Not Another Rebuild – Creating Balance On the Left Hand Side

For all of the brilliant work that Chris Wilder has done since taking over as manager, implementing an exciting front-foot approach to playing which has reinvigorated the Boro fan base, it’s clear that this isn’t yet truly a “Chris Wilder team”.

Despite the markedly improved on-field performances, there are a number of players who don’t fit into the gaffer’s long-term plans because they don’t quite fit into his preferred system.

Boro were, at times, unbalanced in their play and suffered from a drop-off in performances when forced to rotate the squad. That’s why the manager has outlined the need for a large turnover in playing staff this summer.

Nowhere was this more obvious in the starting eleven than at the left wing-back (LWB) position. On the opposite side of the pitch, Isaiah Jones took to the role of a modern wing-back like a duck to water, combining his attacking flair with a dogged defensive determination.

However, on the left hand side Boro struggled to get the same balance between attack and defence which created an over-reliance on the right flank.

In an ideal world the triangles and chemistry on display from Dijksteel, Izzy and Crooks would be replicated on the opposite flank. Wilder already has Tav or Riley McGree as one corner of the triangle and will look to add a left footed centre-back and a true left wing-back this summer.

Though Neil Taylor initially impressed when he signed mid-season, it soon became apparent that he didn’t have the offensive traits to fully fit the role and has been allowed to leave the club while Marc Bola has cut a slightly frustrated figure over the past 12 months.

Injuries aside, Bola shows flashes of being an attacking threat one week but then withdraws into his shell the next. In fact, he might be better suited to playing as the left sided centre back in the teams backline but that’s a conversation for another day.

It would be unfair to put the pressure on Bryant Bilongo to progress into the first-team this season so the club may even need to make two signings in this area but it’s vital that they acquire at least one fully-fledged left wing-back this summer.

With other areas of the pitch also needing to be addressed, the club will need to box clever with how they prioritise spending, though if money was no object then Stoke City’s Josh Tymon represents everything required from a modern day wing-back.

A superb crosser of the ball, the 23-year old was one of Stoke’s standout performers featuring 44 times in the Championship, contributing 4 assists and 1 goal for the Potters.

Creating 4 goals isn’t a groundbreaking achievement (Jones is credited with double that) but if you dig a little deeper, Tymon was severely let down by his teammates as he actually created 14 “big chances” from open play.

That’s one more than Jones and Fulham’s Fabio Carvalho and the same as Jed Wallace, all players considered as top creators in the Championship.

This was in part due to the way Stoke attacked – they regularly only had one or two men in the box last season – and also because many of those chances fell to 35 year-old Steven Fletcher who only found the net 3 times all season.

Tymon isn’t just a crossing machine either, he’s confident and capable with the ball at his feet showing no fear in attempting to beat his man, shown by the fact that he was recently crowned the “Nutmeg King” for the Championship – embarrassing opposition players 14 times last year as seen here.

While he needs to tighten up his defending a touch as he’s prone to lapses in concentration and becoming too involved with attacks – in the same way a technical boxer who has enjoyed a spate of knockouts does when they’ve fallen in love with their hands – Tymon would be the ideal fit for Wilder’s system.

However, his performances would likely allow Stoke to command £5m at minimum for the former Hull man and that may be a bit rich for a club like Boro who have to sign a number of players in one window.

A more affordable option and someone who would certainly fit into the club’s new ethos would be Callum Styles. One of few shining lights for Barnsley this year, Styles has been one of the most promising young players in the Championship over the past two seasons.

Though the Hungarian international (I know, I didn’t believe it either) has played a number of positions for the Tykes with 13 games in central midfield, 12 at right wing-back, 3 as an attacking midfielder and even up top for a game just within the past season, his best performances have come at left wing-back.

That was particularly true when Valerien Ismael was in charge of Barnsley, with Styles a key factor in their shock charge into the top 6.

In that campaign, Styles played 37 times at left wing-back, scoring 4 goals and creating another 4. He also contributed defensively that year, finishing 2nd at the club for successful tackles (2.6 per game) and 4th in interceptions per game (1.2).

A cultured player with a rasping left foot that has seen him score a few bangers in his time at Oakwell, there’s a touch of the Tavs about Styles. He’s a busy, high-motor player who keeps going.

While not exclusively a wing-back, that versatility has allowed him to experience attacking and defensive duties across the park, becoming comfortable in both sides of the game.

Signing Styles would also give opposition managers an additional worry as they’d have to contend with him interchanging with Tav down the left which could be a nightmare to defend against.

Now 22 years old, Styles is ready to make the first big leap in his career with Barnsley having been relegated to League One. Relegation, coupled with an acceptance that Styles is now ready for bigger and better things, should knock their asking price down.

This would fit into the long-term vision for the club by securing the services of a player who is only going to get better.

There are other players within the division who’d be priced in the same bracket as Styles like Ryan Manning at Swansea or Huddersfield’s Harry Toffolo (should Hudds win the play-off final and exercise the option they have on his contract) but it would be surprising if they did business with a “promotion rival” like Boro this summer.

A player Boro may take an interest in at a team down the pecking order in the Championship is Jay Dasilva. The Bristol City man has reasserted himself as an important part of Nigel Pearson’s team after battling back from injury amid a change in playing style at Ashton Gate in recent years.

The former England U21 international was part of the first wave of modern English wing-backs to really stand out having earned many plaudits in the Chelsea youth setup where he acted as Tammy Abraham’s main provider on the way to winning 3 FA Youth Cups and 2 UEFA Youth League titles.

Nippy, game to beat his man and with experience as a traditional left back, the 24-year old holds all of the necessary skills to operate within Wilder’s system. His 8 big chances created and 4 assists this term dwarf the return of Marc Bola who only managed 1 assist and 3 big chances created.

This past season, after looking like he wouldn’t be a fit for Pearson’s side, Dasilva played 36 times in the Championship – his highest appearance total in a campaign so far.

The multiple injuries he has suffered have held back a player many tipped for the top in his younger years although Boro have been a much healthier and fitter team since the arrival of Wilder and his backroom team, in particular Matt Prestridge who heads up the club’s sports science department.

Should the club look to acquire two left wing-backs this summer, they may need to dip into the loan market to help with finances, though the increase in the use of wing-backs at first-team level has now translated into the U23 and Academy setups so there are some cracking options.

Alvaro Fernandez has really caught the eye at Manchester United over the past 12 months, winning the club’s Under-23 Player of the Year award, following 3 goals, 4 assists and a host of MOTM awards in PL2. Those performances from the young Spaniard also earned him a spot on the bench for United’s final four Premier League games

With his long hair, Mediterranean features and an effortless nonchalance to playing football Fernandez is sure to be a fan favourite at United once he’s given his first team opportunity. Watch him and try not to swoon.

However, as we’ve seen with Flo Balogun, the jump from U23 football to the senior level does require a period of adjustment so (selfishly) I think he could do with a loan spell and there aren’t many better places to do that than with Boro.

The 19-year old, once of Real Madrid, shares a lot of qualities with compatriot Marc Cucurella and the one issue with trying to secure a loan deal for Fernandez would be the potential that Erik ten Hag sees in him.

With his reputation for bringing through young talent, Fernandez may be fast-tracked into the first conversation sooner rather than later.

Another highly impressive young Spanish wing-back currently plying his trade in a Premier League U23 side is Hugo Bueno. Also 19, the Wolves teenager has been described by The Athletic’s Tim Spiers as a player who “owns the left flank” and is at the heart of every attack for the team that won last night’s PL2 play-off final.

In that 2-0 victory over Stoke U23s, Bueno set up Luke Cundle’s second goal with a fine cross after turning Dimargio Wright-Phillips (son of Shaun) inside out.

That has become a hallmark of Bueno’s game in recent months and he gave Joe Gibson (who we all want to see handed a chance in preseason) fits when Wolves beat the Young Reds 3-0 in April.

While Ryan Giles is a name that many Boro fans are hoping to see arrive on Teesside given his huge tally of assists for Cardiff and Blackburn, recent reports suggest that he will be included in Bruno Lage’s plans for preseason and will only be loaned out to a fellow Premier League side if he doesn’t make the cut for Wolves this summer.

That could open the door for Bueno to go out on loan and try to replicate his teammates level of creativity.

If Kieran Scott and the recruitment team decide to look further afield, Fortuna Sittard’s George Cox could be an option especially after Chris Wilder’s recent comments about how the data suggests that the Eredivisie and the Bundesliga are the closest to the Championship in terms of physical demands.

Cox, one of an increasing number of English players finding their feet abroad, has been an integral part of Fortuna Sittard’s attempts to survive the drop in the Dutch top flight since joining the club in 2020 from Brighton.

Both a provider and a scorer, Cox has 10 goals and 7 assists in his 3 season stint with Fortuna, a highlight of which was a brace against Ajax and has produced the second most key passes per game amongst his teammates this year (1.1).

The 24-year-old also leads the squad in tackles per game this season (2.1) and averages 1.5 interceptions per game.

Sittard scraped survival on the final day of the campaign with a 1-0 win over NEC Nijmegen and may be tempted to cash in on Cox to raise funds to improve the overall squad.

QPR were set to sign him last summer for a reported £500,000 deal before a last minute change of heart and may go in for Cox again with Sam McCallum returning to parent club Norwich.

Photo Credits: The Gazette/Teesside Live, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, Manchester Evening News, Bristol Post, Yorkshire Post

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