Not Another Rebuild – Left Foot First

Despite having the joint 7th best ranked defence in terms of goals conceded in the Championship last season (50) and having a defensive trio that rivals any in the league with Dael Fry, Paddy McNair and Anfernee Dijksteel, Chris Wilder has intimated his desire to add a first choice left-footed central defender to his team this summer.

This is, in part, to balance out his side from an attacking perspective with the “outside” centre-backs having important roles when the team goes forward. This was best evidenced by Dijksteel and his link up with Matt Crooks and Isaiah Jones last term.

While Wilder does fucking love Paddy McNair and he offered some fantastic deliveries from the left, having a natural left footer in that position would open up more passing options and quicken up the threat down that flank with the centre-back not being constantly forced to pause or cut back onto his stronger right foot.

Marc Bola, who looks to be out of the running to cement a place as the team’s main left wing-back, may actually be better suited to this role than his current one.

While he hasn’t got the consistent attacking threat to be a wing-back in Wilder’s system, he has the technical ability to fill in on the left side of the defensive trio and is constantly improving as a defender.

However, even though he’s listed at 6 foot 1 (dubious), Bola isn’t strong enough in the air and would likely be targeted by opposition teams.

There is also an overall feeling at the club that the defence is a little bit “nice” at the minute which would explain the reported interest in Blackburn Rovers captain Darragh Lenihan.

With Sol Bamba and Lee Peltier being allowed to leave the club and Grant Hall surely following them out the door, it leaves the defensive department light in both numbers and nastiness, which is where Lenihan steps in.

The club won’t be exclusively looking for left footed defenders because of the departures (Lenihan is right footed) and even though he is 28, we are not going to stop pursuing quality players who can make an instant impact – something I can see becoming a topic of argument this summer on social media.

Lenihan captained Rovers last season and was a standout for Tony Mowbray’s side which has earned him the interest of a number of Championship teams, with the Irish international’s contract expiring at the end of this month. His desire to leave Ewood Park is reportedly down to the club’s ambition rather than wage demands, with Blackburn currently without a manager.

A combative, assured presence in the backline, Lenihan would give Wilder that added steel in defence if the club can tempt him to the North-East ahead of the likes of West Brom.

A natural left footer will be higher on the priority list for Wilder and the recruitment staff though and it will be interesting to see just how highly it is prioritised.

Securing the perfect fit for this team, for example, would cost the club an arm and a leg because that perfect fit is Hull City’s Jacob Greaves who we discussed in detail in January.

Unfortunately, for us, Greaves has only improved since then and it seems that his next move will be into the Premier League with Everton rumoured to be tabling a £10m bid this summer.

A more viable option, but still representing an ambitious move, would be Fiorentina’s Jacob Rasmussen . The Dane, who has spent the past two seasons on loan at Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie, shares a number of similarities with Greaves and not just because he’s also called Jacob.

A strapping centre-half who is able to drive out of defence with the ball and advance up the pitch, in the manner that Wilder expects from his centre-backs, Rasmussen is also a force in the air winning 3.6 aerial duels per game last season. In comparison, McNair and Dijksteel averaged 2.3 and 1.2 per game respectively last year.

The 25-year-old was regularly deployed on the left side of the Vitesse back three so is comfortable with the position. After four loan spells (2 at Vitesse and stints at FC Erzgebirge Aue and Empoli) Rasmussen needs some stability and with a number of internationals ahead of him in the pecking order at Fiorentina, he won’t find it in the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Vitesse aren’t financially able to make his move permanent and while it would take a reasonable chunk of change to complete the deal, Rasmussen has Premier League potential so could end up being a bargain.

Another wandering loanee who needs to find stability this summer is Chelsea’s Jake Clarke-Salter. No longer the silly young boy that saw red and plowed through Adama Traore in the last game against the SMBs, Clarke-Salter impressed on the left hand side of Coventry’s back 3 this season.

Athletic and very capable with the ball at his feet, the 24-year-old ranked in the 85th percentile for successful defensive actions during the course of last season. For context, the average Championship defender ranks between the 50th and 70th marker. He also came in 3rd amongst Coventry players for tackles per game (2.3) and 5th for interceptions per game (1.2).

However, it was his influence on the Sky Blue’s attack last season that is the most intriguing part of Clarke-Salter’s game. Ranking well in all passing metrics, he combined beautifully with Callum O’Hare and fellow Chelsea loanee Ian Maatsen in the same way Wilder will visualise any arrivals (at LCB and LWB) doing with Tav or Riley McGree.

A host of clubs including PSV, Club Brugge, Leeds, Sheffield United and Coventry are reportedly chasing his signature, with his contract at Chelsea expiring later this month.

The downside to Clarke-Salter and the reason he has struggled to set up home anywhere permanently is his injury record. Over the course of 6 loan spells, he has yet to make 30 appearances in a league season, coming closest this year with Coventry where he managed 29.

Though Boro’s overall fitness and maintenance of players has improved markedly since the introduction of the new coaching team, that would represent a significant risk.

Someone that would represent less of a risk in terms of potential availability would be Yoann Barbet who recently left QPR after three seasons with The Rs.

Barbet played 87 out of a possible 92 league games for QPR in the past two campaigns, even battling through a shoulder injury in the final month of the 20/21 season to ensure that he played every single minute for Mark Warburton’s side that term.

That shows the type of leader that Barbet is and would certainly endear him to Chris Wilder. Like Lenihan, his age (29) would mean skirting around the perceived recruiting strategy, though again there are going to be exceptions to that especially this summer.

A fan favourite at both Brentford and QPR, the Frenchman would also fit in from a playing standpoint, having amassed 221 appearances in the Championship with many of those coming on the left side of a defensive trio.

A proficient passer and dribbler, Barbet would meld the key aspects that Wilder is looking to add to his defence this year as a capable footballer and commanding defender.

Though news last week suggested that Barbet had agreed to re-join his boyhood club Bordeaux, there have been conflicting reports from journalists well connected at Les Girondins that no deal has been agreed so Boro could still make a move.

A shorter-term solution and one on the opposite end of the experience spectrum to Barbet would be a loan move for Wolves’ defender Toti Gomes. Like Clarke-Salter and Rasmussen, Gomes faces an uncertain future at his club but for different reasons to those two.

Having been recalled from an extended loan spell at sister club Grashoppers in the Swiss Super League to give Wolves the numbers to fulfill games during the COVID-19 hampered winter schedule, Gomes played twice in the Premier League putting in outstanding back-to-back performances in the victories against Brentford and Southampton.

The 23-year-old was only displaced by the return to fitness of experienced stopper Romain Saiss before being re-introduced at the end of the season against Norwich and Liverpool.

Gomes was mightily impressive against Liverpool on an emotional afternoon at Anfield as the Scousers tried to wrestle the title from Man City. That didn’t phase Gomes who earned an 8/10 rating form the Express & Star after a “wonderful performance from a young defender who did not look out of his depth”.

Wolves fans are now demanding that Gomes is included in Wolves’ Premier League squad for next season with some Wanderer’s fans christening him the “new Wily Boly” and Bruno Lage will certainly give him the chance to shine in pre-season.

However, with the departure of Saiss meaning additional defensive recruits can be expected at Molineux and Lage’s rumoured desire to move to a back 4, Gomes might be better served spending time on loan to become more accustomed to the English game.

Gomes certainly has the ability to fulfil the role that would be given to him at Boro. While at Grasshoppers where he wracked up 54 appearances in all competitons in 18 months, he had the most successful dribbles of any centre-back in the Swiss Super League (85%), playing on the left hand side of the defensive trio and being a key part of the attack.

An excellent tackler who looks like he’ll be a Premier League regular in years to come, it’ll be interesting to see how Gomes is handled this summer.

It’ll also be interesting to see how this defensive reshuffle impacts the futures of Anfernee Dijksteel, Paddy McNair and Dael Fry. Personally, I’d be surprised if Boro add a left-footer (who will immediately be considered a starter) and Lenihan without moving one of the current trio out.

(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Five does not go into three and none of those players will be happy facing the prospect of being 4th or 5th choice. Fry is the most sellable asset of the current three, while McNair and Dijksteel will be the most immediately affected by the arrival of a left footer depending on who becomes the odd man out.

There’s also a question mark around McNair in that he could be pushed back into midfield to take over/compete with Jonny Howson which we’ll discuss later this week.

Photo Credits: Lex Lammers, Coventry Live, QPR, Star & Express

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