Middlesbrough have completed their third first-team transfer of the summer by securing the services of Darragh Lenihan who has signed a four-year contract with the club after leaving Blackburn Rovers.
The move has been heavily rumoured for weeks so today’s confirmation felt like an inevitability, though that doesn’t make his arrival any less important especially to Chris Wilder.
The Boro boss is a long-time admirer of Lenihan, having tried to sign him on multiple occasions while in charge at Sheffield United.
Described by former manager Tony Mowbray as a “special footballer”, Lenihan has established himself as one of the top defenders at this level over the past couple of seasons, particularly excelling over the past 24 months.
While he’s most familiar with the central and right sided slots in a back three, Lenihan will provide capable competition at all three central defensive positions. The 28-year-old also gives Chris Wilder the additional option to switch to a back four which arguably he did not have last season.
With Sol Bamba, Lee Peltier and Nathan Wood leaving the club this summer and Grant Hall surely to follow them out of the door, there needed to be additions to the backline and Lenihan’s signing helps to address a number of concerns that the coaching staff and fans had during last season.
The Irish international is a commanding presence that adds a touch of nastiness to a defence that was, at times, bullied by some of the divisions more physical strikers like Barnsley’s Carlton Morris.
According to Mowbray, in an interview following Blackburn’s 4-0 win over Birmingham in December, Lenihan “towers over people six inches taller than him” and it certainly looks that way when you watch him play.
Dominant in the air, Lenihan won an average of 5.1 aerial duels per game last season, just a smidge behind striker Sam Gallagher (5.2) at the top of Blackburn’s rankings.
He’d of been far and away the leader at Boro in that regards, with Dael Fry’s 4 won per game topping the charts out of those players who featured more than 10 times. Even Lenihan’s lowest average of the past four seasons (4.8 won per game) would’ve seen him as Boro’s best defender against high balls.
The 28-year-old isn’t afraid to get stuck in either as he picked up 9 yellow cards last season through some robust tackling and a no-nonsense approach to defending. He’s not thuggish but is definitely more of a traditional Championship-style defender than Fry, McNair or Dijksteel.
At 6ft 1″ and with that aerial ability, Lenihan should help to stop our weekend’s being ruined by big, fat puddings.
The defender also brings some of the leadership qualities that Chris Wilder (and Neil Warnock before him) feels are missing from the current squad. Lenihan was officially named club captain at Blackburn last summer following the departure of Elliott Bennett, while he’d worn the armband in Bennett’s absence from the team throughout the 20/21 season and parts of the 19/20 season.
Wearing the captain’s armband doesn’t always translate to the kind of in-your-face leadership that Wilder wants to add but Lenihan does bring that.
He was the organiser in Blackburn’s backline, a job made difficult by the revolving door of centre-back partners he had at Ewood Park, being incredibly vocal in marshalling a team that looked on for a shock promotion charge in the first half of the season.
The resiliency that the one-time Boro trialist has shown to battle back from a major back injury and a fractured metatarsal to carve out a career that has seen him make over 250 appearances so far will also appeal to Wilder who wants all of his players to have a never say die attitude.
Those injuries aside, Lenihan was regularly available for selection throughout his time at Blackburn, playing 40+ league games in 3 of the last 5 seasons.
That’s an underlying issue within Boro’s defence as both Anfernee Dijksteel and Dael Fry missed large portions of last season due to injury. Dijksteel featured 34 times in the league with Fry playing one less game than his teammate.
Neither are yet to appear 40 or more times in a league season with the best offering between the pair being Fry’s 36 games in the 19/20 season. Having a reliable, quality back up in the middle or right side of the defensive trio is a must and that has been addressed with Lenihan’s signing.
While he profiles as more similar to Grant Hall (a tall horrible bastard) than Fry or Dijksteel, the former Burton Albion loanee is much smarter in his defending than his dedication to physicality might suggest shown by his average interceptions per game which stood at 1.5 and he’s stronger on the ball than Hall, Bamba or Peltier.
Within the Boro squad, only Bamba had a better record for interceptions (1.6) and that ability to regain possession will be crucial to a Boro side that has to be better against counter-attacks next season. That should be aided by Lenihan being more mobile than the outgoing defenders.
His ball-playing ability doesn’t necessarily jump off the page of statistics sites like WhoScored or SofaScore. In fact, they make him sound like a terrible fit for a Boro defence that are tasked with advancing up the pitch and keeping the ball moving.
Lenihan posted a 65.8 pass completion percentage through last season which falls way behind Fry, McNair and Dijksteel who all achieved above 75%. Some of that is down to the fact that Lenihan was primarily asked to hit long balls up to Sam Gallagher and it also has to be said that was the defenders worst season on record (he usually sits at around 70-75%).
Blackburn, as a team in general, just aren’t as strong in possession as Boro and it takes two to make a pass. However, Lenihan will certainly need to tighten up in possession and get back to his previous form to nail down a place in Wilder’s team.
Both Wilder and Alan Knill will be confident of that given the work they did to make a ball-player out of Chris Basham.
Whether Boro’s newest addition can force himself into a regular spot in the first eleven remains to be seen as he joins one of the best defensive ensembles in the Championship. He will, at a minimum, provide Chris Wilder with strength in depth and halt the pre-match concourse meltdowns when Fry or Dijksteel are missing from the team.
That uncertainty goes to show the pulling power of the club. Blackburn fans may be aiming to get “sideways step” trending on Twitter but if we finish below them we’ll have had a poor season.
That Lenihan has decided to throw himself into that challenge at this stage of his career is a testament to his character, leaving his Lancashire comfort zone and guaranteed minutes for a shot at promotion.
He decided against signing a new contract at Blackburn, who are entering a transitional phase with a new manager in charge, for that exact reason.
The 28-year-old ticks all of the boxes that he needs to tick. Wilder and the recruitment team deserve a gold sticker for this one.
Photo Credits: Middlesbrough Football Club, Lancashire Telegraph