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2:00 AM UTC Mar 24, 2018
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Middlesbrough right to fire Aitor Karanka, but did they wait too long?

After parting ways with manager Aitor Karanka, have Middlesbrough given themselves a better chance of Prem survival?

And so the axe falls once again. Of the six Premier League teams with fewer than 30 points this season, only one has stayed faithful to the manager who opened their 2016-17 campaign. Sadly, that team is Sunderland, three points adrift at the bottom, six clear of safety and with more defeats on their record than any other club in the top flight.

It's little wonder, then, that the famously lengthy patience of Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson finally ran out on Thursday. Aitor Karanka joins Claudio Ranieri, Francesco Guidolin, Bob Bradley, Alan Pardew and Mike Phelan on the pile of managers jettisoned out of a fear of ruinous relegation.

The lure of the fabled "new manager bounce" is strong. Despite accusations that they had ruined football forever by sacking Ranieri, Leicester City have won three games on the bounce and are now England's only representatives in the last eight of the Champions League. So that went well. Their minor hiccup against Hull on Saturday not withstanding, Swansea are a far better side under Paul Clement. His team now move about the pitch like a marching band, drilled into synchronisation by his adept coaching.

It took a while for Crystal Palace to get going under Sam Allardyce but with back-to-back wins under their belts and a winnable game against Watford this weekend, they seem to be going in the right direction. Even Hull, who were as well-prepared for a season in the Premier League as a man trying to plug a volcano with a bin liner and a pair of oven gloves, have given themselves a chance by investing in the abilities of Marco Silva.

But have Middlesbrough left it too late?

Karanka was well respected on Teeside, at least until the past few weeks. He ended their seven-year stay in the Championship by shoring up their defence and solidifying their shape. They nearly came up in 2015 before achieving their promotion dream in 2016 but as 2017 unfolded, the team's form was appalling. Lincoln City have beaten more Premier League teams than 'Boro this year; indeed, by virtue of that single late strike against Burnley, they've also scored more goals against Premier League opposition since the start of February than 'Boro.

It is often said that all it takes to stay in the Premier League is a solid defence, but Boro have been on a lone mission to emphatically disprove this theory. They have conceded fewer goals (30) than Liverpool (35) or Arsenal (31) but their paltry haul of 19 goals scored, fewer even than Sunderland (24), looks to have condemned them to the drop.

Karanka's goodwill finally ran out at Middlesbrough due to their inability to score goals.

Larger teams around them will be scouting consistently high performers like George Friend and Ben Gibson closely if 'Boro do go down, but there won't be much interest in anyone else. There may be a manager or two who feels that the unpredictable Adama Traore is worth the trouble, but he'll take some coaching. The man is an unmarked firework; you have no idea if he's going to rise up and make everyone coo with pleasure or if he's going to veer off and blind someone in the crowd.

Too often, though, Traore has been the only link between the massed red ranks of 'Boro and poor, solitary Alvaro Negredo up front, left to fend for himself far away from his colleagues. Karanka worked hard on Traore and was rewarded with steadily more productive performances, but it wasn't enough. And as the results continued to go against him, the bond that had built up between him and the supporters slowly frayed.

Gibson's next decision will determine the success or failure of the season, the financial future of the club and the job prospects of dozens of club employees in a region where employment opportunities have been savaged by industrial decline. No pressure, then. He does have a record of giving young managers their first top job in football. He appointed Bryan Robson as player-manager in 1994, Steve McClaren in 2001, Gareth Southgate in 2006 and, of course, Karanka in 2013. But he may feel that this challenge is too much for a rookie and there are plenty of old-timers out there.

Alan Pardew is keen to return to football and while his team's performances do tend to drop off, his arrival usually draws a swift, positive reaction from the players. However, Pardew's acrimonious exit from relatively nearby Newcastle may have tarnished his reputation.

Nigel Pearson saw out the last four seasons of his playing career with the club and his no-nonsense style might shake up the dressing room. For all that the media are unsettled by him, the players at Leicester are said to still hold him in high regard. And then there's Roy Hodgson, full of experience and eager to prove that England hasn't broken him.

As we saw with Allardyce's troubled start at Palace, there is no such thing as the obvious choice anymore. Few managers have more experience at successfully battling relegation than "Big Sam" but it still took him six precious games to mark up his first win with the Eagles. With only 11 matches left to play, a decision needs to be made quickly.

Parting company with Karanka was an easily justifiable decision, but there will be nothing easy about replacing him.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.


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