WHEN Aitor Karanka travelled to Leeds United for his first game in charge of Middlesbrough in November, he did so with a team in 19th position in the table.
Tomorrow, when Leeds visit the Riverside for the return fixture, he will preside over a side in 14th. In purely statistical terms, therefore, things have improved.
A side that looked to be careering towards League One now finds itself safely ensconced in mid-table. The play-offs look a distant dream after a run of three points from the last five matches, but stability should not be sniffed at given how precarious things were looking when Karanka took over.
On the pitch, the Spaniard has recorded six victories, five draws and five defeats. If the tally smacks of mid-table, then that is exactly where Middlesbrough are, and in truth, where they have been for the last few seasons.
It is on the training ground, however, where Karanka believes he is having the greatest influence, introducing a more patient and measured playing style and increasing the levels of competition within a squad he regularly implies had gone slightly stale prior to his arrival.
Improving Boro’s fortunes was never going to be an easy task, but at least it is under way, with Karanka adamant he is now in charge of a much better squad than the one he inherited.
“We are in a much better place now,” said the Boro boss, who will hand a debut to striker Lee Tomlin at some stage of today’s game. “We have been working here for three months now and there has definitely been progress. It is not just me, I think everyone can see the way that the team has progressed.
“We lost a lot of games at the beginning because we were making stupid mistakes. We had a month that was very good, with good performances against some of the teams at the top of the league. The last few matches have not been so good, but that doesn’t remove all the good work we have been doing.
“The team is not playing all that well at the moment, but we just need to recover our style. Once we do that, I am sure the improvement will continue.”
When Boro beat Charlton in the middle of January, they were on a run of six games without defeat, having won five of those matches.
Elements of Karanka’s preferred style were becoming apparent, with defensive security clearly a key component of the former centre-half’s outlook.
The loan capture of Shay Given has been a major factor in Boro’s defensive improvement under Karanka, although the Irishman’s presence doesn’t fully explain the impressive displays produced by a series of back fours that have changed on a regular basis because of injury and suspension.
First Rhys Williams and Daniel Ayala combined to keep a string of clean sheets, then Jonathan Woodgate and Ben Gibson proved equally reliable. Clearly, the quality of Karanka’s defensive work on the training ground is having an effect.
Performances at the other end of the field have been nowhere near as impressive, and if Boro fail to score in the opening 16 minutes of today’s game, they will have gone more than nine hours without finding the back of the net.
One of the most freely-scoring sides in the Championship has suddenly found goals impossible to come by, but Karanka regards the current drought as symptomatic of a dip in form rather than any more deep-rooted problems.
“The players have been listening to what I want from them,” he said. “They know my philosophy now and I think they are joining in with it.
“But the problem that I have at the moment is that we are training very well, but for some reason, those things are not being translated into the games.
“Some of the players do not do in games what they do in the training sessions. We need to change that, and when we do, we will win games for sure.
“I don’t think it’s the pressure of a match situation that is having an effect, I just think we have some players who are not playing at 100 per cent and the team as a whole is suffering as a result. It is up to them to change that.”
Tomlin’s availability should help the attacking situation, while Danny Graham’s sharpness is improving, even if the Sunderland loanee occasionally suffers from a lack of support.
It is clearly imperative that Boro end their goal drought as quickly as possible, but Karanka does not want the issue to dominate his players’ thinking.
“I don’t want the players to be obsessed by the situation,” he said. “If we play well and create chances, the goals will arrive. I don’t want my players to be obsessed by what has been happening.
“It is frustrating. Over Christmas, I could see the team I had and where it was going. When the team showed me that level, I was very happy.
“At the moment, we are not playing at that level, and when I see the team now, I am disappointed and frustrated. But I am confident something different will happen this weekend.”