FORMER Real Madrid defender Jonathan Woodgate thinks Aitor Karanka and his backroom team have worked wonders on the training ground to ensure Middlesbrough will cope in the midst of a defensive crisis.
Karanka has to consider his options ahead of this Saturday’s trip to automatic promotion chasers Burnley, with academy graduate David Atkinson a possibility to slot in at full-back for his first team debut.
Boro’s options are extremely limited at the back after both Ben Gibson and Kenneth Onmeruo picked up bans for the red cards they received during Tuesday night’s 3-1 win over Birmingham City. Gibson misses two games because it was his second dismissal of the season. Left-back George Friend will also be missing with a possible groin tear.
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And with Rhys Williams and Seb Hines already sidelined through injury, Karanka is pinning his hopes on Spanish defender Daniel Ayala proving his fitness in time to make his comeback from an ankle problem he received at Doncaster on February 1.
Regardless of the personnel involved in making up the back four at Turf Moor this weekend, Woodgate is confident Middlesbrough can maintain the impressive form they have showed on the defensive front.
“Whoever comes in has adapted previously and that will happen again,” said Woodgate. “That’s because in training we all work together, all the defenders. Sometimes it will be Gibson and Daniel, or Kenneth and me or then Gibson and Kenneth. Other days it could be Rhys or whoever if we are fit.
“We all work as a same unit on the training ground, but we work with different players in that unit at different times, so we get used to playing with each other. It’s quite a good way of doing things because we are all ready when we need to be and familiar with each other.
“The defensive work we do with Carlos (Cachada) is very, very good too. It is showing out there when we are all defending together. It’s credit to Carlos that we are keeping clean sheets and defending better.
“We might have limited options but that’s when the players come together and graft for each other. Whoever plays at the back, I am in no doubt they will do a good job. We all just want to play. I will play at left-back, no problem (laughing)!”
After a leaky start to the season under Tony Mowbray, Middlesbrough have shored up the number of goals they have conceded under Karanka following his appointment in October.
Woodgate, who made his first appearance since March 1 against Birmingham after calf trouble, said: “The new manager has got that consistency here. I read in The Northern Echo that we have the best record defensively in the Championship since he came in by far.
“That is some going when you think of how it was before when we were conceding goals, we were sloppy. The squad, the team, is now more together and collective and that’s important.”
Woodgate spent three years in Spain with Real Madrid before returning to Middlesbrough in 2007, so he understands many of the things Karanka is trying to implement at the Riverside Stadium.
But the 34-year-old said: “I don’t always think the manager has us playing like a Spanish team would try to play. We don’t always play ball, but we do try to play with an intensity which is a big thing what Spanish teams do when they lose the ball.
“If you look at the top teams in Spain, even over here at teams like Southampton under Mauricio Pochettino, that’s what he wants. He wants to see us defend more from the front. We are keeping clean sheets, we are all organised and in a zone at the back. It’s good.”
Middlesbrough’s last three matches have all ended in victories, extending a promising run of just one defeat in their last eight games. With just five matches remaining, it would seem the improvements have arrived a little too late to close the eight point gap to the play-off places.
Woodgate said: “It is important we keep winning games and we have to take that in to next year. We must try to win as many games as we can before the end of the season and see where it takes us.
“We need to bring new players to this club as well. The higher up we finish in the league, we will be a more attractive club for players to choose. If you look at the manager’s record since he came, we would only be a couple of points off the play-offs. He is doing a fantastic job and long may it continue.
“We can’t look at the play-offs, let’s just look at how many games we can win. Let’s not get excited, see where it takes us and see how far we can go. We will see what happens.”
As Middlesbrough gear up for a trip to Burnley, who might just need a point against Middlesbrough to clinch promotion to the Premier League this weekend, Woodgate thinks there is a lesson to be learned from the success achieved by manager Sean Dyche at Turf Moor.
“I always said last year that consistency in this division is crucial,” said the Middlesbrough club captain. “If you look at Burnley’s players, their line-up compared to ours, I think you would have more players in from our team than you would from their team, individually. But they play tremendously well as a team. That’s my opinion and I think a lot of people, would agree with that. “