MIDDLESBROUGH boss Aitor Karanka has laid on some extra shooting practice this week in an attempt to end the worst goalless run in English football.
It is 704 minutes since Emmanuel Ledesma became the last Boro player to find the back of the net in a competitive fixture, a barren sequence that has spanned more than seven matches and seen the Teessiders tumble into the bottom half of the Championship table.
Today’s home game with Ipswich Town provides the latest opportunity to break the duck, and Karanka has tweaked his midweek training schedule to give his players the best possible opportunity of improving their performance in front of goal.
There has been an increased focus on finishing, and having seen his side improve their defending after struggling to keep a clean sheet earlier in the season, the Boro boss is hoping to see a similar turnaround at the opposite end of the field.
“We have made some changes on the training ground, although it is not as though we have changed things 100 per cent,” said Karanka. “Clearly, we need to change something because things are not working at the moment, but that doesn’t mean ripping everything apart and starting again.
“Earlier in the season, we were conceding a lot of goals from set-pieces, but we worked and worked at it, and things improved. Now, we are trying to do the same with the finishing.
“Every week, we are focusing on the finishing and because of that, I am sure improvements will come. There are things we need to improve, and we are trying to do that.”
For all that they have failed to find the target since the middle of January, it is not as though Boro have been fielding negative formations devoid of attacking intent.
Kei Kamara and Danny Graham both started last weekend’s 1-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday, with Curtis Main joining them for the final quarter-of-an-hour from the bench, and all three forwards were in the starting line-up for the previous game against Leeds United.
With the likes of Albert Adomah and Jacob Butterfield also involved, it is hard to see how Karanka could throw many more attacking players on to the field without damaging his side’s overall shape.
It is equally difficult to see how a radical change in formation could improve Boro’s goal threat, although the Teessiders’ Spanish boss concedes there are improvements his players could make to enhance their threat in the opposition penalty area.
“People are talking about the need to play with strikers, but we are doing that,” said Karanka. “At Watford, we played with Kei Kamara, Curtis Main and Danny Graham, and also had Muzzy Carayol on the pitch at the same time. That is a lot of attacking players.
“In the last game, we finished the game with Kei, Danny and Curtis all playing. It is not as though we are not playing with positive players. I am not afraid to play with four, five or six strikers if the situation calls for it. The lack of goals is not down to that.
“Sometimes, it is a matter of luck, as proved by the last game where Butterfield’s shot was over the line and should have been awarded. But sometimes, it is down to concentration and making mistakes.
“There have been times when the concentration has not been right. I would be more concerned if we were not creating chances, but we are. The goals will come.”
The return of Mustapha Carayol could make a difference, with the winger expected to return to the squad for today’s game.
Having criticised Carayol in the dressing room in the wake of last month’s 1-0 defeat at Watford, Karanka questioned the winger’s attitude after he was omitted from the squad for the Leeds game.
There was no recall for last weekend’s game at Hillsborough, but having impressed on the training ground this week, Carayol is set to at least make the substitutes’ bench this afternoon.
“I have been pleased with his reaction,” said Karanka. “He has had a very good response and I have been happy with him. When Muzzy trains well, he is an important player for us, and so I am pleased with the way he has been in the last few days.”
Dimi Konstantopoulos is expected to start in goal in the absence of the injured Tomas Mejias, while Kenneth Omeruo and Ben Gibson could play alongside each other at the heart of the back four with Jonathan Woodgate ruled out because of injury.
Dean Whitehead is suspended after his dismissal at Hillsborough, so Grant Leadbitter should return to the starting line-up after he was surprisingly demoted to the bench seven days ago.