Despite mixed results on the field against average opposition, the work being done off the field certainly can’t be knocked with huge credit going to Gary Gill, Victor Orta and the entire scouting network behind the scenes. This in addition to the usual credit towards Aitor Karanka and Steve Gibson who have once again outdone themselves in their proactive approach to acquisitions- something which can only aid the process of gelling this new premier league side together ahead of the season opener Stoke City on August 13th.
So what have been the key talking points from our preparations to date?
A major positive has not only been the swift approach to concluding business in a heavily competitive marketplace, but also the stature of player coming through the door at Rockliffe Park. This can only be attributed to the work of Steve Gibson and Aitor Karanka, who have the sort of passion and drive to progress which is hugely contagious and quite frankly is becoming increasingly rare in a game where money talks and assuring stability is always the key priority. But with two of the biggest names in world football in Alvaro Negredo and Victor Valdes joining the ranks one thing is assured that the Boro are not taking the challenge of the top flight lightly.
As it stands Valdes will be coming into the squad to compete directly with Dimi Konstantopoulous who has been a vital part of our promotion winning side and a relative mainstay in an evolving Karanka side. Despite this the rumours surrounding a move for want-away Villa Keeper Brad Guzan don’t appear to be disappearing. If this move materialises you would have to assume this would be curtains for Dimi as neither Valdes or Guzan will be signing to come into a promotion winning side as 3rd choice keeper. Some might call it harsh, but in the Premier League there is little room for sentiment and this is why the gaffer get paid the big bucks to make the tough decisions.
The last seven days also saw the collapse of another high profile signing in Dortmund’s Neven Subotic, a defender of undoubted class but with a sketchy injury record. Disappointingly the move fell through after uncovering a chest injury which will keep the player out of action until early 2017. As great a signing as it would be we aren’t in a position to be taking uncalculated risks and so Gary Gill’s team will be swiftly working on the next defensive target to provide competition for a back line which is looking frail ahead of the season opener, with injury concerns surrounding defensive lynchpin Daniel Ayala, new signing Bernard Espinosa and promising left back James Husband. The unfortunate shoulder injury suffered by the latter is an area the club will undoubtedly be looking to address. It’s possible we may seek cover in the loan market, or we may look to Adam Reach to provide the necessary cover. The player is at a point where he is looking for regular first team football, and in a team of increasing attacking options he may be best suited to operating in his second position of left back where he has looked assured and comfortable in our fixtures in Marbella.
Other than this the defence is looking good with Ben Gibson and George Friend performing consistently, and with Nsue and Barragan competing at right back this can only lead to increased performances as both players try to stake their claim for a starting position.
Central midfield is gearing up to be a fascinating tussle for starting positions. The early favourites appear to midfield metronome Adam Clayton and new signing Marten De Roon who from recent performances looks like he is going to be one of the first names on the team sheet. With excellent physicality suited to the premier league, and with a passing accuracy percentage in the top five in Europe’ elite leagues last season it looks like Middlesbrough could have found themselves a real player, which is tribute once again to the work done behind the scenes.
However, with club captain Leadbitter likely to return in September he is almost certain to be drafted back into the side when fit which means the first few games will be vital for De Roon and Clayton to put down a marker for a starting Jersey. The other competition comes in the shape of up and coming midfielder Julien De Sart who has certainly done his chances no harm in preseason, and Adam Forshaw who despite a series of solid performances appears to be out of favour under Karanka, and with the additional competition this season it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see him move on in pursuit of the first team football he deserves.
In terms of attacking support, we certainly have strength in numbers with the imminent arrival of Gaston Ramirez and the signing of former wonderkid Viktor Fischer from Ajax. These quality additions will complement last season’s regulars Albert Adomah and Stuart Downing with the latter likely to feel slightly more at home back in the premiership where he was one of the league’s leading creative forces in 2014-15 for West Ham. The other option includes a slightly different threat in Stuani who will likely act as a support striker and be a valued member of the squad.
However, question marks surround Carlos De Pena who could be surplus to requirements having struggled to impact last year in the Championship and Adam Reach who may have to be flexible to fit into Karanka’s plans or potentially look towards the Championship along with Mustapha Carayol to prove himself in his preferred attacking position.
In attack we are now arguably at our strongest. With Jordan Rhodes is excellent form with four goals in five games in preseason and the signing of “The Beast” Alvaro Negredo, we have two strikers who given a chance could have a huge say in how Middlesbrough fare in the league this season. Both strikers have undoubted pedigree and with the combination of Rhodes’ intelligent anticipation and positioning, along with Negredo’s powerful presence and sharp finishing we could have a really impressive strike force on our hands. Whether Karanka chooses to play the two together as he has hinted at in preseason remains to be seen but both players will undoubtedly have a huge say in Middlesbrough’s fortunes this season.
At this stage it’s unclear how big a role David Nugent will play this season. However, the experience and tireless energy he brings to the team when on the field is undoubted and in my opinion he could play an important role if given the opportunity.
Overall the signs are resoundingly positive at this stage and with three pre-season games to go against Aston Villa, Udinese and Real Sociedad we are expected to get a much clearer view of Karanka’s plans as his preferred team and system begin to take shape ahead of what will undoubtedly be a hard-going yet fascinating season at the Riverside.