Before the transfer window opened last month Chris Wilder’s main objectives were to add more goals and balance to the squad that he inherited from Neil Warnock.
On paper the early arrivals of Aaron Connolly, Folarin Balogun, Riley McGree and Caolan Boyd-Munce seemed to have ticked those boxes. Balogun has looked lively and flashed some skill when brought on, helping to set up Sporar’s winner against Coventry at the weekend.
Connolly has had a tougher start to his time on Teesside and has looked like exactly what he is – a young player with less than 10 senior goals to his name that couldn’t nail down a place in Brighton’s squad.
The Irishman has also struggled with the finer aspects of the demands placed on him by Chris Wilder, as seen in the defeat to Blackburn where Connolly was unable to hold onto the ball, but has the backing of the manager and he DOES get into the right positions which is half the battle. A goal would really help to boost his confidence.
Of course, time will tell whether Connolly and Balogun can *really* chip in with goals at the senior level but they do give Wilder extra options up front with more of the attributes to suit the gaffer’s system than Uche Ikpeazu did. It’s also a marker for the esteem that Wilder is held in that Balogun was allowed to come here, which only bodes well for future deals.
Boyd-Munce was brought in from Birmingham with an eye on the future, as part of the longer-term strategy at the club, and will link up with the U23s to continue his development.
With his pathway to the first team blocked at Birmingham after a number of new signings and a falling out with management over promises that were made when signing a contract extension, Boyd-Munce was seen as a good investment for the future.
As shown in the cup tie at Mansfield, where Boyd-Munce scored on his debut and was one of Boro’s better performers, the 22-year-old is an energetic left-footed midfielder that will be best suited to featuring on the left side of Wilder’s midfield trio.
Funnily enough, one of the players at Birmingham who blocked Boyd-Munce’s path to the first team has also found himself at Middlesbrough, with Australian international Riley McGree opting to join the club instead of reuniting with his former manager Ange Postecoglu at Celtic.
The 23-year-old is yet to be named in a matchday squad due to international commitments and testing positive for COVID but is expected to provide stiff competition to Marcus Tavernier and brings similar energy and ball-playing abilities as Tav to the Boro midfield.
Those two left-footed midfield signings give Wilder a bit more balance to his team in terms of opening angles going forward while also giving him much-needed competition for Tavernier without losing the tempo and drive the Academy graduate gives to the team.
It’s clear to see the work already being done by Kieran Scott with those two signings in particular being done with the system and team in mind, rather than plumping for the “best name” available.
However, for the quick and welcome work that went into the first half of the month, there was need for extra bodies in other positions and the club were unable to fill those spots in the final weeks of the window.
Wilder himself said that he was “targeting one or two more” last week and confirmed that today in his press conference for the FA Cup game at Old Trafford explaining that there was “a couple of situations that we were fighting on to improve the squad”.
Everyone has their own opinions on where those additions were most needed but that could easily have extended to both wing-back positions, central defence, cover for Jonny Howson and even at goalkeeper. A deeper look at the Boro’s needs and who could’ve filled those holes can be found here.
That’s why, despite the early additions, some fans will be feeling that January was a missed opportunity to really strengthen the squad for a crack at promotion. Looking around the league it is hard not to cast jealous eyes at some of the other teams in and around the play-off race.
Bournemouth went full FIFA Career Mode and added Freddie Woodman, Nat Phillips, Kieffer Moore, Siriki Dembele and Todd Cantwell to an already incredibly strong squad on deadline day, on top of James Hill and Ethan Laird who joined earlier in the window.
Nottingham Forest took Keinan Davis on loan from Villa and Sam Surridge from Stoke for an undisclosed fee to reinforce their front line while Steve Cook and Jonathan Panzo will beef up their defence.
West Brom shelled out for last season’s Barnsley revelation Daryl Dike, who is now injured until late March, and also gave Andy Caroll another opportunity to score against Boro in a few weeks time. Stoke added Liam Moore, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Josh Maja on loan while Huddersfield picked up playmaker Carel Eiting for free after he was released by Genk.
Sheffield United went under the radar with smart business to sign Adam Davies to replace Robin Olsen in goal after the Swede was recalled by Roma to be sent to Aston Villa and beating off competition to secure Charlie Goode’s services until the end of the season.
Some of those signings are going to have a major impact on the race for top six and automatic promotion. They also put some of those clubs in an “all in” scenario where they’ve bet the house on promotion.
West Brom are going to have to pay for another change of manager and have a number of players on long-term Premier League level contracts. Bournemouth will receive the last of their parachute payments next year and must be cruising incredibly close to being in breach of FFP.
That’s the scenario that Middlesbrough were desperate to avoid in this window with so much else to be done in the coming 12 months.
While Steve Gibson did back his new manager and was planning on doing so further, the moves for Balogun, Connolly and McGree were not bank-breaking deals. It’s safe to assume, from the information available, that those three have cost the club less than half of the £7.7m that West Brom paid for Dike.
Boro had to be smart in this window and not let themselves get caught up in the buzz surrounding the club with the brilliant run of form that has followed Wilder’s appointment.
There was serious outlay in the summer with the signings of Martin Payero, Uche Ikpeazu and Matt Crooks committing the club to at least £8 million in transfer fees and that’s without factoring those players wages and the wages needed for the other 9 summer signings.
Gibson, Wilder and Scott will also have been aware of the need to keep some of their powder dry for the summer, where there will likely be a significant turnover of playing staff with 8 players set to be either out of contract or returning to their parent club. That’s before any judgement is made on the remaining members of the squad and if Wilder deems that they’ve done enough to be in his plans going forward.
This window always felt more like spring cleaning than a Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen inspired full renovation.
That’s what likely led to the links with Ciaran Clark, Jeff Hendrick and Jack Simpson on deadline day. None of those fit in with the noises coming out of the club about smart investment, having the scope to develop or even really fitting in with the playing style.
They would have been short-term stopgaps to longer-term problems that will now be addressed in the summer. Personally, I don’t care that any of those players turned us down or the deals fell through. I’d rather shot the kids on instead.
The other side of the window is the outgoings and the need for Wilder and Scott to begin clearing out those players who no longer have a future here – both in a financial and practical manner to make the summer more manageable – and they managed to do that for the most part.
Onel Hernandez’s loan was cut short and Uche Ikpeazu has joined Cardiff until the end of the season with neither player fitting into the new system even though they both bring their own qualities to a side.
Lewis Wing, who hadn’t played for Boro in over a year and has been on loan at Rotherham and Sheff Wed, finally ended his fairytale rise up the leagues on Teesside by deciding to join Wycombe. Score ’em some bangers, kidda.
Marcus Browne was also allowed to leave the club, reuniting with a club in Oxford United where he’s enjoyed some great times in the past, in the hope that he can put his injuries in the rear-view mirror and crack on with getting his career kick started again. Genuinely hope Browney has the best time at the Kassam Stadium, he deserves it.
Williams Kokolo was allowed to make a permanent switch to Burton while Dejan Stojanovic and Hayden Coulson were loaned to FC Ingolstadt and Peterborough United respectively and will likely be looking to move away permanently in the summer.
There was some exciting loan moves for some of Boro’s best young talents as well with Isaac Fletcher joining Hartlepool and Calum Kavanagh going to Harrogate.
Those look like sensible moves for both Fletcher and Kavanagh, at a good level, as they arrive at clubs with a feelgood factor round them. Sam Folarin also further strengthened the bond between Boro and Queen of the South with a temporary move north of the border.
So did Boro do enough in this window? It’s hard to tell. If the hope was to add enough firepower and depth to sustain a play-off charge then I’m not convinced they have, but I don’t think that was *truly* a realistic expectation.
If the aim was to be sensible in balancing the books while adding enough to give Wilder a fighting chance without sacrificing resources for what should be a busy summer then they probably have.
At least we can get on with the actual football now.
Photo Credits: MFC, Teesside Live/The Gazette, OUFC, HUFC