The worst season in recent memory for Middlesbrough F.C. is finally over. Having recorded their lowest league finish since coming 21st in the old Second Division in 1990, the club finds itself in the midst of another “rebuilding” operation. We’ve been here before and heard all of the catchy quotes glowing with good intentions of progression and better times ahead.
This time, more than any other time, Steve Gibson and co. must find a way to get it right. There is a need for both short and long-term action to overhaul the playing squad, reconnect with the fans and create an infrastructure that puts an end to the Jekyll and Hyde nature of managing the club going forward.
This will be the first in a three part series looking at some of the main areas of concern and focus for kick-starting a Riverside Revolution and reinvigorating a football club that cannot afford another season scraping Championship survival. Throw Jim White in the nearest bin because today we’re looking at the Boro squad and transfers.
With Neil Warnock confirmed as manager for the upcoming season, attention now turns to the transfer window with the new gaffer targeting a “large influx of players” to add balance, character and extra quality to a squad plagued by years of poor recruitment and the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are currently 22 players on Boro’s books who featured in matchday squads last season. Given that number includes youngsters like Hayden Hackney, Tyrone O’Neill, Connor Malley and Ben Liddle who have 33 minutes of Championship experience between them, last season’s signings such as Marc Bola and Marcus Browne who didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory and three goalkeepers; reinforcements are desperately needed.
With the lack of convincing performances last season and the high number of potential incomings, it’s safe to say that nearly all spots are up for grabs and that starts in between the sticks. After Darren Randolph’s injury and subesquent move back to West Ham, Aynsley Pears dealt admirably with the task of filling the biggest gloves in the Championship. It’s easy to forget that the highest level Pearsy had played at before being thrown in the deep end last season was the National League. In January, Dejan Stojanovic was brought in from St. Gallen to compete with Pears.
“Stoj” kept a clean sheet on his debut in a must-win game against Charlton prior to lockdown and two shutouts in equally important games against Stoke and Millwall were to follow. Then Pears came back in against Reading and Cardiff. Then Stojanovic was back in for Sheff Wednesday on the final day. During this time Tomas Mejías was just looking really handsome, if you were wondering.
Both keepers have shown they’re more than capable of making highlight reel saves, particularly Stojanovic who took one for the team against Stoke and pulled out a worldy at Millwall, both at times where conceding would have totally flipped the momentum of must-win matches. Pears was equally influential in the victories over the Christmas period with huge saves against Huddersfield and West Brom helping Boro pull away from the bottom three.
On the flip side, both have also shown weaknesses in their games which are magnified during relegation battles where every goal counts and from the luxury of being able to bask in the magnificence of Darren Randolph for two and a bit seasons.
Pears, as any young goalie is likely to do, dropped some high profile clangers while Stojanovic has looked like he’s thinking about where he can go for his next lovely Instagram photo whenever the ball is in the air. Neither of them have shown a real command of their area which has only contributed to a shaky, ever-changing defence.
With Warnock’s desire to bring in three or four players to form the spine of the team, you have to wonder whether a more reliable, experienced goalkeeper might be on his shopping list. And no Neil, that doesn’t mean Paddy Kenny!
Talking of the defence, Boro had the 12th best defence in the Championship last season. Honestly, going only by the 61 goals conceded, they were the 12th best defence. Only Reading and Wigan conceded less in the bottom half of the table. It looked a lot worse than that though, didn’t it?
That’s because on Teesside we’ve become conditioned to expect a watertight defence especially under Aitor Karanka and Tony Pulis. We just don’t usually concede a lot of goals up here. Secondly, almost half (45%) of the goals conceded by Boro last season were in the first ten minutes or final 20 minutes of the game.
They’re the goals that ultimately decide games, dictate how your weekend goes and shape a season. That was amplified by constant chopping and changing of the backline, who were never able to gel and which led to comical lapses in concentration and communication. Every set piece against us looks like it might go in.
Fixing that has to be Warnock’s immediate aim in the window and he has already bemoaned the lack of defensive options on several occasions. Following the departures of Ryan Shotton and Daniel Ayala, Harold Makoudi’s being recalled by St. Etienne and the uncertainty around George Friend’s future at the club; Dael Fry is the only senior centre-half at the club.
Sam Stubbs remains an unknown quantity having spent most of his Boro career on loan and Nathan Wood has barely turned 18. Even if Friend signs a new deal, Warnock will need at least two of his summer signings to be experienced centre-backs who’re capable of marshalling the defence and helping to lay a solid foundation for the team.
The word leader has been thrown around liberally by Warnock so you can expect him to be looking for defenders that fit that mould. Knowing Warnock, that will most likely mean a big, horrible nasty bastard that isn’t scared to put his head in where it hurts. Someone your old fella would call a “proper defender”. A real man’s man. Big Sky Sports Keith has just mentioned a possible bid for 6ft 5″ Charlie Goode, captain of League 2 play-off winners Northampton. Strapping young man.
A partner like that would certainly help stabilise Dael Fry, who endured his worst season since coming into the side. Fry has played his best football alongside a commanding centre back like Ayala or Ben Gibson and struggled repeatedly without a senior influence next to him. He’s still only 22. If the stars align and the frosty nature between Burnley and Boro boardrooms chill out a little, that senior influence next to Fry next season might just be Ben Gibson.
The fullbacks were probably the one real shining light of the campaign last year with both Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence breaking into the team and their performances as wing-backs kept Jonathan Woodgate in the job over Christmas. It was no coincidence that the Reds looked most comfortable with Djed and Hayden (and “clumsy challenge from” Marvin Johnson later on) out-wide offering balance and pace to a lopsided team that lacked an attacking spark.
Despite this, their places in the team might not be as nailed on as you’d think, at least as traditional fullbacks. While Warnock eventually came around to the idea of utilising the wing-backs, he’s already put on record that his preferred system is a 4-3-3. If that’s what he’s earmarked as his go to for Boro, it might mean Coulson and Spence find themselves pushed further up the pitch to accommodate older, wiser heads at fullback.
I know he’s said that Spence reminds him of Alexander-Arnold and Nathaniel Clyne yet the likes of Chris Gunter and Morgan Fox strike me as more of Warnock’s cup of tea. Even if they remain as traditional fullbacks, having a couple of experienced pros to contend with for a place should help the youngsters improve defensively.
Moving into the middle of the park, it’s one area that on bodies alone, reinforcements aren’t needed. There’s Jonny Howson, Paddy McNair, George Saville and Lewis Wing to contend for two spots or three spots depending on the formation. That’s enough, with Academy lads as emergency cover.
Except, midfield might be the real problem position at Middlesbrough. Not for the want of trying, the “engine room” doesn’t offer enough creatively and that has a major impact on the team. It’s one of the main reasons we’ve been amongst the lowest scorers in the league for two seasons running.
Between them, McNair, Saville and Lewis Wing managed six assists from midfield last season. Howson contributed 6, but five of them were during his stint as a makeshift right back. So collectively, our four traditional central midfielders were able to directly set up 7 goals.
In comparison, Barnsley’s Alex Mowatt and Sheff Wed’s Barry Bannan had 8 assists each. John Swift at Reading managed 10. These aren’t unbelievable players brought in via parachute payments or super- agent connections for recently relegated teams. They’re just specialists and that’s where the Boro engine room is failing. It’s overstocked with players who can do a little bit of everything but not a lot of something. Jack of all trades, masters of none.
You can’t knock any of them for the effort they put in or even the goal returns of Paddy McNair (6) and Lewis Wing (7) but there isn’t enough room for them all in one team. With Adam Clayton leaving it also raises the question of the need for a true defensive midfielder, a dominating presence that can break the play up and pop the ball off to the more creative outlets who can get the attacks rolling.
It comes back to balance, once again. It can’t be counteracted in one window, but the club need to look to bring in midfield experts that can then be complimented by the graft and energy of one of current crop of midfielders not forcing three of them into the same side and hoping for the best.
Hoping for the best is what it has come to in terms of wingers and number 10-types in recent years for Boro fans. It has been three years since Gaston Ramirez left for Sampdoria and two years since Adama Traore left for Wolves. In that time, have we bought anyone to replace them? Obviously, not in terms of talent but even in their position? No, not really.
Marcus Browne and Marvin Johnson are the only wide men who’ve joined permanently in that time. Browne spent the second half of last season on loan at Oxford and Johnson is out of contract. Patrick Roberts’s loan has expired and it may be a challenge to resign him after a few eye-catching performances, if he’s wanted back.
Boro’s lack of guile and threat was exposed by Roberts as we increasingly became over reliant on him to do something, anything with the ball.
For all of the talk of Warnock’s way of playing and his direct approach, he does like a tricky winger or two. His influence on both Mendez-Laing and Junior Hoillet was evident in the 3-1 defeat to Cardiff. It’d be brilliant if it was a supposed footballing dinosaur that finally delivered two flying wingers to the Riverside pitch.
At least Marcus Tavernier has begun to make a case for his inclusion permanently in the team to offer some spark and excitement. Tav clearly made the most of lockdown by watching all of the Boro watchalongs and practising his best Juninho and Paul Merson impressions.
He was arguably our standout player following the restart of the season. There’ll be some debate over the 21 year olds best position, but his most effective football in his current run seemed to be from central areas. Dust off that number ten shirt, will ya?
Right, before we talk about forwards, let’s address the elephant in the room. We were all wrong about Ashley Fletcher. There. Done. And don’t pretend you’ve always rated him either. Nobody likes a liar. Fletchbomb was involved in 18 goals (11 goals, 7 assists) last season which included the GOAL OF THE DECADE against West Brom.
He finally looks to be maturing and growing in confidence and without him, we’d be discussing trips to Fleetwood. His best mate Britt Assombalonga got 11 goals as well, with 5 coming in the 8 games under Neil Warnock. Fittingly for best friends, they looked the most comfortable leading the line as a pair.
Unfortunately, the duo might be killed off before it is really allowed to flourish. Whether it’s Warnock using his preferred 4-3-3 or Boro cashing in on Assombalonga as one of their only saleable assets, the Britt/Fletch partnership might not be the attacking outlook Warnock goes with to address the severe lack of goals on Teesside.
No matter what, Boro need someone to join the goal scoring ranks. The veteran gaffer has already outlined an attacker that offers something different as a key acquisition. I can hear the pounding footsteps of a target man now. Wigan’s Kieffer Moore and Aberdeen’s Sam Cosgrove have both been linked and are both big fellas. As long as it isn’t Lukas Nmecha. The less said about him the better.
I do not envy the task ahead for Bausor and the recruitment staff as the squad is threadbare and every club is going to be scrapping for the best deals while juggling the financial consequences of the pandemic. They’ve also got Neil Warnock breathing down their necks now. “Just get ’em done son, like I’ve asked or I’ll set Jeppo on ya”. Gary Gill, run for cover mate.
There will be a sea of new faces walking out at the Riverside Stadium next season. That’s just the first step to fixing the Boro.
If you’re after anymore transfer chat, @Smithy_MFC84 has published a detailed look at available free agents on his site here.
Come back here Friday for the second part of this mini-series as we look at restructuring the club behind the scenes. Directors of Football and all that jazz.
Photo Credits: Northern Echo, Dejan Stojanovic, Lancs Live, The Athletic, Gazette Live