Boro place faith, and millions, in Monk – Opposition Profile
Thursday, 14th Sep 2017 19:09 by Clive Whittingham
Middlesbrough have staked many millions of pounds on Garry Monk’s reputation as they attempt to win promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt.
While Aitor Karanka’s rescue job on Middlesbrough dispelled any notion that he only got the job because he was mates with Jose Mourinho, he did always strike me as being a bit odd.
Boro had spent the last of their parachute money on Gordon Strachan’s grand plan to migrate the SPL south – with predictable results – and even returning local hero Tony Mowbray had been unable to extract anything like acceptable form from the team. Playing front of a half-empty stadium and rattling round the bottom half of the Championship, even with one of the game’s best chairmen Steve Gibson, it felt like the club was going the way of the town and its nearby mothballed steel plant.
Karanka, a former player with Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid, stepped away from his assistant manager job at the Bernabeu to take charge at Boro in 2013 – the first foreign manager at a club that embraced the potential of exotic foreign import players long before many others. They didn’t really show up for the 2015 play-off final with Norwich and duly lost 2-0, but just appearing there was significant progress on anything that had gone before since relegation from the top flight in 2009.
Sure enough, they were promoted automatically the season after, although even that wasn’t without its oddities. In March, ahead of a televised game at Charlton, Karanka walked out of the club after a row at the training ground, reportedly with certain players over his methods. Steve Agnew took caretaker charge and Karanka returned the following week to continue the promotion charge. I guess you’d expect nothing less from a man with ‘evil staring eyes’.
Having worked so hard to get back to the top flight it seemed puzzling/a shame/suicidal to approach it with a mentality of trying to draw every game 0-0. Boro ostensibly set up with a back five and three deep-lying midfielders in front of them, leaving the attack solely to Gaston Ramirez and Alvaro Negredo, isolated way, way down the pitch. The temperament and goalscoring records of those two players, as well as the overtly negative tactics, was never likely to bear much fruit and sure enough Boro went down with an absolute whimper – failing to score at all in 19 of their matches and bagging just 27 goals in 38 matches overall.
Watching Karanka’s Middlesbrough last season made you wonder what the point was. Not just of the tactics and approach, but of anything at all.
Send in the Monk
Nigel Adkins once asked a journalist at one of his press conferences what the biggest room in his house was. When the hack replied “the living room” Adkins shot back “no, it’s the room for improvement”.
I bring that up because Adkins was once considered a red hot British managerial prospect. Promoted twice with Scunthorpe on no budget at all, he later elevated Southampton back to the Premier League. When they sacked him after a decent start to the season to replace him with a “complete unknown” in Mauricio Pochettino, who didn’t even speak English, it was seen as an archetypal example of British managers getting a rough deal and clubs always favouring some foreign fancy Dan for no good reason at all.
Of course we now know who Pochettino is and what he accomplished at Southampton and now Spurs. Adkins, meanwhile, failed at Reading and Sheffield United and that relentless positivity and lines like the one above that once made him a “breath of fresh air” now start to sound a little clownish. He is, presently, out of work completely. None of this stopped the press and pundits doing the whole routine all over again when Hull sacked “poor Mike Phelan” and appointed “some nobody Marco Silva” last season. Phelan now reduced to picking up a modest appearance fee from Sky Sports News on deadline day, Silva considered one of the top flight’s best up and coming managers.
And I bring all this up because in the summer Middlesbrough turned to Garry Monk to lead them straight back to the top flight – something only two of the last 18 relegated teams have achieved automatically at the first attempt.
Monk would appear to be the perfect cocktail for a successful British manager. As a player he was a centre half through some tough times at Swansea, and then successfully stepped up all the way to the Premier League with the team. He recovered from an evil hamstring sever well into his 30s and worked under a range of successful bosses of different styles including Kenny Jackett, Brendon Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and Michael Laudrup. His teams can play a mix of styles and he embraces technology and modern methods in his work. He was harshly sacked by Swansea after being forced to sell his main striker (Wilfried Bony to Man City) and they’ve never been as good since he left and he’s since been the only man to come close to ending Leeds’ ongoing slumber in the last ten years. When websites like this say Middlesbrough will win the league this season, a large part of the thinking behind it is because Monk is there.
But it wouldn’t take much for this to turn. There is, potentially, an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ situation around Monk whose record so far shows one sacking at a club that’s usually very sensible and patient with managers, and one season at Leeds where a play-off campaign petered out dramatically towards the end of the season. You could argue, and indeed we do argue on here, that Leeds’ slump only occurred when Cellino started playing silly buggers with Monk’s contract and it became clear he’d be leaving, but QPR showed at Elland Road in March how easy it was to shut Leeds out of games and get a result against them. This season, with Monk gone, Leeds are top and unbeaten – benefiting from his groundwork, or his absence?
In Michael Calvin’s excellent Living on the Volcano book on football management, Monk talks about his players “living the values” and gives each of them an iPad onto which he’s programmed “a collective vision, tactical strategies, performance goals, personal standards and an explanation of the culture of the city they represent”. Passing and shooting drills are made deliberately complex so he can weed out players who “can’t think on their feet”.
This is all great (genuinely, I do think Monk is great, and Middlesbrough will be promoted this year) but it wouldn’t need it to go very wrong this season, after a big spend on summer signings, for him to become the sort of new-age Nigel Adkins joke figure that “old farts” like Neil Warnock and Mick McCarthy like to gently take the mick out of whenever their old-school methods start to turn up positive results.
Monk has a sports psychologist with him on the training field to keep an eye on his body language and “message delivery”. He conducts training sessions mic’d up, and listens back to himself afterwards to check he’s getting things across as he would like. Innovative stuff, exactly the sort of moving with the times British managers have to do in the face of a foreign onslaught on their jobs, but, again, probably only a step or two out of place from becoming the new Phil Brown looking like a right bell end with his Britney mic. There’s a fine, often indistinguishable line, between David Brent and Brendon Rodgers.
Monk certainly can’t complain about lack of resources if it doesn’t go well this season.
Middlesbrough had already bought a very useful Championship strike force in January when they spent £12m on Rudy Gestede and Patrick Bamford but on top of that they’ve also stuck Britt Assombalonga for £15m from Forest, Dabish striker Martin Braithwaite for £9m and Ashley Fletcher for £6.5m from West Ham. Throw in goalkeeper Darren Randolph for £5m from West Ham, Marvin Johnson for £3m from Oxford and a whole host of sizeable undisclosed fees for the likes of Jonny Howson from Norwich, Cyrus Christie from Derby, Ryan Shotton from Birmingham and George Miller from Bury and it’s a substantial outlay north of £50m – albeit one from a club that got last year’s Premier League TV money, and £8m for Jordan Rhodes among several other big sales, and is now in receipt of the biggest parachute payments ever awarded.
Fletcher, in particular, has been held up as an example of how mad the transfer market has gone, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he is the striker Ian Holloway was referring to in his recent LFW interview when he said a striker QPR had been interested in over the summer went from £1m to £9m in the space of 20 minutes – sources have told us it was actually Sam Winnall.
Prior to this season Fletcher had made 48 senior appearances in his career, just 19 of them starts. He has, as a striker, scored nine senior goals in his life, four of those in League One and another four in the Football League Trophy during a loan spell at Barnsley. He is, at 21, little more than a promising graduate from Man Utd’s academy currently kicking around in West Ham’s reserves. He has all the attributes, all the potential, but then so did lots of boys at 21. This summer it cost Middlesbrough more than Newcastle paid us for Les Ferdinand (who’d whopped in 91 goals in 183 appearances) to find out if he’s going to turn out to be any good. At the time of writing his league record for them is one start, three sub appearances, and no goals.
Steve Gibson, whose nephew Ben remains at the club despite summer interest and is surely the outstanding centre half in this league now, remains a beacon of light and sanity amidst the polluted seas of Championship owners. His “we want to smash the Championship this year” quote has been twisted to “we will smash the Championship this year” but even allowing for that misquote, and his reputation as a patient and understanding chairman, and the parachute money covering the transfer outlay, surely Monk really has to start walking the walk with Boro this season or risk going the way of so many before him.
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