By Tony Leighton
Middlesbrough's change of fortunes since new manager Aitor Karanka settled into the club has been due to a perhaps unexpectedly more solid approach, says full-back George Friend, as Boro climb the Sky Bet Championship table.
When Spaniard Karanka, previously Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho's assistant at Real Madrid, arrived at the Riverside Stadium in mid-November, Boro were five points above the relegation zone - and a month later they had slipped to within three points of the danger area after Karanka's first five games in charge.
But a further month on a five-match unbeaten run has lifted the club into mid-table and six points below their ultimate target of the Play-Off places.
Defender Friend, a regular in the Boro back four since signing from Doncaster Rovers at the start of last season, told football-league.co.uk: "When a Spanish manager who had been at Real Madrid came to the club, people probably thought that we were going to be playing tippy-tappy, pretty football.
"But he knows that in the Championship you can't always play that way and he's got us playing a nice mix of good football with a strong, resolute streak.
"He works a lot on our defensive shape - he's not asking the full-backs to bomb on as much as we were expected to do in the past, for example. But at the same time he's not holding the strikers back and we certainly go out looking for goals."
Ten goals have come in Boro's last five league outings, in four of which they have kept clean sheets and they have taken seven points from three away games.
The clean sheets tell their own story of more solid defending, but that away-day statistic is the most telling: the club's previous seven points on the road had incredibly taken no less than 22 games to amass - that's seven points from a possible 66.
Friend said: "That long away run was so frustrating, but we weren't playing badly - it was not being able to see games out. We were conceding late goals that were costing us, and that's one of the biggest things we're now getting right.
"The best teams in the Championship are good away as well as at home and they don't necessarily batter teams, they'll win 1-0 or 2-1 and build runs that keep them up at the top end of the table and pressing for promotion."
Pressing for promotion has been Boro's aim after their relegation from the Premier League in 2009, since when they have looked likely candidates during stages of each season but always in the end fallen short of expectations.
Last season, Friend's first at the club, was a good case in point - heading into January they were third in the table but fell away so badly that they finished 16th.
Now the hope at the Riverside is that they can reverse last term's trend and this time take themselves from the wrong end of the table to push for a top-six place.
"The top six has been our aim since the start of the season," said 26-year-old Friend. "For whatever reason it didn't happen for us last season, but if we can maintain the form we're showing at the moment we can carry on climbing.
"Reading did it a couple of years ago - they had a dreadful start to the season but then went steadily up the table and ended up winning the division.
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