Dani Alves: I Made One Final Promise to the Barcelona Board – ‘You’ll Miss Me’


London – Dani Alves came close to tears when Juventus defeated his former club Barcelona in the quarter-final of this season’s Champions League but says he felt disrespected by the Catalan club when he left Camp Nou for the Serie A champions a year ago.

The right-back is expected to start against Real Madrid in the final on Saturday and has been in exceptional form during Juventus’s European run, creating three of their four goals in the semi-final against Monaco and scoring the other. But, writing exclusively for the Players’ Tribune website, he explained his affection for Barça led to some mixed emotions after the 3-0 aggregate win in April. “When we beat Barcelona in the Champions League I walked up to my brother Neymar and gave him a hug,” he said. “He was crying and a part of me felt like crying too.”

Alves, who spent eight years at Barcelona before departing on a free transfer with a year left on his contract, says they are “still in my blood” and he remains frustrated by the manner of his exit.

“Was I disrespected by the board of directors before I left the club last summer? Absolutely,” he said. “That is simply how I feel and you can never tell me any different. But you cannot play for a club for eight years and achieve everything that we did and not have that club in your heart for ever. Managers, players and board members come and go but Barça will never go away.

“ Before I went to Juventus, I made a final promise to the board at Barcelona. I said: ‘You’re going to miss me.’ I didn’t mean as a player. Barça have plenty of incredible players. What I meant was they were going to miss my spirit. They were going to miss the care I had for the dressing room. They were going to miss the blood I spilled every time I put on the shirt.”

Alves won 23 trophies there – with three European Cups and six La Liga titles. He was one of Pep Guardiola’s first signings, arriving from Sevilla in 2008, and describes his former manager as a “genius”.

“Pep would tell you exactly how everything was going to happen in a match before it even happened,” he said. “The sensation when we left every one of his pre-match talks was like we were already up 3-0. We were so empowered, so prepared, it felt like we were already winning.”

Guardiola, who is under pressure to begin replicating that success at Manchester City, reshaped Alves’s understanding of football. “Pep was the first coach in my life who showed me how to play without the ball,” he said. “And he wouldn’t just demand that his players change their game, he would sit us down and show us why we wanted us to change with statistics and video. Those Barça teams were pretty much unbeatable. We played by memory. We already knew what we were going to do. We didn’t have to think.”

Alves played alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona but believes Juventus have a comparable talent in the Argentina forward Paulo Dybala, who should start behind Gonzalo Higuaín in Cardiff. Dybala scored twice in the quarter-final against Barça. “In training one day, I saw something in Dybala I had seen before in Messi,” he said. “It was not just the gift of pure talent. I have seen that many times in my life. It was the gift of pure talent combined with the will to conquer the world.”

Juventus seek their first European Cup since 1996 and Alves believes his team go about things in a different manner to the free-flowing Barcelona of which he was an integral part. Victory against Real would feel sweet but the motivation has nothing to do with his feelings towards his old club.

“At Barça, we played by memory,” he said. “At Juve, it’s different. It’s our collective mentality that has carried us to the final. When the whistle blows, we simply find a way to win no matter what. Winning is not just a goal at Juve, it’s like an obsession. There are no excuses.

“This Saturday, I have a chance to win my 35th trophy in 34 years on earth. It is a special opportunity for me, and it has nothing to do with proving to the Barcelona board that they made a mistake in letting me go.”

The Guardian Sport

‘Disappointed’ Alexis Sánchez at the Heart of Arsenal’s Pivotal Summer


London – As usual the vast majority of the punters in the Club Level seats that ring all the way round the prime view at the Emirates Stadium took their time to re-emerge into the sunshine after half-time of Arsenal’s game with Manchester United on Sunday. It is a particularly expensive area of the stadium, with plush concourses and refreshments to enjoy at leisure. These are season-ticket holders who are especially important to Arsenal because they generate handsome income, with an outlay roughly between £2,500 and £4,000 per seat, per season.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these executive seats went out for renewal early, giving the marketing team more time for the sales pitch if needed. The pack to sign up for the 2017-18 campaign landed a few weeks ago. Many – both ordinary supporters with a few bob and corporate customers – have thought long and hard about justifying their renewals and have let the deadline lapse. Why? Primarily because they do not know exactly what they are paying for. Will Arsène Wenger still be the manager next season? Will Mesut Özil be there? Will Alexis Sánchez? Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Might they still be able to experience Champions League nights or will it be Europa Thursdays?

As a club Arsenal are operating on two quite different levels at the moment. The visible part is there for all to see and judged on each match day. The less visible part, like the duck’s feet whirring away under the water, is trying to operate the business side. But the trouble is the duck’s legs are tied together. They are struggling to generate momentum because so much is up in the air.

In three weeks the season will be over – possibly with an FA Cup after the final against Chelsea and a snatched top-four Premier League place but very possibly not. It is hard to avoid the feeling that the summer ahead will be a stressful one, with so many influential players coming into the final year of their contracts.

One of them is Sánchez, indisputably Arsenal’s most valuable asset. In a rare interview with Sky Sports over the weekend the Chilean attacker gave an insight into how his frustrations are in part because of his personality but also because he aims higher than the team is capable of reaching at the moment. He talks like a man obsessed with winning.

“I don’t think it has been a very good season for me because I came here to win trophies, to be competing in the Champions League semi-finals and to win the Premier League, and I feel disappointed that we aren’t in a position to win the Premier League or the Champions League,” he said. “We do have the FA Cup final coming up and we’ll give it our all to try to win it.

“When I got here, I thought: ‘I’ll win the title with this squad.’ I feel that we should win more games 3-0 or 4-0. That does sometimes happen when we play very well. I think Arsenal play the best brand of football in England. There have been games when we’ve been in a position to kick on and win, but we’ve made a small mistake and found ourselves 2-0 down. Sometimes that gets to me because winning those points is so important if you want to win the Premier League. I think that, if a player wants to be at the very top, he needs to win the Champions League and league titles. That’s what makes the great players truly great.”

There have been times this season when Sánchez’s body language has tangibly revealed his disillusionment. “As I always say, life is short and a footballer’s career is even shorter,” he said. “I want to win in every training session, I want to win every game I play in. That’s why I sometimes feel powerless when I go home after a bad result.

“It’s very tough, if I’m honest. Every player is very different. There are players who don’t mind. They go out and feel fine about it but the ones that want to win and be champions are the ones that put in the biggest effort, go home and get angry [if it has not gone well]. They lock themselves in and can’t sleep, which is what sometimes happens to me if we’ve lost a key game.”

The risk of losing Sánchez for Arsenal is a double blow in that not only would they be stripped of one of their most talented players, they would also undermine the way they have improved their status in the transfer market in recent seasons. Not so long ago Arsenal were regarded as a selling club whose most important assets could be prised away fairly easily. The summers ruined by the sale of Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie were painful. Putting an end to that, first holding what they have, then stepping forwards boldly enough to recruit elite quality in the shape of Özil and Sánchez, symbolised an enhanced sense of ambition. To lose Sánchez after three years at the club, when he is aged 28 and still very much in his prime, would send a damaging signal.

Will talks on his future hinge on whether Arsenal can get back into the Champions League positions? “It depends,” he said. “What I want to do now is to finish the season well, try to qualify for the Champions League, win the FA Cup and then I’ll sit down with the club to decide what I’m going to do. We’ve said that the two of us [with Wenger] will sit down together to discuss the topic in terms of what will happen, what’s best for the club, what’s best for me, what’s best for him. We’ll speak once the season is over.”

The Guardian Sport

Referees are Damned by their Errors, Ignorance of the Laws is No Defence


The fact that the referee Martin Atkinson sounds even more like the comedian Bob Mortimer than he looks was not the most interesting revelation to emerge from Sky’s recent effort to show the human side of match officials on The Referees – Onside with Carragher and Neville.

Criticism from fans goes with the territory of whistle blowing but, asked how he feels about his staff being criticised by former peers-turned‑pundits such as Howard Webb, Mike Riley, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited managing director and former referee, explained to embedded reporters Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville that it is in fact the brickbats of players-turned-pundits that tend to disappoint as they are often hurled from a position of blissful ignorance.

“If you’re a former player, you’re not expected to know the rules of the game,” said Riley, whose blithe assertion went weirdly unchallenged by the two specimens of the breed seated before him, both of whom are renowned for their fastidious approach to punditry.

The same cannot be said for all sportsmen. The comical sight of Dylan Hartley and James Haskell, England internationals who had amassed 151 caps between them at that point, pleading with the French referee Romain Poite to explain the rules of the sport during a Six Nations match earlier this year will live long in the memory of all who saw it but it can reasonably be argued that even for those who play the game, rugby is a form of organised chaos governed by laws so byzantine only the most devoted anorak could be excused for not being familiar with them all. On the World Rugby Laws website, the complexities of that particular sport’s offside rule is explained in 23 often long‑winded and barely coherent clauses spread across 11 different subsections. By contrast, most young footballers are taught the finer points of their sport’s equivalent at the kitchen table in a 60-second tutorial involving assorted condiments.

Compared with those of rugby, golf or cricket, the laws of football are fairly straightforward and, while former players who are paid handsomely to analyse games could be forgiven for not being familiar with some of them, it is hardly unfair to suggest they should at least be on nodding terms with most of them. Match officials, on the other hand, have no excuse for not having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the justice they hand down, a state of affairs that rendered the performance of Keith Stroud in the Championship match between Newcastle United and Burton Albion last Wednesday all the more extraordinary.

In case you missed it: having awarded Newcastle a penalty, which was dispatched by Matt Ritchie, Stroud incurred the vengeful and raucous wrath of the home team’s players, backroom staff and most of the 48,814 crowd by disallowing the goal for encroachment. Instead of ordering the penalty be retaken, he further incensed most present by making the bizarre and completely incorrect decision to award Burton an indirect free-kick, prompting a lengthy break in play during which he consulted two of his fellow match officials.

For reasons best known to themselves, they appeared to do little or nothing to convince the referee he was about to make an embarrassing and potentially career-defining blunder. And make no mistake, with one or two notable exceptions, it is by their errors that football referees tend to be defined no matter how competent they are.

As the camera cut or panned from one referee or referee’s assistant to another on Carragher’s and Neville’s documentary, it was each individual’s errors that leapt immediately to mind, rather than the decent performances – the ones that tend to go unnoticed – for which they would rather to be remembered. Anthony Taylor? That Sam Vokes handball in Burnley’s match against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. Stuart Attwell? Reading’s “ghost” goal at Watford all those years ago. Mike Dean? Five rescinded red cards this season. Indeed, the notable exception among all those featured seemed to be the female referee’s assistant Sian Massey-Ellis. The 31-year-old will have to mess up spectacularly before her career is defined by anything other than the sexist jibes of a pair of former employees of the TV network on whose documentary she was appearing.

But back to Stroud. Just as the notion that the official from Dorset could have become a member of English football’s refereeing elite without actually knowing something so basic as what to do after penalising a player for encroachment at a spot-kick is too weird to even contemplate, we are also left to assume he suffered some sort of brain-freeze which quickly spread to those tasked with helping him to avoid such meltdowns.

In Carragher’s and Neville’s film we got to read the merciless self-criticism penned by Taylor in his report on that Liberty Stadium horror show, but one feels Stroud’s explanation for his tomfoolery in the white heat of the St James’ Park cauldron would make far more riveting reading.

While entertaining, one suspects Carragher’s and Neville’s occasionally banter-rific documentary about referees is unlikely to alter the views of any one-eyed, tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who think each and every match official is biased against their team. Stroud’s inexplicable gaffe was even more entertaining and even less likely to change closed minds.

The Guardian Sport

La Liga’s Foreign Players are Easy Targets until They Master the Spanish Language


n Spain, football is played in Spanish. There is a necessity to find both your feet and tongue in La Liga. In December, sports newspaper AS posted a video of Gareth Bale speaking about his recovery from injury under the tag: “Progress with Spanish, watch how he pronounces ‘Hala’ Madrid.” The Welshman’s crime? He accented the first letter in ‘Hala’ when it isn’t necessary.

This was just one of many thinly veiled criticisms of Bale from the media about his linguistic abilities, despite his increasing command of the language. Headlines such as “Bale reveals the motives behind his lack of fluency” seek to offer an explanation to fans for an issue that causes them no shortage of worry. They think his lack of ability with his tongue might spread down to his boots, limiting his capability on the park.

In November 2015, Bale gave an interview that offered an insight into his adaptation. He said he felt completely settled in the side and conversed freely in English with Luca Modric, Toni Kroos, Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Arbeloa, as well as all of the medical team and his manager at the time, Rafa Benítez. His main stumbling block to making real strides with Spanish was the fact that most of his fellow players wanted to practice their English with him.

To give an idea of the criticism levelled at Bale, here’s an extract from an article published in the football paper Sport last year, under the headline “Bale: suspense about his integration and ability in Spanish.”

Harsh words for a player who has scored 67 goals in 144 games for Real Madrid. But this treatment is common in Spain and the cry of “hurry up and learn our language” isn’t unique to the pen of journalists.

Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba was caught by TV cameras shouting “learn to speak Spanish, idiot!” at Real Madrid’s Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic during the clásico in December. What Alba hadn’t realised was that Kovacic speaks Spanish with relative ease, alongside German, English, Italian and his native Croatian. Not to mention a little Catalan, which, unfortunately for him, he let slip during his Real Madrid presentation – much to the annoyance of Madrid fans.

These incidents help to illustrate a culture of patriotism that exists within Spanish football. It’s not enough to do your talking on the pitch. You have to speak the language too or make the utmost effort to do so, otherwise, you face ridicule. A lot of media and fans will only be at complete ease with foreign players when they demonstrate that they have mastered Spanish. Until then, their lack of fluency will be used against them if they put in any poor performances on the pitch.

Toni Kroos cited match preparation, house-hunting and family issues for his “problems with the language” not long after his arrival at Madrid. The media were uncomfortable when he spoke in German. Kroos also said that Carlo Ancelotti, his manager at the time, explained specific instructions to him in English. Some fans also look back at David Beckham’s farewell press conference with Real Madrid with disdain, due to his lack of fluency in the language after his four seasons in Madrid.

The truth is, his Spanish wasn’t as terrible as people think. He clearly had a grasp of the language and cited his own shyness for the lack of depth in his choice of words when announcing his farewell. Beckham’s supposed “lack of fluency” didn’t seem to inhibit his ability as a Madrid player. He scored 20 goals in 155 appearances and helped the club win La Liga in his final season in Madrid.

Zinedine Zidane admitted that the language barrier held them back from establishing a close friendship, but they were in tandem while playing. “My relationship with David is little,” said Zidane. “On the pitch, we understand each other perfectly, but as I don’t speak English and he doesn’t speak Spanish we are a little bit lost.”

Does it really matter? Or should it? If a player can get by in a foreign language, make life comfortable for themselves and their families, that should be enough. As Zidane said, they understood each other perfectly. What Beckham lacked was the need to master the language to get by on a day-to-day level. He undoubtedly lived a comfortable existence, which was reflected in his performances.

But this isn’t enough for the Spanish media. Foreign footballers are making a living in their country and the press think they should speak the language. But why? The beauty in football surely lies in its capacity to allow for 11 people, perhaps from entirely different backgrounds and countries, to understand each other in pursuit of a common goal: victory.

The Sevilla team that beat Liverpool in the Europa League final last May, for example, featured players from Brazil, France, Portugal, Poland, Argentina, Uruguay and Ukraine – as well as a few Spaniards. As Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to transform the world, to inspire and to bring people together like few other things.” A portion of the Spanish media don’t seem to agree. The same media who have ingested various anglicisms into their footballing dialect over the past few years – words such as “top”, “box-to-box” and “show” to name just a few.

Even people working within the Spanish media aren’t free from criticism. Northern Irishman Michael Robinson has lived in Spain for 27 years and has worked as a pundit for Canal+ for 20 years but he still retains a strong accent when speaking Spanish. Apparently, this isn’t good enough for some fans, who criticise his way of speaking and ask if he will ever lose his accent every time he appears on TV.

Robinson has hit back, saying his accent is what sets him apart – his own “brand” as it were. He even revealed that he was told to maintain his accent when he first signed up as a commentator, with producers even asking him to spend his holidays in England as opposed to Marbella.

Serbian defender Dusko Tosic found his lack of understanding of Spanish a barrier to his chances while on loan at Real Betis from Red Star Belgrade in 2011, when he appeared only once. Even in the face of defensive injuries, manager Pepe Mel did not pick Tosic, citing the defender’s inability to understand what was going on during training sessions as the reason behind his lack of action.

Tosic was bemused, pointing out that he had never had similar problems while playing in England, France or Germany, where his ability with the language was minimal. To add to his predicament, the club neglected to employ a Spanish teacher to help him.

When Sami Khedira arrived at Madrid in 2010, the press criticism he received after his first game served as a wake-up call. The reason for his slow start – and Mesut Özil’s – was put down to the fact that neither spoke Spanish, which apparently complicated their integration with their team-mates. In truth, their lack of English was as important, as José Mourinho wasn’t able to fully to transmit his instructions to them. To quell the unrest among the Madrid press, Khedira reminded them that he’d only been in the country for three weeks and that he was taking Spanish lessons to help him improve.

One thing the press in Barcelona and Madrid have agreed upon in recent seasons was Pep Guardiola’s seemingly “impossible” near fluency in German when he arrived at Bayern Munich. Both sections of the Spanish media called him a “superhero” – and no doubt someone foreign players in Spain should look up to as an example. AS went as far as explaining how few errors he made during his presentation in Madrid, while El Mundo called him “a lover of impossible challenges” as if he was some sort of quasi-footballing Genghis Khan. They didn’t point out that Guardiola had spent a full year on sabbatical in New York, where he had German classes every day with a personal tutor.

The question remains, what excuses will the media use if Bale and Kroos put in poor performances once they demonstrate full fluency in Spanish? Time will tell.

The Guardian Sport

Arsenal Require Major Surgery whether Arsène Wenger Stays or Goes


On Arsène Wenger, everything is divided, even the news. Just as Bild was reporting there has been contact between representatives of Arsenal and the Borussia Dortmund coach, Thomas Tuchel – no great shock given recent uncertainty but an indication the board is perhaps not quite so supine as it can at times seem – so it was emerging the decision Wenger trailed after Saturday’s defeat by West Bromwich Albion is that he wishes to stay. The handful of people in Britain qualified to fly planes dragging banners must be delighted.

The Wenger situation has been discussed so often it is hard not to approach it with a sense of weariness. That he is no longer the bright innovator he was when he arrived 20 years ago, that football has caught him up and passed him by, seems obvious. So, too, is the fact he is a decent man and manager.

That the protests of a few dozen diehards insisting he is “killing our club” have received so much attention is symptomatic of a culture that favours those who shout loudest, however extreme, illogical or distasteful their opinions. This, perhaps, is the curse of the social media age: the liberal sentiment that all views must be heard conspires with clickbait sensationalism to repackage the rule of the mob as the wisdom of crowds.

But that is an argument about the argument rather than an argument itself. Should Wenger go? The fear his departure could plunge Arsenal into the same sort of fretting that continues to undermine Manchester United three and a half seasons after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson is real enough, particularly for Arsenal shareholders, who have become used to the income generated by habitual qualification for the Champions League – even if, 13 years after their last league title, there seems ostensibly less to lose.

That the removal of the head leaves such a vacuum speaks of the failure of Ferguson and Wenger, the last of English football’s great autocrats, to put a modern management structure in place.

And there is a chance Wenger’s conservatism pays off. The move to the new stadium necessitated careful husbandry but it goes beyond that. Wenger’s unwillingness to spend beyond what he perceives as the market rate for players has been a great source of frustration for fans but his scepticism about the boom in broadcast rights may end up being justified.

Football over the past decade or two has seemed weirdly immune to wider economic trends but if a crash should come, if football turns out to have been a bubble, the club with £226m sitting in the bank will be in a position to clean up (although you hope they have converted it to something less insecure than sterling).

Then you look at the state of Arsenal. It would be touching, appropriate even, if Wenger could go out with an implausible triumph at the last, the equivalent of Jack Nicklaus’s Masters win in 1986 or Steve Waugh’s farewell 80 at the SCG, but there is no realistic prospect of Arsenal winning the league next season. The three biggest signings have not done as hoped and taken the club to the next level: Alexis Sánchez will surely leave in the summer, Mesut Özil has not signed his contract (although it is far from clear any European club who could afford his wages would want him) and Granit Xhaka has struggled badly. Just as disappointingly, the many young prospects – Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Francis Coquelin, Calum Chambers, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – have stagnated to the point where they are no longer either young or prospects. Demoralisation and indiscipline haunt every attempt to defend a set piece or a counterattack. The decay is palpable.

Major surgery is necessary, whether it is Wenger in charge or somebody else – and it may even be that it is a sense he cannot hand over the club when they are in such a mess that has persuaded him to stay on. Acknowledging the salary would be a draw, who among the realistic candidates would want the job?

Tuchel has a bright young squad at Borussia Dortmund and maybe a point to prove after a season ruined at its outset by a catalogue of injuries. Jorge Sampaoli speaks no English and, as his Sevilla falter, perhaps feels he has unfinished business there. Diego Simeone will leave Atlético Madrid at some point – and intriguingly used the English word “fixture” on Sunday – but his style seems antithetical to the ethos Wenger has developed.

Eddie Howe, as the leading English candidate, may fancy the step up but, given how badly his one previous stint away from Bournemouth went and his lack of big-club experience, he would be a major gamble.

Something similar might be said of RB Leipzig’s Ralph Hasenhüttl or Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann – both bold choices and exciting managers but with a limited body of work at a high level. Would an exhausted Luis Enrique really want to get straight back on the treadmill, especially at a club that needs so much work? Would Leonardo Jardim want to leave an exciting Monaco at this stage?

And that is the problem Arsenal have created for themselves. By delaying an awkward decision so long, they have allowed the club to become less attractive to potential successors than it ought to be.

The Guardian Sport

Middlesbrough Control Freak Karanka Pays Price for Conservatism, Clashes


The rationale behind Steve Gibson’s long-standing reluctance to sack Aitor Karanka and the reason he ultimately felt impelled to dismiss Middlesbrough’s first foreign manager were, paradoxically, both encapsulated by the Basque’s handling of Adama Traoré.

A force-of-nature type winger, the former Barcelona prodigy turned Aston Villa flop was invariably instructed to switch flanks at half-time by Karanka. This, Boro’s manager revealed, was to ensure Traoré always operated within earshot of the home technical area so he could receive coaching throughout the game.

Such micro-management succeeded in producing a startling turnaround in Traoré’s game and, most specifically, his decision-making, but it also sometimes unbalanced a team whose improvisational instincts were quashed by an ultra-controlling coach.

The detailed managerial instructions stemming from the mind-boggling 80-page dossiers Karanka compiled on opponents left Boro playing with the handbrake on and go a long way towards explaining why they have won four Premier League games this season and scored only 19 goals. They are set up to play on the break and their conservative formation has left them lacking attacking outlets.

Debates behind the scenes between the manager and senior players anxious to adopt a more attacking approach are understood to have led to dissension between José Mourinho’s former Real Madrid assistant and, among others, Álvaro Negredo, Gastón Ramírez, Antonio Barragán, Stewart Downing and Patrick Bamford.

Matters came to a head after last Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup defeat at home to Manchester City when Karanka was asked why Downing and Bamford had been excluded from the squad and replied he “only wanted fighters” playing for him.

Whereas Bamford, a £6m January signing from Chelsea, has clearly been struggling, the omission of Downing – a Teessider the manager never really wanted to sign last season – stemmed from a training-ground row with the former England winger. Downing, a popular and influential dressing-room figure, proved the wrong man for Karanka to fall out with.

All-round relations had been deteriorating for some weeks, months even, with the new year seeing Karanka turning on fans for shouting “attack, attack” and the board for failing to sign Robert Snodgrass in January, and even blaming a member of the club’s medical staff for confusion over the fitness of the left-back George Friend.

As grudges festered results declined to the point where Boro have gone 10 league games without a win, scoring only three goals during that run.

Somewhere during the transition from autumn to winter the stubbornness that served the former Real Madrid defender so well in winning automatic promotion last season changed, almost imperceptibly, into an increasingly self-destructive force.

One of Karanka’s favourite motivational slogans is: “Tough situations don’t last; tough people do.” But his mistake was to see compromise and delegation as signs of weakness.

Intensely proud of his Basque heritage, the 43-year-old has a volatile side that led to the 2014 departure of Craig Hignett after nine months as his assistant, when the former Boro midfielder crossed him once too often.

Almost exactly a year ago a managerial tantrum led to his suspension by the club after a training-ground disagreement on the Friday before a Sunday defeat at Charlton. Briefly placed on gardening leave and denied admittance to the club, Karanka remained at home while his team played. Dismissal was widely expected but instead Gibson offered him the benefit of the doubt and was rewarded with automatic promotion.

Although the squad was strengthened appreciably during the summer – Negredo, Barragán, Marten de Roon and Traoré were among the arrivals – and the boardroom harboured hopes of a mid-table finish, Karanka consistently maintained finishing 17th would be a triumph.

Resisting repeated calls to field two strikers, he persisted with one up front, resulting in a litany of draws and one of the division’s best defensive records. In reality the system itself was not so much a problem as his rigid, low-risk interpretation of it, which often left Negredo isolated and led to his team-mates being censured for attempting to “mix things up” by sometimes unleashing long, early balls.

This purist philosophy drew admiration. “Boro are so sophisticated,” enthused Alan Pardew, the then Crystal Palace manager, but it was Sean Dyche’s highly direct, distinctly non-frilly, fellow Premier League new boys, Burnley, who cantered into mid-table security.

Hints of tensions had emerged last summer when Steve Agnew, Hignett’s replacement, appeared tempted to join his friend Steve Bruce at Aston Villa. Ultimately Agnew stayed but there were strong suggestions the respected coach was not consulted and confided in as much as he should have been by a manager whose controlling characteristics were possibly made more pronounced during those seasons in Madrid spent studying the Mourinho mind games songbook.

Agnew was disappointed to see Jordan Rhodes, his nephew, sidelined by the manager and offered no chance to show whether his Championship goalscoring feats could be replicated in the top tier. Part of the problem was Karanka felt Rhodes, now at Sheffield Wednesday, did not fit into his 4-2-3-1 system and could not operate as a lone striker. Although Rudy Gestede and Bamford, Rhodes’s January replacements, theoretically fitted the configuration, both have proved alarmingly ineffective.

Tellingly Ben Gibson, the nephew of the owner, Steve, recently indicated a flawed philosophy was costing Boro dear.

“We might have a very good defensive record but it’s hard to defend for as long as we defend sometimes,” said the centre-half. “It takes 11 people to be working their socks off and pulling in the right direction.”

The Guardian Sport