A CHANGE of manager brought a different way of thinking. It failed, though, to lead to a change in fortunes as Middlesbrough’s fight for Premier League survival took another knock.
Yet despite losing 3-1 to Manchester United, this was a day which should have provided Steve Agnew with encouragement after stepping into the breach following Aitor Karanka’s exit.
Middlesbrough needed to see signs of fight and spirit. Both were there after weeks of growing unrest behind the scenes that led to Karanka’s demise – and that’s without considering the clashes in the tunnel between the players afterwards.
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There was also a need to see greater attacking intent from Middlesbrough after months of negativity, and it arrived.
Agnew has been provided with hope, even if in the end Manchester United did enough to clinch the points that leave Middlesbrough five points adrift of safety.
Chief football writer Paul Fraser examines Agnew’s first match in charge as Middlesbrough’s head coach.
SELECTION AND PREPARATIONS
Agnew was keen to make his mark and he did, even before a ball had been kicked having spent more than two years next to Karanka.
He scrapped the customary stay in a hotel before a home game, allowed the players to travel to the game in their own cars and requested they got to the Riverside early to have breakfast together in one of the suites.
Agnew’s decision to reintroduce Stewart Downing to the starting line-up after the hometown winger had been left out by Karanka after a fractious relationship was vindicated. Downing was lively, integral to Rudy Gestede’s goal, and played with passion.
There were three other changes too, with Agnew showing he holds no grudges to Gaston Ramirez and he too played well for more than an hour. The Uruguayan, booed by some fans beforehand, was up for the battle and almost put Middlesbrough ahead in the first half.
Middlesbrough were quick out of the blocks and didn’t seem too intent on getting men behind the ball, a hallmark of the Karanka era. There were immediate, albeit subtle, differences between the two.
The defensive mindset under Karanka brought rewards in a statistical sense, leading to promotion to the Premier League, so Agnew was never going to completely rip that up. He is a highly-rated coach who can see the benefits.
He still adopted the same system Karanka has tended to use, with Adam Clayton full of heart behind a four-man midfield and lone striker Alvaro Negredo.
Ramirez on the left was given plenty of freedom to roam, while Downing was asked to spend the majority of his time on the right flank initially.
Agnew gave those further forward greater freedom to change positions in the final third, although his most notable tinkering didn’t appear until in the second half.
Middlesbrough fans are familiar with the sight of Agnew standing in the technical area at the Riverside. This time he spent the entire 90 minutes there, orchestrating things and showing passion.
In the past his appearances behind the white line have been to offer a word or two to Karanka or the players. This time he was there making the big decisions himself, occasionally being joined by his new assistant Joe Jordan.
Wearing a rain jacket, tracksuit and trainers – a complete contrast to the suited and booted Karanka style – Agnew even warmed up the players himself beforehand.
He appeared calm from start to finish, even smiling when things weren’t going his way like when Victor Valdes slipped in stoppage-time to concede the crucial third.
His water bottle was his best friend, the biggest frustration is that he will not have been able to enjoy a champagne victory at the end of it.
He must have sensed that was on the cards when he jumped for joy with 13 minutes remaining when Gestede’s first league goal for the club handed Middlesbrough a lifeline.
CHANGES DURING THE GAME
The tiny changes beforehand became big ones in the second half as Middlesbrough threatened to claim a result.
Despite falling two goals down – courtesy of Marouane Fellaini and Jesse Lingard’s efforts – Boro battled back. Agnew threw on Gestede as a second striker and the presence of Adama Traore’s pace and trickery on the right caused United problems.
It was the fact Agnew basically switched Middlesbrough to a more orthodox 4-4-2 system, with two strikers and two wingers, for 20 minutes which threatened to earn Middlesbrough a result.
After Karanka’s reluctance to do just that for three and a half years, it will have certainly given his successor food for thought for the final ten Premier League games – if Steve Gibson stands by his word and gives him a chance.
Gibson, the Middlesbrough chairman, was joined in the directors’ box by former boss Bryan Robson. The pair could only have been impressed by the way the players battled back to make a game of this.
It could be argued the members of the squad who have had their problems with Karanka will have just been desperate to put on a show themselves and move on.
In truth, Agnew proved he could get them going under his watch. There was plenty of unity on show and he has done his chances of staying in the job no harm.
After Gibson’s pre-match comments about Agnew, it is hard to see how he can be replaced during this international break. He conducted himself in the role superbly, showed he is not afraid to make big decisions and has a good relationship with the players.
He also knows the club inside and out, so he deserves a chance to focus on the next game.