Why hiring Jonathan Woodgate over Slavisa Jokanovic makes sense for Boro

IT has been over two weeks since it was announced Tony Pulis would leave Middlesbrough, following the expiration of his 18-month contract as manager of the Teesside side. Boro fans are waiting with baited breath to hear who will take over from the Welshman.

Cash has been exchanged and odds altered on betting sites, and all the while interviews have taken place in the North East but it seems that the search has been narrowed down to two candidates.

Ex-Fulham and Watford boss Slavisa Jokanovic, and former Real Madrid defender/current Boro coach Jonathan Woodgate.

The Northern Echo reported, in an article about Stewart Downing, that Steve Gibson will have a new manager in place by Friday 7th June.

Some fans have been hoping for Lincoln’s Danny Cowley, Manchester City’s Mikel Arteta or Jong Ajax’s Michael Reiziger. It looks, however, like it will be one of Jokanovic or Woodgate.

If you look to Twitter, you’ll see many people advocating for the appointment of the Serbian manager known for his attacking football, and ability to get sides promoted.

For supporters. this looks great on paper. But, here we will take a look at why Middlesbrough may need more than that.

He provide what Steve Gibson wants

Steve Gibson has outlined the kind of manager he wants for Middlesbrough, going forward.

“It would be great to get some of our very very talented youngsters out on he pitch.

“Some of them are knocking on the door and some of them will be put into the team.”

While Jokanovic has shown a willingness to play young players, such as Ryan Sessegnon at Fulham, Woodgate has an unrivalled knowledge of the young talent coming through at the club.

After a brief time scouting for Liverpool, Woodgate returned to Middlesbrough as the under 18s coach, where he coached players like Dael Fry, Marcus Tavernier and Connor Malley.

These three will be amongst the players that Gibson wants included in his team’s future. Others such as Djed Spence, Sam Stubbs, Hayden Coulson, Stephen Walker and Bilal Brahimi are all players who had some experience of first team football last season, be that on loan or in the Carabao Cup.

If money is to be tight on Teesside, then these players will be crucial to add a different dimension to the team who finished a point outside of the play-offs in 2019.

It’s the better option financially

When Jokanovic got Fulham promoted in 2018, he had two quality attacking midfielder players in Sessegnon and Tom Cairney along side Aleksandar Mitrovic, who would go on to be a £20 million signing for the Cottagers.

Middlesbrough simply don’t have that talent the sqauad currently, so Jokanovic will want to go out and find that in the market.

As Boro fans know, that does not come cheap. Even Pulis suffered from the financial restrictions of the club.

The Daily Mail (quotes via the Gazette) reported that Middlesbrough had a deal for Yannick Bolasie all but sealed, until Aston Villa agreed to pay the winger’s full wage package of £72,000 per week. Boro, on the other hand, could afford only a third of this amount.

If Jokanovic was to come in he would want to change that squad up. This would be the fourth manager in four summer windows that was looking to bring his players into the side. Surely some who arrived under Pulis would be on the way out, too.

Due to his time and experience watching the training sessions for the past year, Woodgate would know the squad, and how to get the best out them.

This would mean Boro could, largely, keep the same squad together and improve it on the fly. Funds from likely sales of Martin Braithwaite, Rudy Gestede and Marvin Johnson would bolster any kitty Woodgate would have, and would save the club from a total rebuild.

If it all goes wrong, it’s not the end of the world

It is a high possibility that Middlesbrough will still be in this league next season. All three sides who lost out in the play-offs will be up there again next year, and the three relegated sides look ready to aim for promotion.

There are two very different outlooks for Middlesbrough if this happens. According to TeamTalk, Jokanovic asked West Brom for £2 million per year to coach their team.

If Middlesbrough were to appoint him at this price, he’d better deliver promoton at the first time of asking.

Gibson, who is reportedly in large debt as the Middlesbrough owner, can’t afford to throw away more money in the window and to a manger who doesn’t bring Premier League football to Teesside.

Woodgate’s salary demands are unkonwn, but it would be expected to be less than £38,500 Jokanovic would be paid.

Should the Woodgate project fail, Boro would not be in financial trouble as a result of the appointment and Gibson, Neil Bausor and the appointment committee could go again with another candidate.

What will Gibson do?

If Woodgate is made Boro boss, I would expect unrest from the fans of Middlesbrough. This potential appointment has been labelled ‘unambitious’ and ‘a job for the boys’ but it may just be what is needed at this time for the club.

Does Gibson think that his club is ready for promotion straight away, or does he feel prepared to play the long game with the appointment?

Only time will tell.

But which do I think would be the most beneficial for the club – looking into the future?

I’ll give you a hint – he is a red, and he hates Geordies…

Three Goalkeepers Middlesbrough Could Consider Should Darren Randolph Depart

Every Middlesbrough fan has expereinced some form of surprise during their time supporting the club.

Be that in a sad way, with the club nearly being wound up in 1986, or in an exciting way with the European nights under the Riverside lights against Basel and Steaua Bucharest in 2006.

One thing that came as a shock to no-one on Teesside was the fact Darren Randolph was awarded the club’s player of the year award at the yearly awards ceremony.

The Irish stopper kept 19 cleansheets 45 appearences for Middlesbrough in the 2019/20 season, with final game against Rotherham upcoming, and make some miraculous saves to keep Middlesbrough in games.

You’d often hear a collective murmer followed by a round of applause around the Riverside after Randolph stopped a shot which looked destined to hit the back of the net.

Darren Randolph makes a reflex stop against Sunderland | Photo Credit: MFC.co.uk

This accolade, along with being named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year, will surely raise the interest of current top flight, or Premier League-bound, teams.

No Boro fan could begrudge the 31-year-old if he wanted to move away. Randolph could have easily been the club’s player of the year for two consecutive seasons, had Adama Traore not burst onto the scene in Janauary 2018.

After the last game of the season, Randolph put a message of social media eluding to staying at the club next season… But things change fast in football.

Darren Randolph at the PFA Championship awards after being named in the Team of the Year | Credit @RandzOfficial on Instagram

Should Randolph leave Teesside for pastures knew, who could replace the goalkeeper?

Adam Davies – Barnsley

Like Randolph, Davies was a winner at the 2019 PFA awards where he picked up the goalkeeper spot in the League One team of the year.

Adam Davies celebrates a Barnsely goal | Photo Credit: Reuters

Davies is fast approaching 200 matches for Barnsley and has just been promoted to the Championship with the Tykes.

His boss, Daniel Stendel, will be hoping to keep the Welshman, who is the club captain, for the 2019/20 season following their success in the third-tier, but one would have thought the chance to play for a side challenging for a play-off place, currently, would be a good step up for the 26-year-old.

Trasnfermarkt value Davies at around £450,000, but Barnsley would be looking to get the most money possible for their shot-stopper.

Christian Walton – Brighton and Hove Albion

Following a season on loan with Wigan Athletic, Christian Walton has shown he has the potential to be a Championship caliber ‘keeper and has potential to grow.

Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Christian Walton Wigan Athletic v Birmingham City – Sky Bet Championship – DW Stadium 22-12-2018 | Photo Credit: Dave Howarth/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Walton joined Brighton at under-18 level in 2014 and has enjoyed seven different loan moves during his five years on the south coast.

Brighton may not be ready to promote Walton to a starting role, but the 23-year-old will be looking for stability and a starting role for a side, which could be available soon in the North East.

Walton’s Transfermarkt value is at £900,000, but – like for Davies – his club would want to be compensated for losing n up and coming player at an important position.

Fraser Forster – Sothampton

For the majority of Forster’s time with the Saints, he enjoyed success between the sticks and even has himself as a fringe squad player for ex-Boro boss Gareth Southgate’s England side.

Fraser Forster in action for Southamption in the Premier League | Photo Credit: ITV

Arrivals of goalkeepers such as Angus Gunn and Alex McCarthy have limited Forster’s playing time. The former Celtic and Newcastle shot-stopper only made his first appearance on Ralph Hasenhuettl’s bench last month.

One stumbling block for a deal like this could be wages, as Forster will be on – and most likely would expect – Premier League wages. It seems like Middlesbrough can’t afford to have a hefty wage bill next season so this could be a problem.

This is, however, a route which has proved to be successful in identifying goalkeepers able to succeed in the Championship – as Randolph was purchased after slipping behind Adrian and Joe Hart in West Ham’s pecking order.

Fraser Forster, Charlie Austin and Jack Stephes are among the players Ralph Hasenhuettl could offload this summer | Photo Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

Forster is valued at £9 million, but could be on his way out of Southampton this summer according to the Mirror, so Boro could pick up a good value deal.

Bonus Names

Leeds United signed Kiko Casilla from Real Madrid in January 2019 which meant that former Boro academy player Bailey Peacock-Farrell lost his place in the starting XI.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell looks on whilst on Norther Ireland duty Photo Credit: TF Images/Getty

This is more connecting dots here, but should Middlesbrough want to revisit Peacock-Farrell in the future, it could see a return to Teesside for the 22-year-old.

Another name in the Championship could be David Raya of Blackburn. Raya has kept 10 clean sheets behind what even some Rovers fans regard as a sub-par defence.

The Spaniard is also young, 23-years-old, so could have room to grow in the future. Raya is valued at around £900,000 on Transfermarkt.com.


David Raya in action for Blackburn Rovers |Photo Credit: Pete Norton/Getty Images Europe

Ultimately it comes down to who is in charge of Middlesbrough next season. Should Randolph leave and Tony Pulis still be incharge, it wouldn’t be unthinkable to see a veteran ‘keeper like Forster come in.

Should Boro look to rebuild more with a younger manager, perhaps Steve Gibson would take a chance on a player with less experience at the Championship level.

Two reasons why Middlesbrough shouldn’t sign Mo Besic in the summer.

It is being reported by the Daily Mail that Middlesbrough-loanee Muhamed Besic is likely to be sold by parent club Everton this summer.

The Bosnian spent the last 14 months in Teesside on a temporary basis and Boro, along with Turkish giants: Fenerbache and Besiktas, are keen on Besic’s signature.

Middlesbrough failed in the summer to secure the midfielder on a permanent deal and, with another season in the EFL Championship looking likely, would reportedly like to keep the former Ferencvarosi TC man in the North East.

Middlesbrough Midfielder Muhamed Besic (27) in action during the 2018 EFL Sky Bet Championship match between Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough at Portman Road, Ipswich, England on 6 May 2018. Picture by Stephen Wright.

Despite his great impact during the 2017/18 campaign, most Boro fans would agree this season has seen poorer performances from Besic. Despite this, the Bosnian still has two goals and five assists in all competitions – making him tied with Lewis Wing and Jonny Howson for the most assists for Middlesbrough.

So why would Middlesbrough not look to sign Besic permanently then?

FINANCES

According to the report, to sign the midfielder permanently it would set Steve Gibson back nine million pounds.

Only Martin Braithwaite, Jordan Rhodes, Afonso Alves, Marten de Roon and Britt Assombalonga have burnt a bigger hole in the Boro-born businessman’s back pocket.

Middlesbrough Chairman and Cheif Executive Steve Gibson and Neil Bausor watch on from the Riverside stands | Photo credit: GazetteLive

Current Middlesbrough-boss Tony Pulis, who brought Besic to Teesside in the first place, has already spent £13 million on central midfielders during his three transfer windows (Middlesbrough paid eight million pounds for George Saville following a 6-month loan, while Paddy McNair set Boro back five million pounds.)

The only other player that Pulis signed and paid a significant transfer fee, was the seven million pounds for Bristol City’s Aden Flint.

That is £20 million on three players. Could nine more be justifiably spent on another midfielder? Especially when this Middlesbrough side is crying out for more width, striking options and full-back depth.

It would be especially hypocritical of Pulis to bring in another player for big money after berating previous managers for doing just that.

Plus, with no more parachute payments for Middlesbrough, could this be done while keeping the club in the black?

COMPETITION

The way this current squad of players has been comprised is rather bewildering.

Garry Monk spent big on strikers during his one window on Teesside, neglecting the flanks – relying on the academy and a frozen out winger brought in by the previous regime. The latter would go on to flourish without him in charge.

Pulis has strengthened the middle of the park, and not much else. Adam Clayton, Jonny Howson and Lewis Wing were all at the club before Pulis arrived in December 2017. Since then he has added John-Obi Mikel, Saville, McNair and Besic.

Even before Besic resigned on-loan, Boro were showing good signs in midfield. Lewis Wing racked up three assists in the first two games, while Clayton and Howson retained their spots from the previous year.

A change of formation has meant Besic has had to watch on from the bench at times this season, and if his deal was made permanent, this could mean young talents – such as Wing – are given less time on the field.

Paddy McNair and Lewis Wing watch as Wingn’s shot sails in to the net against Crystal Palace in the EFL Cup | Photo Credit: BBC

Overall, Besic has been a good player for Middlesbrough. On his day, he can be a different class (see Derby away in 2018 for the prime example of this.)

But this class has only shown in flashes, and if Middlesbrough are to go in a new direction, then he could be left by the wayside on Teesside.

Why Tony Pulis can’t keep blaming ‘missed chances’ for Boro’s woes.

By Dom Brown

I, like many of you, have been a fan of Middlesbrough Football Club since I was a child. I remember watching Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Szilard Nemeth and Mark Viduka wheeling away to celebrate after scoring for Steve McClaren’s side, before I was even ten years old.

Away from football, though, I remember I would struggle getting to sleep before school. I would stay awake and think ‘Why can’t I just sleep?’ My mother, when I was upset about a sleepless night, would tell me ‘Don’t worry Dom, it’s about quality and not quantity.’

This is a phrase commonly used in life, or in mine at least, but it can by applied to many different subjects.

If you’re thinking ‘Why or earth are you going on about your childhood sleeping patterns? I clicked this article for you to bash Tony Pulis, not to hear about how you were tired for Literacy at 9am!’

Well I tell you that story to say this. ‘Quality not quantity’ is a phrase that Middlesbrough’s boss should take more seriously at this point of the season.

NO BORO DON’T BORE ME TO SLEEP…

Well maybe…

After Boro’s most recent defeat at home to Bristol City, the fourth loss in a row for the Teesside team who have only one point from the previous 15 on offer, Pulis said how his side have had “40-odd efforts on goal” in the last two games.

Looking at the two 1-0 home defeats Middlesbrough have suffered this week, the reds have had a total of 40 shots at the goal. Out of those 40, 13 have been on target (32.5%.) Add to that that at least another five to eight were easy saves for the goalkeeper and you have a total of around 15-20% of Boro’s shots that could have actually resulted in goals.

Secondly, if you try to think back to how many of those shots actually should have been goals then you have even fewer. I can think of Daniel Ayala’s free header against Norwich, along with the goalmouth scramble and George Saville miss when Bristol City won at the Riverside. (This is without counting miscues from Britt Assombalonga and Jordan Hugill, one coming in each match.)

George Saville misses a chance in front of the South Stand | Photo Credit: GazetteLive

YOU CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK

A common phrase in football, but one which seems to be evading Middlesbrough. Walking back to my car from the game, I thought it was clear to anyone watching the match that Bristol were the better side. Even though Boro dominated possession, they hardly tested the resilience of the City defence.

If you set up like Middlesbrough do at home, then any ‘luck’ that can be given to you by the ‘Footballing Gods’ is taken away. Ryan Shotton looks to be a good player when he is at centre back, but if he is your best attacking threat down your right flank then you are admitting defeat. Jonny Howson played very well when he started on that side.

Not to mention Middlesbrough have an exciting young English winger in their ranks. You know? The kind of player that Manchester United are currently writing a £100 million cheque for, or the player starring for England’s national side? Now I will qualify that by saying I don’t know Marcus Tavernier will ever be as good as Jadon Sancho or Callum Hudson-Odoi, but how will we know if he isn’t started?

SHOULD HE GO OR SHOULD HE GO?

I could go on. About a lack of any sign of attacking work on the training ground. About how fans have seen two free-kick routines all season (and neither have gone towards the head of Ayala or Aden Flint.) About Pulis’ attitude towards his players at the start of the year, calling them not good enough – and then not having the ability to secure any replacements in the transfer window.

Today the Evening Gazette have said that Steve Gibson is reluctant to get shot of the Welsh coach. In my opinion that is the wrong move.

When Gibson sacked Gareth Southgate in 2009, he said how the fans had voted with their feet, and had no confidence in the former Boro captain. I struggle to remember that feelings around Teesside were worse then than they are now.

Where are they now? Boro’s Bees Play-Off Semi-Final Beaters

*LONG READ*
May 15th 2015. A Riverside Stadium packed to the rafters welcomes their Teesside heros to the pitch, a week after they saw their side clutch victory from the jaws of a stalemate thanks to the left boot of Fernando Amorebieta.

As Pigbag rings out from the tannoy system, all 30,000+ Middlesbrough fans clap in unison, singing and chanting. It’s an atmosphere like which the North East hasn’t seen since Steua Bucharest arrived in 2006.

The noise in the stadium is cranked up at Lee Tomlin slots home a 23rd minute stike and the Boro players keep up the intersity for the remaining 67. Middlesbrough are off to Wembley.

For years to come, games against Brentford will always remind Boro fans of the 2014/15 campaign and, more specifically, the play-off semi-final.

Even though a lot of time has past since the post-season showdown, fans who witnessed the game – be that on TV, through the radio or being at the Riverside in person – still remember the game fondly. Certainly more so than the next round…

There has been lots of changes for both sides since the final whistle sounded almost four years ago. Today we’ll assess just how much the Boro squad has changed, specifically looking at where are the players from that match now.

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Dimi celebrates Middlesbrough’s promotion in 2016 | Photo Credit: MFC

Goalkeeper – Dimi Konstantopolous – Current club: Middlesbrough

Looking back at it, the story of Dimi’s time at Boro is an odd one. A goalkeeper who was ‘getting on up there’ in age arrived on a short-term deal and, after some tutelage by Shay Given, emerged as one of the best ‘keepers in the league.

After the two legs against Brentford and two goals conceded at Wembley, Dimi returned as the starting ‘keeper for Middlesbrough’s 15/16 promotion winning season. The Greek stopper kept 22 clean sheets in the 48 league matches enroute to a second place finish in the Championship.

Dimi was replaced by much-accomplished goalkeeper Victor Valdes during the summer window and pushed even further down the pecking order by the arrival of Brad Guzan. He became the team’s oldest ever player in a recent FA Cup tie against Peterborough at the age of 40 years and 37 days.

RB – Dean Whitehead – Current club: Huddersfield Town (Coach)

Aitor Karanka made the rather bold and conservative move on utilising the former Stoke City and Sunderland midfielder as a fullback during Boro’s play-off campaign. Whitehead played 18 times in the season and was a bit-part player, usually deputising for one of the central midfielders should they succumb to injury or suspension.

Whitehead would leave Middlesbrough after the season and eventually earned promotion to the Premier League two years later with Huddersfield Town. After retiring at the start of the 2018/19, Whitehead joined the Terriers’ coaching staff and recently returned to Rockliffe Park to witness his Under 23 side lose 3-0 to Boro.

Cheeky cameo for @htafcdotcom‘s @442Dean in the bottom right of your picture! 👀 #UTB— Middlesbrough FC (@Boro) February 27, 2019

CB – Daniel Ayala – Current club: Middlesbrough

Since arriving on Teesside on an emergency loan before Karanka took over in 2013, Ayala has – when available – been a mainstay in the Boro side. No matter the manager, formation or opponent, Ayala has been a great servant to Middlesbrough, even though he can be hot headed and make rash decisions.

Ayala has netted 16 times in 144 appearences for the Reds and was, this year, described by Tony Pulis as the best defender in the division. The spaniard looks set to make his 27th appearance of the year against Brenford on Saturday.

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Daniel Ayala ceebrates a goal with his centre-back partner Ben Gibson | Photo Credit: Evening Gazette

CB – Ben Gibson – Current club: Burnley

Nunthorpe Nesta, Pallister Park Puyol, Boro’s Baresi. How ever you want to word it, Ben Gibson was arguably Middlesbrough’s best player every year for the last four seasons (with the possible exceptions of 14/15 Patrick Bamford and 2018 Adama Traore)

The born and bread Teessider could have left Middlesbrough for greener pasturers many times, before leaving for Burnley in July 2018. He may even still be at the club had finances not dictated otherwise. Gibson has made a total of five appearances for the Clarets this term with just one coming in the league.

LB – George Friend – Current club: Middlesbrough

If a discussion is to be had about bargain signings made by Middlebrough over the past decade, Geroge Friend’s name has to be in that conversation. Plucked from Doncaster Rovers for £100,000, Friend has been Middlesbrough’s starting left back for six years -save around six months where Fabio da Silva was favoured under Garry Monk.

It can be argued that he has lost a yard of pace and he would benefit from some competition in his spot, Friend – like the previous two players – has been a great player to have amongst the ranks on Teesside. The team’s captain is currently out injured due to a knock picked up against Blackburn Rovers and won’t be risked this weekend.

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George Friend applauds the Middlesbrough fans after losing the 2015 Play-Off Final | Photo Credit: Northern Echo

CM – Grant Leadbitter – Current club: Sunderland

Another name worthy of throwing into the afor mentioned bargain signing converstion is another man brought to the club by Tony Mowbray. Leadbitter arrived on Teesside on a free transfer from Ipswich Town 2011 and the Mackem took the captains armband from Rhys Williams two years later. The former Sunderland midfield general became the club’s captain following Jonathan Woodgate’s retirement in 2015.

During the 2019 January Window, 212 appearances and 28 goals after signing for Boro, Leadbitter returned to his home town club on the banks of the river Wear.

(Fun fact: Grant Leadbitter has scored twice at Old Trafford for Boro – once in a 2015 penalty shootout and once in a 2-1 loss in 2017 – the same amount as Alexis Sanchez has for Manchester United and Arsenal.)

CM – Adam Clayton – Current club: Middlesbrough

Bought from Huddersfield for £2.5 million in 2014, Clayton formed the spine of what woul become the Championship’s best defence over the coming seasons.

Despite being a regular fixture during most of his time on Teesside, Clayton has only netted once for Middlesbrough. The goal cam against his former team in a 2-0 win in 2015. Clayton will, most likely, be on the bench for Boro this weekend after John Obi Mikel displaced him from the starting line up after the Nigerian’s January arrival.

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Albert Adomah celebrates Middlesbrough’s promotion in 2016 | Photo Credit: ITV

RM – Albert Adomah – Current club: Aston Villa

Adomah was a £1 million purchase for, you guessed it, Mowbray. The fee was a large one by the standard set during Mowbray’s time in charge of Middlesbrough. The Ghanian, however, repaid every penny of the fee as he scored 12 times during his debut season at the Riverside.

The former Bristol City winger helped Boro to the Premier League with his goals and assists from the right flank – namely his assist for David Nugent’s goal against Hull City in 2016.) Despite being linked with a move back to Middlesbrough this term, Adomah remains with Aston Villa.

LM – Lee Tomlin – Current Club: Peterborough United

When Tomlin arrived on Teesside, many eyebrows were raised. He was a signing announced minutes after transfer deadline day in 2014 and fans were bemused as to why he’d been brought into the side.

On his day, he was a great player for Boro, with the ability to pick a pass and turn a defender. Arguably his most memorable moment in the red of Middlesbrough was to turn Premier League winning defender Vincet Kompany inside out and hit the post in a 2-0 FA Cup win over Manchester City. Tomlin also opened the scoring in this semi-final second leng.

Tomlin left Middlesbrough in 2015 for Bournemouth and has since has stints at Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest before returning to Peterborough United, where he scored on his second debut.

Tomlin gets past Vincent Kompany at the Etihad Stadium in 2015 | Photo Credit: Alamy

CF – Jelle Vossen – Current club: Club Brugge

If you were to look up ‘social media firestorm’ in a dictionary, then you would likely see a reference to #FreeJelleVossen. Middlesbrough fans were so set on getting KRC Genk to let their Belgian forward join their Teesside team, that their efforts got them onto the news in Belgium.

When he eventually arrived into English football, Vossen struggled to hit the ground running. It took him until December 3rd to score his first Middlesbrough goal, and he added two more in the same match against Millwall at The Den.

It was Vossen who openeing the scoring in the first leg as he headed home a free-kick to give Middlesbrough a one goal advantage.

ST – Kike Garcia – Current Club: SD Eibar

Ole, ole, ole. Following his arrival from Real Murcia in 2014, as Aitor Karanka started to put his stamp on Middlesbrough football club, Kike quickly became a fan favourite partly through scoring goals and partly becuase of his catchy song.

To many it felt as if Kike did not reach his full potential with Middlesbrough (much like Cristhian Stuani) and he left Teesside in 2015 after scoring 15 goals in 53 games in England. His goal against Brentford on May 15th and subsequent shirtless celebration is one of the long lasting memories from the match. Kike now plays for Eibar in La Liga and has scored 18 times for them.

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Kike wheels away in celebration after putting Middlesbrough up 4-1 on aggregate | Photo Credit: Daily Mail

What is Middlesbrough’s best XI at the moment?

At the turn of the year, Middlesbrough fans seemed to hold a great deal of animosity against Tony Pulis. The team was under performing, and a Boxing Day defeat to Sheffield Wednesday after being knocked out of the Carabao Cup by League One Burton Albion, only compounded fans’ misery.

Since then, however, Boro have seen an upturn in form. One loss in the 11 games since December 26th has eased pressure on the Welshman, and Boro sit comfortably in the play-off places.

This upturn in form can be attributed to different factors. The reinstatement of Lewis Wing to the side after he fell out of favor following the summer signings on Mo Besic and George Saville in his position.

Lewis Wing celebrates scoring the opener against Leeds United | Photo Credit: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Whenever the cameras arrive on Teesside for a game, the commentator will always bring up Wing’s past – playing for non-league Shildon, or working part-time in a ‘shower factory’ – but the Newton Aycliffe born midfielder has an eye for a pass and the ability to pull of a thunderbolt. One could easily give him player of the season up to this stage.

One surprising factor about Middlesbrough’s form, is that it has continued through a stage where Pulis found his defensive numbers depleted. Firstly, Danny Batth – who made 10 appearances for Boro – swapped the Tees for the Trent and joined Stoke City. The hierarchy at the Riverside chose not to replace the former Wolverhampton Wanderers captain.

This decision looked like a risky one as Danny Ayala and Aden Flint picked up a suspension and injury respectively in a 1-0 defeat at Brammal Lane. A make shift back line of Jonny Howson, Dael Fry, Ryan Shotton, George Freind and George Saville travelled to face Blackburn at Ewood Park.

Daniel Ayala receives his marching orders following his second yellow card vs Sheffield United | Photo Credit: Alamy

Middlesbrough dominated proceedings as Rovers’ head coach and former Boro centre back watched on from the touchline. Pulis would have been all too happy to keep this back line for a home fixture against QPR the following week. But an injury to Friend kept him out of the match.

Ayala’s timely return meant he took Friend’s place in the starting XI and again Boro kept a clean sheet. Not only this, but the attack looked to be clicking with Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher teaming up as a duo for the first time in their tenure on Teesside.

Mo Besic and Bradley Dack fight for the ball during Middlesbrough’s 1-0 win at Ewood Park in 2019 | Photo Credit: @Boro

The side faltered against Wigan, drawing 0-0, but Assombalonga and Fletcher both had chances to steal three points for the Reds – whose fans traveled in great number to the DW stadium – but neither could provide the finishing touch.

This gives Pulis a headache for the upcoming weeks and months, when he will see Flint and Friend return from injury, as well as Marcus Tavernier who has impressed Pulis in recent training sessions, and Jordan Hugill having to be content with a spot on the bench.

As the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Although teams like Norwich and Bristol City may be able to attack Middlesbrough’s make-shift wing back tandem more effectively than Blackburn and Wigan did, both players have played well. Howson, especially, has given Boro a different threat with his work rate and willingness to attack the opposite fullback.

Assombalonga has looked better when alongside a strike partner this season, and Fletcher looks to be more mobile and able to create for the team than Hugill recently. Lewis Wing is very close to being the first name on Pulis’ teamsheet at the moment, and if it is not Wing then it is John Obi Mikel

John Obi Mikel warms up for Middlesbrough | Photo Credit: Gazette Boro

So what should Pulis do?

Middlesbrough XI:

Randolph; Howson, Fry, Shotton, Friend, Saville; Mikel, Wing; Tavernier, Fletcher, Assombalonga.

The five-at-the-back formation is working for Boro’s Welsh manager, and changing now would impact the team’s morale. John Obi Mikel has brought a different level of ability to the midfield. Adding composure and the ability to start an attack to the skill set of Adam Clayton.

Playing Lewis Wing in a deeper role could take away from his style of play, but against Wigan, BBC Tees expert summariser Neil Maddison pointed out that Besic was too much on the toes of Mikel and was inhibiting his impact on the game. Allowing Wing to get forward and support the attack, along side Tavernier and Fletcher’s speed and Assombalonga’s movement is surely a recipe for success.

Darren Randolph’s case for ‘Best Goalkeeper in the Championship’

Garry Monk’s short lived time on Teesside can be catagorised in two words: overspending and underachieving.

The former Swansea City and Leeds United boss spent over £30 million on strikers alone. Monk broke Boro’s transfer record when he splashed £15 million on Nottingham Forest’s Britt Assombalonga; as well as bringing in Ashley Fletcher from West Ham United and Martin Braithwaite from Toulouse.

One position on the pitch Monk’s recruitment came up trumps, however, was between the sticks, as Darren Randolph – like Fletcher – was signed from West Ham for £5 million. The decision for the Hammers to sell the Republic of Ireland was a knock on affect from England’s number 1 Joe Hart arriving on loan at the London Stadium and raised eyebrows in some circles.

Darren Randolph signs for Middlesbrough | Photo Credit: MFC.co.uk

Since his arrival at Middlesbrough, Randolph has been nothing short of exemplary, only missing out on the team’s Player of the Year award for the 2017/18 season because of Adama Traore’s sudden arrival as one of the league’s best players.

Randolph, who has 33 Ireland caps to his name, carried his form over into the new season. He has made two mistakes during his time on the banks of the Tees – namely clearing into the Ben Gibson, allowing Jamie Mackie to score in a 2017 clash with Queens Park Rangers, and spilling a tame Glenn Wheelan shot to round off a 3-0 beat-down at the hands of Aston Villa earlier this season.

Darren Randolph warms up for Middlesbrough | Photo Credit: Evening Gazette

Middlesbrough’s number 23, however, has undoubtedly kept his side in more games than he has cost them, with some outstanding shot-stopping. This season alone, saves from Bradley Dack at Ewood Park and
a double-stop when Leeds United were bearing down on the North Stand net at the Riverside has resulted in three extra points for Tony Pulis’ side.

While Randolph is impressive for Boro, how do his numbers stack up against the other ‘keepers in England’s second tier?

On the face of it Randolph has the most clean sheets – Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson has three less clean sheets than the Middlesbrough stopper’s 16 – and Pulis’ team have conceded 24 goals in 34 games. This means that the Teessiders have kept a clean sheet in 47.1% of their matches*. A quite amazing statistic.

Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson celebrates to the crowd | Photo Credit: Daily Express

To go along with this, his competitors for the league’s ‘golden glove’ Randolph is ahead of Henderson, Costel Pantilimon from Notts Forest and Stoke City’s Jack Butland in saves per minute, (128) total saves (81) and saves per goal (4.26)**

While if you ask the average Championship fan who the best goalkeeper in the division is, they may well say Butland. The Potter’s stopper – who was involved in England’s World Cup run to the semi-finals – the statistics may suggest that the his former Birmingham City teammate has the better of him, with 14 games left in the campaign.

*Statistic from transfermarkt.com
**Statistic from Squawaka.com