Connect in the back of the net

Aitor Karanka was Jose Mourinho’s assistant coach at Real Madrid and it was the Portuguese who advised Karanka to take the job at Middlesbrough back in 2013. While Mourinho adjusts to life after his sacking from Chelsea, Karanka is thriving in the north east and his former mentor was among the crowd on Saturday lunchtime as Middlesbrough remained top of the Championship with a 0-3 rout of Brighton and Hove Albion.

It was a fairly comfortable victory, orchestrated on the counter-attack and taking advantage of Brighton’s vulnerability from crosses, Kike, Albert Adomah and Cristhian Stuani all converting centres into the box to ensured ‘Boro will be at the summit for Christmas.

The result however carried deeper significance as they became the first side to beat Brighton this season, ending a 21-match unbeaten run that, in a league as competitive as the Championship, will still be viewed as remarkable.

 

Away from the top-flight, but possibly not for long

Brighton have not played in the top-flight since suffering relegation from the old Division One back in 1983 but their work over the first half of this season, despite falling behind Derby and Middlesbrough after this defeat, hands them a supreme opportunity to make a long-awaited return.

For manager Chris Hughton, having guided Newcastle to promotion before his harsh sacking in December 2010 before his time at Norwich came to an end as relegation lingered in the latter part of 2014, the chance to take Brighton up will offer another chance to prove himself in the Premier League.

Hughton also guided Birmingham to a play-off defeat whilst under tight financial constraints but having previously shown he is capable of cracking the second-tier, promotion with Brighton will present him with a chance to indicate his abilities can stretch beyond merely battling to avoid falling straight back down.

It is now approaching a year since Hughton took charge following the disastrous spell under Sami Hyppia and the progress has been astounding. Taking control with Brighton rooted in the relegation zone with 21 games left, Hughton narrowly kept the Seagulls up before initiating this seismic turnaround in the summer.

 

Defence bolstered with their core intact

19 players were shipped out either on loan or on free deals and around £4 million was spent to bolster the defence with Uwe Hunemeier and Conor Goldson while Tomer Hemed and Jamie Murphy, scorers of nine goals between them, have added quality to the attack. Shrewd use of the loan market has seen the versatile Rajiv van La Parra arrive from Wolves and James Wilson, scorer of two goals in his first five appearances for the south coast club, came in from Manchester United.

The core of last season’s team, the likes of Lewis Dunk, Dale Stephens, Bruno, Inigo Calderon, Sam Baldock, Gordon Greer, Solly March, Kazenga Lua Lua and Beram Kayal have all remained however, Hughton trusting his instincts to get more out of the resources he already had. Stephens for example, the creative outlet alongside the destructive force of Kayal in Hughton’s 4-4-2, has four goals and four assists already after managing only two goals throughout the whole of the last campaign and is the team’s most prolific chance creator with 34 opportunities made.

Lua Lua already has as many, with three, as he got in the whole of last season, despite not scoring since August, the month he was named player of the month in tandem with Hughton who picked up a manager of the month award. The Congolese winger, although he has stagnated since, put his blistering start down to the togetherness within the squad and the positive effect of Bobby Zamora, who returned to Brighton on a free transfer from QPR to provide experience and cultured link-up play in attack, together with the five goals he has scored.

 

Astute management

The astute managing of resources and funds by Hughton will have pleased the club’s poker-player owner Tony Bloom who has invested over £200 million since taking control in 2009 and funded their move to the impressive AMEX stadium.

Bloom has remained reluctant to lavishly splash out on players since taking over at the club, certainly in contrast to the likes of Derby and Middlesbrough, and has remained devoted to trimming the club’s operational costs to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations.

“As such, we are keen to ensure all investments and player transactions are made with the club’s long-term future as well as short-term objectives in mind” he said back at the beginning of December.

Those short-term objectives will now have surely developed into targeting at least a play-off position and the camaraderie Hughton has instilled into his team should see them recover from the Middlesbrough set-back in-time for the busy festive period.

 

Lingering concern

But there will be a lingering concern that the 4-4-2, prioritising possession but demanding an organised two-banks of four when not on the ball, can leave them open, with 23 conceded only Ipswich Town have shipped more than them in the top eight.

After blowing a two-goal lead at QPR on Tuesday night, Middlesbrough took advantage of van La Parra and Murphy’s indiscipline out wide to find the space to whip crosses in and Hughton will have to ensure there isn’t a repeat.

There is of course a long way to go and Hughton and Brighton, the club who have lost in the play-offs in two of the past three seasons, will be the first ones to point that out. The defeat to Middlesbrough will act as a reality check but Brighton have laid the foundations for a promotion push as the season approaches half-way, with Hughton’s chance to finally prove he belongs in the top-flight now looming large on the horizon.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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