As the season curtain raiser approaches, the excitement across Teesside is at an all-time high as Boro prepare for life back in the Premier League.
With pre-season almost over and Aitor Karanka’s summer spending seemingly drawing to a close, Middlesbrough FC look in fine shape ahead of the opening day clash with Stoke and have lots of reasons to feel optimistic. Boro’s dramatic promotion push last year was built on a successful solid defensive foundation, something which Karanka immediately instilled on the squad after taking over from Mowbray.
Middlesbrough had the tightest defence in English football leaking just 31 league goals all season in a very physical and challenging league. Whilst Aitor has been working hard to bolster the attacking options with the arrival of Negredo, Fischer and Ramirez on a permanent deal, he’ll be under no illusion just how important it is that Boro not only continue their impeccable defensive displays from last season but also continue to improve.
There’s been much said about how much of a chance, if any, last season’s heroes should be given in the upcoming Premier League season as the likes of Ibrahimovic, Vardy and Hazard are welcome to newly updated Riverside Stadium. From the core group of around 17 players last season it’d be difficult to deny any of them their Premier League dream. But this is football and unfortunately in football there’s not much room for sentiment. But sentiment aside; how many are actually good enough to make their on the Premier League?
There seems to be some panic amongst fans about the lack of defensive options Karanka has at his disposal, with some fans suggesting it is vital more investment is made into this area of the squad in order for the club to survive, and hopefully thrive, in the Premier League.
Let’s assess Boro’s defensive options who’ll be fighting for their place against Stoke next weekend.
Boro’s Goalkeeper activity in the transfer market has been a topic of conversation for fans and journalists alike with two summer arrivals bringing competition to Dimi. With four keepers of high quality in the Squad all fighting for the Gloves, it seems inevitable that one will be waving goodbye to Teesside. But who? And who deserves to be number 1?
Karanka has got a huge decision to make, but, a decision that he won’t mind making as each keeper is more than capable of doing a job.
Dimi, who was signed as a fringe player during Mowbray’s cost-cutting reshuffle, saw an opportunity under the new manager and worked his way to becoming a constant in Karanka’s 11. Last season he repaid the faith of the manager with some sublime match-winning saves and performances behind an equally solid defence. As a shot stopper, Dimi was up there with the best in the league. Despite this, some sections of Middlesbrough fans seem too keen to write the ex-Hartlepool stopper off, quickly deeming him ‘not good enough for the Premier League’.
Maybe some of this concern comes as Dimi is prone to a mistake. But, even the best makes mistake. His progression as a player over the last couple of seasons, even at this stage of his career, has been remarkable and if I saw his name at the top of the team sheet come Saturday I'd be confident in his ability to lead us to victory.
Of course Middlesbrough have potentially better options at their disposal, but I think over-eager criticism of a man who played a HUGE part in promotion is unjust.
One of those other options is Victor Valdes. I think his career speaks for itself and tells you everything you need to do know about the Spaniard’s credentials as one of the best Goalkeeper’s in the world. Yes, he’s had a troubled few years at United, but there’s a strong feeling that under Karanka Valdes will strive again and this is why I do believe Valdes will be the managers number 1 choice.
The signing of Brad Guzan raised a few eyebrows as suddenly the Goalkeeper department looked a little bit crowded. Like Dimi and Valdes, Guzan is a high class keeper. Again, this doesn’t help Karanka make a decision but certainly boosts competition.
This leave Tomas Mejias as the one who, unfortunately, will depart the club. The signing of the ex Real Madrid man promised so much, but in the end the whole situation was a little bit disappointing. After a few less than reassuring performances in the early part of his Middlesbrough career, Mejias didn’t really recover. He did leave us with some heroic cup moments though which will live long in the memory of fans.
When Emilio Nsue arrived from Mallorca as a free agent in 2014, I don’t think even the biggest Spanish-Football expert could pinpoint the Equatorial Guinea’s preferred position. He’s the definition of versatile lending his hand as a winger, a right back and even a centre forward for his country. It looked like Nsue was last on the list of right-back options last summer with the arrival of Baptiste. But after long-term injuries to Baptiste and Arbella, Karanka was somewhat forced to give Nsue a chance at right-back and my word did he take it.
He was an integral part of Boro’s solid defence, providing a constant attacking threat to opposition defences whilst being defensively sound at the other end. The arrival of Barragan from Valencia provides more options in this position, and whilst it’s difficult to judge without seeing him play, I’d still give Nsue the nod against Stoke.
Middlesbrough’s big-name signings have signalled Karanka’s intentions to not just make up the numbers in the top flight, but compete with every club in the league. One potential incoming player which made the mouths of fans water was Neven Subotic. The Serbian international was all set to sign for the club and was very excited by the prospect of playing under Aitor; like every player who has joined this tight-knit squad.
With a fresh start for the player, an addition of quality to Karanka’s squad and an easing of fans panic around the lack of central defenders everything was all set for the perfect transfer. Unfortunately for every party involved, a problem with Subotic’s medical put the first blot on Boro’s otherwise perfect transfer record.
The desire to sign such a highly rated player shows that, one, Middlesbrough are able to attract high-calibre players to the club, and two, Karanka feels there is urgent need for a new CB arrival.
Ben Gibson, a future England star, will be relishing the opportunity to play for his hometown club in the Premier League and I’d back him to have a fantastic season at the heart of the defence. But with Espinosa and Ayala sidelined, Gibson remains the only remaining experienced CB along with Baptiste who continues his comeback from injury.
Dael Fry is no doubt one for the future, but, despite starting the first game of last year’s Championship campaign it is unlikely that he’ll repeat that achievement second time round.
Then there’s Jordan McGhee. His arrival from loan saw him go straight into the U-21 set up. But with a lack of options, maybe McGhee will be fast tracked into the senior set up and given the opportunity to prove his worth.
Every Boro fan will be praying to see the partnership of Gibson and Ayala reforming for Saturday’s visit of Stoke, but even if this does happen, Aitor will feel he’s still short of experience in this area. So where do Middlesbrough look? Middlesbrough’s continental scouting system and Karanka’s transfer poker face makes it difficult to second guess who the club are realistically trying to sign with even the most die hard ITK struggling to conjure up names. Maybe we’ll play a game of ‘will they, won’t they?’ with Lindelof this summer.
I don’t think there’s any disputing Friend’s credentials as the best left back in the league last year. The fan favourite has gone from strength to strength in his now bargain move from Doncaster and will be fancy his chances against some of the world’s best players over the course of the next 9 months.
James Husband will feel unlucky to have been limited to only a handful of appearances at Middlesbrough as the 22 year-old left back has bags of potential and quality waiting to be unleashed. Reach may sense an opportunity to work his way into Karanka’s thinking as versatile winger and left back, but It wouldn’t surprise me if Karanka dipped into the market again to buy some experienced cover for George.
Who do you think should start in Boro’s defence? Who should be buy to strengthen?