In Marti Perarnau’s book “Pep Confidential” about Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern Munich, Guardiola stresses that he doesn’t like to have more than 20 players in his squad (since moving to Manchester he has acknowledged he needs more players due to the fixture schedule in England).
His main reason was that he absolutely hated telling any player that they weren’t making the match-day squad. He simply wanted to minimise the amount of people he had to deliver that news to. He was convinced that having too many disappointed players was detrimental to team spirit, and worried constantly about resentment and bitterness among his squad members.
Unlike Guardiola, Monk had to inform several players every week, including top proven Championship players and big money summer signings, that they wouldn’t be in the match-day squad. In the 23 games he managed the team fielded 24 different starters, and this was with a relatively fit squad and few suspensions.
Only Marten De Roon or Connor Roberts played a single game. The rest of those players have made at least 5 appearances starting or as a substitute. Adlene Guedioura became the 25th player to start for Boro this season. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, with new signings coming in, that Boro could potentially have over 30 players feature in the Championship alone this year.
In contrast, during the 2015-16 promotion season, Middlesbrough had a total 25 players start a match that season. 3 of those players, Kike Sola, Adam Reach and Yanic Wildschut, had only 5 starts between them. More importantly Karanka established a “spine” within the team.” From the start of the season Dimi, Nsue, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Clayton, Leadbitter, Adomah, and Downing were consistent first-choice players.
Karanka did have a reputation for being a “tinker” with line-ups, but those were usually adjustments based on a game-plan specific to the opposition. He also changed the front-line round a lot, mainly because was the area in which Boro struggled the most under Karanka that season.
There is little evidence that Monk made any changes based on the opposition, and he never changed a winning team. In hindsight, after the promising performance against Ipswich, the following game away at Millwall would be a totally different game and needed a different approach. Instead Monk fielded the same 11 and Boro were woeful in the 2-1 defeat.
In Monk’s squad the only players who have been confident of seeing their name on the team-sheet since day one are Randolph, Christie, Gibson, Assombalonga, and possibly Braithwaite. 23 games later he still had not established the back four, or settled the midfield.
Finding consistency in the starting line-up is important, but for the other it’s also about knowing your role within the squad. In 2015-16 Karanka had an established back four and midfield spine, but in players like Tomas Kalas and Adam Forshaw he had willing replacements who could slot in perfectly.
David Nugent was not Karanka’s first choice up front, but over the course of the season he featured in nearly 40 games contributing vital goals and assists throughout. There are too many players in current squad who had no clue how they featured within Monk’s plan (and neither really did Monk it seems).
Under Monk players could have a run in the team and then after one poor performance find themselves not even on the bench the following week. This type of approach can create fear and paranoia in performances. Towards the end of his regime Monk spoke about Boro’s poor results being down to too many individual errors which he could do nothing about.
I think there is a strong case that these individual errors were a psychological side-effect from Monk’s chaotic approach to team selection. Players knew one mistake can get you kicked out the team (Fry at Norwich a bleak example) and that fear, along with the lack of belief from the manager, actually makes it more likely that you will make a mistake in the game.
Top players don’t let mistakes or errors alter their overall performance, but this only works if the manager has the same faith in them. It’s like the Michael Jordan quote, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.” However, if you’re worried a failure is going to get you pulled from the team, it could disrupt your confidence and belief in your ability.
Rather than trying to coach the failings out of the team, too often Monk simply opted for a change in player and hoped that would yield a better result. He could do that because he had such a big squad with so many options. With a smaller squad, Monk and his team would been forced to try and find a way to overcome issues. It explains why, despite the chopping and changing in the line-up, the performances always had the same muddled and unconvincing feel to them.
In the ‘Football Manager Files’ podcast from a few years ago, Monk talked about how he believed a manager needs at least a season to really know his squad. The problem at Boro was he was given a brief of getting automatic promotion in his first season. This caused panic in his tactics, and double-guessing his own decisions such as the late abandonment of the 4-2-3-1 formation in pre-season.
Middlesbrough made some excellent signings in the summer. But the squad was far too bloated and uneven. It took an experienced outsider like Tony Pulis less than a day to realise that the squad was confused and suffering from a lack of unity and belief.
GIbson is banking on the new boss sorting this out. There are going to be casualties. But I’m hopeful that by trimming the squad, Pulis can bring a more collective focus and confidence to the squad.