Middlesbrough recorded yet another clean sheet on Saturday against Preston, their fourteenth at home this season with 21 clean sheets in total for the campaign.
It’s a staggering statistic which highlights the defensive emphasis that Aitor Karanka puts on his team. They have conceded only 6 goals at The Riverside this season, and in a division which is so competitive it is a remarkable achievement given that during those home games Boro have played all of the top ten with the exception of Ipswich and Brighton.
Despite being a manager who likes to change it up within his team-particularly during the many occasions where Championship teams play Saturday and Tuesday within a week-he hasn’t deviated too much from his first choice back five. Dimi Konstantopoulous has had a great season with very few mistakes and has often been the difference during tight games with a string of fine saves. Boro’s home grown centre back Ben Gibson (nephew of chairman Steve) and Dani Ayala have formed a fantastic partnership at the heart of the defence with full backs George Friend who is widely regarded by many as the best left back in the division and Emilio Nsue who has been a revelation at right back completing the line up.
Add to that the acquisitions of experienced Ritchie De Laet from Leicester City and Tomas Kalas from Chelsea with the emergence of youngster Dael Fry and it looks a very good defence with plenty of depth.
It is worth mentioning that captain Leadbitter and Adam Clayton play as holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation and get through a lot of work in the centre of the park sweeping up and tackling anything that moves.
Interestingly the rest of the top six have all scored more than Middlesbrough however with a game in hand Boro’s goal difference is bettered only by Burnley and only by one goal.
Boro rarely lose a game when they take the lead, they know how to close a game out and that psychological edge seems to have helped during this season. It is probably not a coincidence that mentor Jose Mourinho who had Karanka as his assistant at Real Madrid had success as a manager playing a similar shape and system with Chelsea and Inter Milan.
They will be hoping that the rear guard that has served them so well, continues to hold up at the Business end of the season and with Burnley and Brighton left to play the automatic promotion place is in their own hands.