It wasn’t a dream. Middlesbrough Football Club are going to be able to play more than one direct, pacy attacker at a time on the flanks for the first time since the halcyon days of Muzzy Carayol and Albert Adomah after the deadline day signings of Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Neeskens Kebano.
The new year slide aside, the “typical Boro” tag has been ditched this January, with a busy and productive window seeing Jordan Archer, Yannick Bolasie, Darnell Fisher, Mendez-Laing and Kebano join the club.
As with the prospect of Boro being able to line up with pace down the flanks, for the first time in a long while there’s nothing really to complain about as a fan from the club’s transfer dealings.
The major hole in the squad has been addressed emphatically with Bolasie, Kebano and Mendez-Laing brought in to support Marcus Tavernier in creating chances and adding goals from the midfield. Boro are currently the second lowest scorers in the top half of the Championship table with 30 so far, only edging out Barnsley and Stoke by one goal, drawing a blank in 11 of their 27 games.
When Tavernier hasn’t been involved or hasn’t played to his top level, Boro have usually looked completely knackered and struggled to dominate games and make chances. If I have to see the word sluggish used to describe the team’s performance again this season, I’m pouring salt in my eyes.
However, Neil Warnock will look to his new attacking options to spark life and ingenuity into the team, while also relieving some of the pressure on Tavernier’s shoulder. ‘Ere, we might actually be able to rest him once in a while. As well as bringing added pace, goals and creativity, these signings also give Warnock some flexibility in setting out his team.
He can stick with the 4-3-3, meaning he has four quality options to choose from outwide or Tav can drop into the midfield to give an extra bit of guile to the centre of the park which may prove critical in breaking down teams that are happy to sit back and defend.
With Kebano being comfortable to play as a number 10, Warnock could even choose to play a 4-2-3-1 with Kebano or Tav in the hole.
Mendez-Laing, Bolasie and Kebano also bring experience, proven talent and promotion pedigree to the team with all three having been part of sides that have either gone up automatically or through the play-offs, Kebano achieving this as recently as August with Fulham.
There is one potential drawback that this brings, though. The household name value of the three attacking signings and their track records immediately raises expectations.
On paper at least, this Boro team looks more than capable of pushing for a play-off place, with their resolute defending and ball-busting effort now complemented by genuine attacking threat. Only two points separate the team from the top six at the minute and it was already a target for many fans to be involved in the play-offs at the end of May.
The additions of quality players in a key area of the squad will now make cracking the top six the ultimate aim rather than an added bonus as the club begins to steady itself after escaping relegation last season.
The signings of Bolasie, Kebano and Mendez-Laing just might not be the sure fire, “Road to Wembley” launch codes that they seem to be on paper.
First of all, before his debut against Norwich last weekend, Bolasie hadn’t play a minute of football in almost a year. Mendez-Laing is in a similar boat after being sacked in mysterious circumstances by Cardiff, with his last game coming in July. Kebano, while he looked sharp and scored in a cup game against QPR last month, has only played one minute of Premier League football for Fulham since October.
It’s going to take time for all three to get totally fit and up to speed, particularly to the demanding effort expected of a Neil Warnock side, and there’s no chance that the trio will all line up from the off against Brentford.
Also, while it’s really exciting to think about what the team looks like with all three involved or being able to call on them from the bench as the Boro blow away their opponents in a Teesside Tornado of flying attackers, they’re going to need time to gel. Real life isn’t FIFA, the lads are going to have to get to grips with each other.
There’s nothing to say that all three will slot effortlessly into the team as they begin life in new surroundings and a heavy emphasis on attack could detract from the defensive efforts that have pushed Boro forward so far this season.
The prospect of Club Congo International forming a deadly triumvirate up top has set Boro Twitter on fire but Assombalonga, Bolasie and Kebano have played a grand total of eight minutes together for DR Congo, in a 2-0 defeat to Tanzania.
However, Bolasie and Kebano will have an understanding of each other’s game having been involved regularly in the same squads since 2014 and having two familiar faces from the same cultural background could give Britt the kick up the arse he needs to get amongst the goals consistenly.
The main word of caution though is the obvious one. There’s a reason that Yannick Bolasie has finally decided to sign for Boro, that Kebano was allowed to leave Fulham and that Mendez-Laing isn’t still tearing things up at Cardiff.
The Yannick Bolasie that has been endearing himself to fans on social media isn’t the same Yannick Bolasie that was wowing Crystal Palace fans and he isn’t the same Yannick Bolasie that Everton spent £30 million on. After suffering an ACL injury in 2016 that kept him out for a year, “Yala” has had three loans away from Goodison Park and the Toffees have been trying to offload him permanently for years.
His time at Aston Villa was cut short as Bolasie wanted to break back into the Everton team, possibly buoyed by a run of 5 assists in 6 games in November and December showed he still some of his old moves. There was little objection from Villa after the winger had only managed two goals in 21 appearances and his form there being labelled as “indifferent” despite that winter purple patch.
Failing to get himself into Marco Silva’s plans, Bolasie fared better at Anderlecht than he did at Villa, scoring 4 in his first 7 games after joining in March of 2019, but began to slow down again as the Belgian League moved into the play-off period of their league season and Anderlecht finished bottom of the six team mini-league.
Joining the shit storm that was Sporting Lisbon last season, in a year where the Portuguese giants switched managers four times and rumours of not paying players correctly were going round, was not the best choice as Bolasie was regularly played out of position as a centre forward.
It speaks volumes of his current standing in the game that there wasn’t much competition for Boro to finally land their man with only Sivasspor being linked to the former Bristol City winger in the closing days of the window and even then we only seemed to go back to Bolasie when other deals were called off.
Likewise, the mystery surrounding Nathaniel Mendez-Laing seemed to put off most teams apart from Boro and Derby. The rumour mill around Mendez-Laing suggests everything from being a drugs baron to paying homeless people to fight in Cardiff City Centre. ALLEGEDLY.
Whatever it was, there doesn’t seem to be any legal issues to deal with, which thankfully rules out anything *too bad* but you have to ask questions about his attitude although who better than Neil Warnock, who Boro’s badman achieved promotion with at Cardiff, to iron that out?
To be fair to him, were it not for whatever shenanigans he was involved in, Mendez-Laing would still be playing week in, week out for Cardiff. In one of his final games for Cardiff, he tore us apart at the Riverside and gave Boro fans an insight into what a fully evolved Warnock outfit looks like as the Bluebirds made the play-offs.
Neeskens Kebano, who also featured in the play-offs last season, was the most surprising of the January signings. His arrival on Teesside angered Fulham fans who had seen him fire them to the Premier League months prior. I say angered, it’s Fulham. They probably wrote a mild mannered letter to the club and shook their heads.
While it seems a strange move for Fulham to allow their play-off hero, who scored in both legs of the semis, to depart when they’re battling relegation but Kebano has mostly been the bridesmaid not the bride at Craven Cottage.
He’s never been the main man for Fulham, due to a combination of injuries and the Cottagers amassing a Championship Dream Team, with his best season in terms of games being in 2016/17 as he featured 28 times in the league.
However, these caveats to the marquee January arrivals also make Boro incredibly dangerous because they all have something to prove.
Bolasie has to prove that he’s still capable of electrifying supporters and spinning fullbacks out of their boots, Kebano has to prove that he’s worthy of being more than an impact player and Mendez-Laing has to prove that he’s more comfortable on a football pitch than embroiled in criminal activity (allegedly).
The brightest highlight from this campaign has been watching Neil Warnock instil confidence in a number of players that had points to prove and seeing them flourish. Marc Bola, Anfernee Dijksteel, Dael Fry, George Saville, Paddy McNair, Marvin Johnson and Duncan Watmore all had something to prove this year and have done so.
Dijskteel and Bola that they were Championship calibre players, Dael Fry that he could recapture his form after being hung out to dry by being asked to be something he’s not by Woodgate, George Saville that he could ever shake his boo boy status, McNair that he could excel in a singular position, Johnson that he was worthy of a new contract and that Watmore could stay fit and play to the top level.
They’ve all done it and Warnock will be hoping his new trio can to.
Away from the signings, some worries remain that may reign in expectations of the Red Army trotting down Wembley Way in May. The impact of Neil Warnock aside, this is still largely the team that was almost relegated to League 1, and there have been signs of that. In particular, the performances against Birmingham and Blackburn recently have looked incredibly Woodgate and the team have only picked up 7 points from a possible 18 since the start of 2021.
The decision to loan out Nathan Wood and Lewis Wing, which will do them the world of good individually, leaves fans praying to the Football Gods that the team can remain injury free. Grant Hall is the only actual centre back to back up McNair and Fry and even though the promising debut of Darnell Fisher means we may be able to afford to push Dijksteel inside and both Jonny Howson and Marc Bola have deputised well at the heart of the defence previously doesn’t mean any of us want to see that happen again.
Injuries in midfield would also mean either having to take McNair out of defence, where he has been outstanding this year, or calling up Hayden Hackney who did impress on his debut against Brentford.
By having an exciting end to the transfer window, Boro have now put themselves into a position where the fans are going to expect an exciting end to the season. Let’s hope they live up to it because this is now a team that needs to show that they are capable of managing raised expectations and meeting them.
This is a team with a point to prove.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live, Middlesbrough Football Club, Getty Images