On Friday Aitor Karanka was finally announced as the new Birmingham City Head Coach, succeeding fellow Spaniard, Pep Clotet. The 46-year-old joins on a 3 year deal with the club hoping to confirm his back room staff prior to August 10th when the players return for pre-season.
It had felt like a long drawn out process before the announcement of Karanka, who had been out of work for more than 18 months since leaving Nottingham Forest in January 2019.
Karanka brings with him over 4 years of experience in the Championship, including play-off appearances and an automatic promotion. He has taken charge of 223 games while managing in England with an overall win percentage of 42.6%. Perhaps just as importantly, he has only lost 65 games, a rate of just 29.1 percent.
For me, this could be the perfect appointment for Blues for a variety of reasons. Not just because of his play off and promotion experience. It’ll be no surprise to most that the new Head Coach is a strong believer in building from the back and ensuring his teams are tough to break down. In fact, in his first two full seasons with Boro his team only conceded 68 goals over 92 league games. In comparison Blues conceded 75 goals over 46 games last season alone. It is vitally important that he can get the team back to basics on that front and make them difficult to beat. Under Clotet and then Spooner, the team struggled defensively for most of the season, confidence waned and basic errors led to numerous goals. This is an area that the new man can make an immediate positive impact.
When Pep Clotet took over from the sacked Garry Monk in June last year, a section of the official statement read ” The Board of Directors are hopeful that over time the team can adopt a fresh and modern footballing philosophy, whilst maintaining the Club’s core values.” It was evident that the team did try to implement a more modern possession based game over the course of pre-season and in some of the earlier games during 19/20 season. Clotet toyed with 3-5-2 and 4-3-3, with the team trying to play an easier on the eye brand of football, but it appeared to be thrown out fairly quickly after the team started struggling. I am a firm believer that even with the addition of a few more technically gifted players, you can’t just turn around a team that quickly. Especially a team that the season before was one of the most direct in the football league. It was close to impossible to turn them into a free-flowing attacking outfit in just one transfer window and a couple of months of training. It takes time and Blues went about it all wrong. It’s not the first time either, we saw the exact same thing happen when Zola was in charge too.
Aitor Karanka has a preference to set up his teams in a 4-2-3-1 formation and is not known for his free-flowing attacking football, but his teams do have a tendency to try to maintain a higher level of possession than most outfits that set-up with an intention to counter attack. Again, I refer to his first two full seasons at Boro where his teams had 50% and 53% possession. The deep lying midfielders break up play retain possession, whilst there is focus on his full-backs to get forward and link with the wide players to create chances for the lone forward. By Karanka’s own admission, the number 10 role is also important for him as this is the player that orchestrates most of the attacking intent.
For me, Karanka as Head Coach is the next logical step for the club. A Head Coach that can get the team back to basics and also advance the brand of football to move the club closer towards the philosophy that the board desire. It’s a case of putting the building blocks in place to enable the philosophy to take shape without doing too much at once that we end up back at square one.
His character is interesting too. He is clearly a man that believes in his own core values and principles. He is pragmatic, meticulous and a perfectionist. He needs to have trust in his players to carry out the roles he has given them, he needs to know that he has the trust of his employers to carry out the task they have given him and in return he needs to trust that the employers will let him. On this point, it is absolutely vital that certain people at the club take a backseat and let the man do what he has been brought in to do. I am under no illusion that if there is even a hint of meddling or interference, Karanka will stand his ground to ensure they stick to the plan; if not, Karanka has shown in previous roles that he will walk away. I don’t think the club can take that risk.
Much has been made online about Karanka wanting money to spend, and while I believe he will require investment in the team, I don’t think it’s all about having 15-20m+ to spend. After listening to the Guillem Balague podcast with Karanka and the Chris Skudder one, again with Balague, it’s worth noting that money isn’t necessarily the main factor for the new Head Coach. As long as he believes in the project and the targets set by the club are realistic, he can, and will, work within the parameters agreed.
Yes, there is Jude Bellingham money and the money saved on wages with a handful of senior players leaving, but the club are currently in debt to the tune of approximately £90m. At some point the parties that have loaned the club money will start wanting that money back. It’s quite clear that without the guaranteed income of season ticket money and match-day concessions etc, the club will need to be careful, look to balance the books and become self-sustainable, or at least as close to it as possible.
The club need to be smart in the next two transfer windows . They’ve already shown signs of being able to do good business in the transfer market by not over spending. Low cost young players that can improve the team with high ceilings and potential good resale value is the manner that the club need to continue in. Adding one or two experienced leader type players could and should be an option too. The lack of leadership in the dressing room was there for all to see post-lockdown. In reality, it could take Karanka and Blues four transfer windows to overhaul this squad and turn themselves into real challengers. For now, just add enough quality to ensure that the club can consolidate in the league during the 20/21 season.
My hope is that the club have agreed realistic targets and timelines with the Spaniard. Blues have mostly spent the last few seasons fighting off relegation and it is time to bring that to an end and start really building for the future. This appointment is probably one of the most, if not, the most important in the clubs recent history and it is crucial that the new man is given time to move the club forward on the pitch. Karanka has a 3 year contract with the club and that for me, is realistic length of time to get Blues to the Premier League. The Championship is unpredictable, but I don’t think anyone expects the club to be competing for promotion in the 20/21, I certainly don’t. I truly believe the aim should be a mid-table or top half finish and if they happen to flirt with or make it into the play offs, then that’s a bonus – but first and foremost the goal should be consolidation in the league. Build on that and then focus on 21/22 and 22/23 as the seasons you look for promotion. By that time, Aitor Karanka will have had the time to build and mould his squad in the way he wants and Blues might actually have a competent team that the fans can be proud of.