Footballing scholars, tired of studying Brazil 1970 and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, have been gifted another perfect example of sporting excellence to salivate over; Middlesbrough under Michael Carrick.
Carrick, who replaced Chris Wilder at the Championship club last October, has made a fantastic impact in his first 14 league matches at the Riverside, which has seen Boro pick up 31 points and rise from the depths of the division to the play-off places.
Middlesbrough are hardly a second-tier minnow and, with the club having only competed in one Premier League season since 2009 despite being former top-flight stalwarts, Carrick is under pressure to deliver an escape from Championship purgatory.
And the rookie manager has responded by crafting a team of graft and guile that essentially amounts to a second-tier cheat code.
Their 3-0 victory over Blackpool at the start of February was the latest exhibit of Carrick’s nous; faced with a struggling opponent, the former Manchester United and England midfielder ensured his side stayed patient and used their superior technique to grind their opponents down.
And their second goal of the afternoon was so filthy it could’ve almost been classed as pornographic. Starting from the feet of goalkeeper Zack Steffen, Boro stroked the ball about with poise and purpose.
The Blackpool midfield, people who are paid thousands for their footballing ability, were rendered as stationary as bollards whilst the play zipped past them.
Jonny Howson and Tommy Smith, Middlesbrough’s central pairing, produced a masterclass of pass-and-move football to create an opening for Riley McGree to burst into the box and have the Blackpool defence praying for the sweet release of death.
In the event, Riley administered something even more life-sapping; a cute nutmeg that begged the on-rushing Chuba Akpom to thunderblast the ball into the net. Akpom obliged.
Carrick ball pic.twitter.com/pJvZEIfZnw
— Sveti Engleski Fudbal (@svetief) February 6, 2023
“It’s not easy when a team comes and closes the space so much like they did and sat off us,” Carrick said after Blackpool had been sent back to Lancashire with their tails between their legs.
Credit to them, they made it tough for us but I thought the lads were patient, picked the spaces off when they came and I thought the focus and concentration was really good today and that, in the end, won us the game, because we stuck at it, we were patient and a really good mentality.
“There were good goals, a clean sheet, so I’m happy.
“The second goal was probably the standout in terms of what we’re trying to do and play through the pitch through Zack (Steffen) and goes all the way from Jonny (Howson) to Tommy (Smith) and we get up there around the edge of the box and it’s some great play between Riley and Chuba, linking up with quick and clever play.
“In the end it’s a terrific goal with a great move so I was delighted to see that one go in.”
With his former international colleagues Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard both floundering as managers, Carrick will be hoping that taking the more scenic route pays dividends.
This would probably mean continuing to learn the ropes at Middlesbrough, rather than jumping ship at the first Premier League chairman to wave a surgically-enhanced cheque in his direction.
But, despite Burnley and Sheffield United looking odds-on for promotion, Carrick’s Boro are playing well enough to spark dreams of their own top-flight return.
And there’s another dimension to Carrick’s dug-out blossoming; one former Middlesbrough manager’s contract will expire in the summer of 2024, leaving a rather important vacancy to be filled.
Gareth Southgate’s replacement? Slightly premature, for sure, but Carrick’s Middlesbrough are playing the sort of gorgeous football that’ll elevate him into that conversation.
By Michael Lee