Chris Wilder’s first transfer window as Middlesbrough boss got off to the quick start that he’d hoped for with the arrivals of Aaron Connolly, Folarin Balogun, Caolan Boyd-Munce and Riley McGree all coming in the first two weeks of this month.
Since then things have dried up, not only in terms of actual business being done but also the usually constant stream of rumours that keeps the twitching transfer fanatics going throughout the window.
While Wilder is aware of the need to ensure there is balance in both squad size and on the financial side by shipping some players out before making any other additions to his team and also in the knowledge that his appointment at Boro isn’t solely based on the success of this season, he has repeatedly outlined his desire to bring extra bodies through the door at Rockliffe before the deadline.
This is in part why Uche Ikpeazu, Marcus Browne, James Lea-Siliki and Onel Hernandez were all publicly made available to pursue other options, with Hernandez already finding pastures new at Birmingham.
Cardiff have been credited with a strong interest in Ikpeazu while Charlton look set to give Browne a platform to restart his career after recovering from injury.
Siliki’s future is less transparent while he is away on international duty at the AFCON and certain terms in his loan deal making it a difficult situation to unpick.
Those departures would free up some space in the squad where Wilder can name a maximum of 25 senior players (those players under 21 who are permanently registered with the club don’t count towards the total) although the boss has said his sweet spot is a slightly trimmer 23 or 24 including the three goalkeepers.
Any additions to the squad will also have to fit into the new club ethos which, while not total public knowledge, will likely mean targeting players who fit into the current playing style.
Those players will also likely have age on their side in terms of being able to develop and progress while at the club rather than picking the best “name on paper” available as has been the case in years past. They need to provide stiff competition to the rest of the squad and not just fill a space when needed.
Following those rules and looking at where Boro can realistically strengthen before the window closes on Monday night, there’s a number of names available that Kieran Scott and the recruitment team could poach to allow Wilder to nurture them and potentially spin a good profit on down the line.
Now, before any shouts or throws their coffee cup at the screen, we aren’t going to get a goalkeeper in the next couple of days and personally I don’t think we should try to anyway. It’s a position that definitely needs readdressing as Joe Lumley isn’t good enough for where we want to be as a team especially in the long-term.
He does receive a lot of undue stick because the majority of fans have lost faith in him which leads to confirmation bias but the former QPR ‘keeper isn’t consistent enough when called upon. He’s a standard Championship goalie and we need a bit more than that.
However, there isn’t anyone available right now that really hits that level either. No club is going to trade their first-choice goalie at the minute and there isn’t anyone on the fringes of a Premier League side that jumps off the page for a short-term rental. The next goalkeeper that joins Boro needs to be a “proper”, established Number 1 or we’ll be having this same conversation again in 6 months.
Where Boro can immediately improve is just in front of Lumley in the defence with an extra centre-back to provide cover and competition for Dael Fry, Paddy McNair and Anfernee Dijksteel.
Nathan Wood struggled recently against Mansfield and may need a few months playing regular football at U23 level to restore some confidence after a wasted loan spell with Hibs. Grant Hall doesn’t possess the athleticism or footballing ability that is needed from a Wilder back three.
Everyone, and rightly so, has pointed out the slight imbalance when going forward caused by not having a left-footed defender on the left of the three with McNair having to stall or cut inside to make a pass. The issue that Boro face in that regard is that left-footed central defenders with the necessary attributes to fill that role don’t grow on trees.
Jack Simpson has been regularly linked with the club and does offer that balance as a left footer but he’s 25 now and hasn’t even played 50 professional games.
To put that into perspective Liam Kitching, another left footed centre-back, of Barnsley has played over 100 senior games and is only 22. He’s played 17 times this season for Barnsley, predominantly on the left of a back three, and has performed admirably in a team that has come crashing down to earth after the achievements of last season.
While he’s a better defender than ball player (his pass completion rate is below 60%) some of that is down to the way Barnsley play and the lack of talent around him. He’s a strong tackler and has filled in at left-back during his stints at Harrogate and Forest Green Rovers as well so has the tank to get up and down the pitch.
Putting him with coaches like Alan Knill and Wilder could bring the technical side of his game along and he could end up being a steal.
Another young defender at a club battling relegation in the Championship is Peterborough’s Ronnie Edwards. While this is the 18-year-olds first real season of senior football, making 21 appearances this term compared to 5 last year, he’s already attracting heavy Premier League interest and is rumoured to be on Man United’s watch list after a recommendation from Fergie.
Posh Director of Football and football character Barry Fry described Edwards as a “Rolls Royce” and he is a proper, proper ball player topping Peterborough’s passing statistics with a whopping 91.9% completion rate.
He has been bullied a bit at times, but as we’ve seen with Nathan Wood that’s par for the course for young lads in such a competitive league, and he doesn’t stand out when looking at his tackling statistics but that’s where stats fall down because they don’t really pay attention to Edward’s ability to read the game.
Rather than having to stick his foot in all the time, Edwards nicks things or puts forwards in uncomfortable positions which is why he’s attracted interest from Premier League sides.
Jacob Greaves has also been the recipient of plenty of Premier League speculation over the past few months with the Hull City defender drawing comparisons to Harry Maguire.
That might seem like a lazy thing to say with Maguire being a former Hull player but then you watch Greaves bring the ball out from the back and motor into midfield and you can see the affray charge in Greece coming from a mile away.
In all seriousness, Greaves is going to be a top centre-back in this division sooner rather than later and his composure both in defending 1-on-1s and on the ball gives him a great platform to kick on in the Premier League as well. He ranks 4th for Hull in tackles per game (1.8) and 2nd for interceptions per game (2.2).
At 21 he’s shown a real maturity and leadership in helping Hull bounce back to the Championship during yet more drama with the ownership, who have now left City, and would fancy himself to force his way into this current Boro side quickly.
Oh and he’s left-footed!
With new ownership and management in place at the MKM Stadium, a deal for Greaves would be incredibly difficult to do, but it feels like he isn’t too far away from making the leap up to the Premier League. Signing him now or in the summer might cost a few million but the opportunity to make triple or quadruple that is there.
Someone who combines the needed defensive and technical abilities with availability and potential is Milton Keynes’ Harry Darling. The 22-year-old is currently being targeted by Swansea, to reunite the defender with his former manager Russell Martin, but the Swans are dithering on the fee as they’re in the middle of a a financial reset after receiving their final parachute payments and still having some Premier League wages on their books.
Darling is another that doesn’t rank ridiculosuly high in tackles and interceptions but that’s because Milton Keynes are weird. MK completely dominate possession in League 1 and it’s their forwards and midfielders who are regularly tasked with winning the ball back. It’s not that Darling can’t do it, it’s just that he doesn’t usually have to.
Darling is also able to kick-start attacks with his ridiculous range of passing, he sprays it like Banksy, and dribbling out from the back where he attacks the same types of spaces that are tasked to Dijksteel and McNair at Boro.
The former Cambridge United defender, who was MK’s Young Player of the Season last year, has also scored 4 goals in all competitions this season. They’ve all come from set-piece situations, which would give Wilder a much needed extra target on corners and free-kicks.
Besides an additional centre-half, another position that needs extra competition is at wing-back, specifically at right wing-back. That seems mental when we have Isaiah Jones tearing defences to shreds on the right and significantly less attacking impact from Neil Taylor on the left but hear me out.
Marc Bola will be back to fitness in a few weeks and between he and Taylor, they can do a decent job until the end of the season at least. If improvements still need to be made, they can be made then, rather than creating a bottleneck of three players going for one spot.
What we can’t risk is losing or burning out Isaiah because there isn’t anyone that can fill his shoes. Dijksteel or Peltier can be put at RWB in a pinch, but neither of them are wing-backs in the sense that Jones is. They’re defenders first and foremost and arguably are both better as centre-backs anyway, never mind asking them to be critical parts of the attack.
A player who is more suited to fulfilling that side of being a wing-back is Barnsley’s Callum Brittain. After being a standout under Valerin Ismael last season, Brittain has continued to be one of few Tykes’ players that can truly hold their head up high this year.
He leads the Barnsley dressing room in assists (3), successful dribbles per game (1.9) and big chances created (6), is second for key passes a game (1.1) and at 23 is ready for a step up.
It’d be down to the player to decide whether joining Boro and having to compete for a spot in the team is a significant step up from starting every week at Barnsley, but the draw of learning under Wilder and escaping the mess surrounding Barnsley at the moment would be a big pull.
Being one of Barnsley’s last real sellable assets might make any deal for Brittain pricier than normal but someone with significantly less money attached to their potential signing is Forest Green Rovers Kane Wilson.
Playing as the right wing-back in a 3-4-1-2 at Forest Green, Wilson is joint top of the League 2 assist charts with 9 assists and he also has two goals to his name.
With pace to burn and the same fearlessness that is a highlight of Jones’s game, Wilson has been an integral part of FGR’s promotion push. The 21-year-old has comfortable on both feet which allows him to glide past defenders and cross from the byline with his right foot or cut inside and clip balls in with his left foot.
With 10 big chances created, 2.1 key passes a game and 40 chances created overall form 25 games this season, the youngster who joined FGR from West Brom is a major reason that Jamille Matt and Matt Stevens have 31 goals between them in League 2 this year. His fearlessness on the ball doesn’t translate to recklessness either – Wilson is part of the second stingiest defence in the league with Rovers only conceding 21 goals.
Such a prized asset would surely command a King’s Ransom then? Not quite. Not only would the quality gap between League 2 and the Championship factor into any fee, Wilson’s contract expires at the end of this season and there’s no hidden extension in his deal. Kieran Scott and Neil Bausor, take a couple of hundred grand and a few vegan parmos down to The New Lawn and bring us back the fast kid. Sound.
There’s also an argument to be made for the need to bring in a genuine alternative to Jonny Howson and it was where I wanted to see us strengthen most after the Balogun and Connolly were signed.
Even though the midfield is well stocked with bodies, Howson’s role at the heart of the midfield trio is a specialised job. The scenes and cocktail soaked night out after Duncan Watmore’s winner at Blackpool were immense but it did distract from the gaping hole in the midfield without Howson.
It does feel though that Wilder will be happy to persevere until the summer with either Paddy McNair or shifting Matt Crooks back when Howson isn’t available and that feels like the sensible thing to do. Turning 34 at the end of the season, it’s still to be seen whether Howson will be kept on at the club (he should be) and any player brought in to compete with him has to also be able to eventually replace him entirely.
That would mean moving for midfielders like Ben Whiteman, Max Bird if Derby are relegated, Daniel Barlaser or SC Paderborn’s 23-year-old captain Ron Schallenberg who’ve all excelled in recent seasons by showing the same skills and field generalship as Howson does, while having that scope to improve and become better overall players.
Those types of signings will cost money and will probably mean intense negotiations which are best suited for summer when Kieran Scott and his team have more time to shape this new look squad for the future.
That’s a reality that all of us – Chris Wilder, Kieran Scott and the fans – will have to deal with when the transfer window slams shut on Monday. There are going to be holes in the squad even if a couple of late signings materialise.
We’re still going to have players on the books that don’t fit the new and improved vision of Middlesbrough Football Club and targets to acquire to make that vision come to life that may only be available in the summer or this time next year.
Whatever Scott, Wilder and Bausor are able to do in the next few days will be a bonus. I’ll take a few pints as my commission if any of the above players end up signing, cheers boys.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live/ The Gazette, Middlesbrough F.C., Barnsley F.C., Peterborough Telegraph, MKFM, Stroud Times, Lancs Live
All statistics were taken from Transfermarkt, Sofascore and Whoscored.