with the media on Thursday but was guarded and withdrawn, almost hedging his bets.
The conversation between them he described as “good” and he will undoubtedly work with Cellino if the Football League pit them together but there was no glowing appraisal and no attempt by McDermott to nail his colours to the Italian mast. He might think it prudent to keep his powder dry until the Football League say yay or nay. He might also feel that one discussion with Cellino is insufficient for him to draw a conclusion about how the two will rub along.
They have a mutual love of guitars but Guns N’ Roses shared a love of guitars. The boys from Los Angeles just can’t share a room together. McDermott is not much of an egotist or a difficult character but his relationship with Cellino needs to be based on matters of import – football, results, transfers, policies. On those subjects a manager can face the music.
This could well be Cellino’s club in a week’s time and for all that has happened, a new owner with his buy-out ratified needs a line drawn under him on day one. The attention should switch from what Cellino has done previously to what he does next. And what he does next needs to become clear quickly. February becomes March next weekend; the season becomes the summer in early May. Other clubs are in better shape and some, like Boro, have a much clearer picture of what they are doing. A firm hand on the grindstone at Elland Road has been sorely needed for weeks.
McDermott said recently that this is “not about him” and ultimately he is right. He deserves to be treated properly and sacking him as Cellino tried to was at odds with standards of respectable ownership. It was a shocking start and Cellino will be closely watched because of it. But what McDermott has realised, and what all of us must, is that confirmation of Cellino’s takeover – assuming it comes – cannot be met with bad blood or arguments about bygones; not if we want his era to go anywhere. You give Cellino a chance and hope he gives Leeds United the same. It’s all anyone round here has ever asked for.