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Middlesbrough’s 2-2 draw at Leicester on Saturday moved Aitor Karanka’s men onto 12 points in what has been a respectable start to Premier League life for a team boasting little in the way of experience.
Loanees Calum Chambers and Alvaro Negredo have had cursory spells with Arsenal and Manchester City respectively while Fabio da Silva and Victor Valdes have both had years with Manchester United, but it is only Stewart Downing in the ‘Boro squad who has extensive knowledge of the top-flight.
It is no surprise then that Karanka has opted to stick largely with the same team that earned promotion last term, utilising a tight-knit squad in which only 22 players have been used- only four teams have used less players.
Valdes has replaced Dimitrios Konstantopoulos in goal while Antonio Barragan has been preferred to Emilio Nsue at right-back, but the rest of the defence has been made up with the same rear-guard, centre-halves Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala and left-back George Friend, that conceded the least amount of goals in last year’s Championship.
The result has been a resolute unit that has only lost once away from their Riverside home and has taken hard-fought points away from tough assignments at Arsenal and Manchester City.
The latter was given to them via a last-minute header from Marten de Roon, the £12 million summer signing from Atalanta who has competed with Ayala for a spot alongside Gibson, who ghosted in to meet a delightful cross from Friend.
Friend, who started 39 games in the promotion campaign and has been a mainstay of ‘Boro’s defence since making the switch from Doncaster Rovers for £100,000 back in 2012, has been a paragon of Middlesbrough’s adjustment to the top-flight, having struggled in early games but quickly improved to become one of Karanka’s most reliable performers.
Adnan Januzaj, Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha all gave the 29-year-old left-back a bumpy introduction to Premier League life but he has developed into a solid defender.
With 35 interceptions only 5 players have recorded more in the division while his total of 10 crosses blocked, a tally topped by his team-mate Barragan with 12 on the opposite flank, suggests he is responding well to Karanka’s instructions to prevent balls coming into the box.
Both Alexis Sanchez and Kevin De Bruyne failed to get much out of Friend when they came up against him and against City he was only too willing to show what he can do when his long, raking legs are permitted to gallop forwards.
His delightful cross for de Roon’s equaliser lingered in the memory but Friend also recorded a match-high 5 tackles and saw more of the ball than any other ‘Boro player.
England call-up on the way?
Friend was also solid in matches with Arsenal, a test of his credentials he likened to taking his A-Levels, and at home to Bournemouth, where he played in-front of the likely next England manager Gareth Southgate.
Whether he has done enough to earn a national call-up is debatable, though he certainly appears to be on his way and Stewart Downing seems to think so.
“It won’t just be Ben he will have been keeping an eye on. Adam (Clayton), Calum (Chambers) and George (Friend)” he said, “he will probably look and think ‘I will give them a chance if they keep playing well’. A few of them have caught the eye.”
A knee-injury in training following the draw at City came at just the wrong time if he was aiming to continue the momentum, ruling him out of the following games with Chelsea and Leicester, and how much would Karanka have missed the assurance and organisational skills of his vice-captain as his team afforded two penalties in twice sacrificing winning positions against the champions.
Mid-way through the first half at the King Power Stadium, his stand-in Fabio da Silva, who coped well with Chelsea’s Victor Moses the week before, was given the run-around by Riyad Mahrez as the winger crossed for Shinji Okazaki to hit the crossbar.
It would be difficult to imagine Friend allowing himself to get the same treatment.
Grant Leadbitter has lost his place to Adam Forshaw so Friend has been trusted with the captain’s armband this season and the sooner his leadership returns the better for Karanka as he aims to return some parsimony to his back four which looked panicky, with Ayala also out and de Roon moved to midfield, in the draw with Leicester.
Away from the field the left-back busies himself with working with the Middlesbrough Foundation to provide support for an area that was badly hit by the closure of the town’s steelworks in 2015.
In an age when many Premier League players can find themselves aloof due to astronomical wages, his work landed him the PFA’s Player in the Community Award for 2016 as well as endearing himself further to ‘Boro’s fans.
Those fans were found to be criticising the left-back who he found the jump to the top flight initially tough, but he has quickly recovered to earn their adulation once again.
Friend, who is on the management committee of the PFA, has a degree in sports journalism and broadcasting with his future clearly in mind.
For now, Middlesbrough supporters and Karanka need to appreciate the dependability and calm Friend gives them. Its absence is costly when it isn’t there.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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