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Middlesbrough column: The Britt Assombalonga dilemma that faces Neil Warnock
Wednesday, 30th Dec 2020 17:28 by Jake Emmerson

Ever since his arrival in the summer of 2017, Britt Assombalonga is a name that has provoked a mixed reaction from Middlesbrough fans.

Frustrating at times in front of goal and with a large transfer fee to live up to, he often (rightly or wrongly) finds himself becoming a scapegoat for the club’s continued struggles with scoring goals.

This January, as he approaches the final 6 months of his contract, Neil Warnock and the Boro hierarchy have a decision to make. Should the club captain be offered an extension, or should he be allowed to move on?

Having dropped out of the Premier League the season before, Assombalonga was brought in for a club record £15million to spearhead a new-look attacking line along with Ashley Fletcher and the infamous Martin Braithwaite.

With former Championship player of the year Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede also remaining from the season before, it appeared that Boro might finally shake off the lack of goals scored that had been a cause for concern in the previous few seasons.

As it turned out, by the time manager Garry Monk was sacked in December, Middlesbrough had managed 30 league goals in 23 games – fewer than had been managed in the previous two championship seasons (34 in 2015/16, 38 in 2014/15). Of these, Assombalonga had scored 11, a solid early return on his investment and similar to the form at Nottingham Forest which had seen him command such a large fee. By comparison, only Braithwaite (4) and Grant Leadbitter (2) had scored more than one league goal for Boro by this point.

From this point onwards, things seemed to become more difficult for Britt. After Tony Pulis’ appointment in December 2017, he only scored 4 more goals across the remainder of the season (one of which was scored against Bolton for which Pulis was only in the stands). Despite being the club’s leading scorer in the league, going from 11 goals in 23 appearances to 15 in 46 (including playoffs) was not the progression that anyone, least of all Britt, will have wanted to see.

This drought in goals can potentially be attributed to the change in playing time that Assombalonga saw under Pulis. After playing 90 minutes in 18 of 23 games under Monk, Assombalonga only played 90 minutes twice in Pulis’ first season and played for less than an hour in 15 of the 23 league games he was involved in.

Pulis preferred to utilise Bamford and Gestede (when fit) over Assombalonga when he first arrived. Even when Britt found himself more involved in 2018/19, Pulis’ style was clearly not suited to his attributes and he suffered from a lack of service for large parts of the season.

Despite this he still scored 14 goals, coming out as the club’s top scorer for a second year. The lack of creativity continued under Jonathan Woodgate and yet Assombalonga’s 10 goals left him only one behind club top scorer Fletcher for 2019/20. This season he became Middlesbrough’s overall top scorer since the turn of the millennium and is on track to reach double figure goals for a fourth consecutive season despite some lacklustre performances.

Even with his consistent goalscoring record, Assombalonga has failed to fully win the Boro fanbase over, and with the end of his contract approaching, opinion seems to be split on what fans would like to see happen next.

Some feel that his attacking returns have not justified his transfer fee and high wages and that, in a team that does not create many chances, there have been too many scoring opportunities spurned to warrant an extension.

At the age of 28 and in what are generally considered to be the prime years for an attacking player, there is no reason for Britt to accept a big hit to his wages. Although the pandemic will be affecting the wages other teams can afford to offer, the potential lack of transfer fee could entice teams to offer higher wages than Middlesbrough could afford.

Fans generally seem to be more eager to see Fletcher become the next name tied down to a new deal, an opinion that is by no means unjustified given his performances last season, combined with his age and likely lower wages.

If Middlesbrough are not willing or able to agree a new contract with Britt, that leaves two potential options: sell in January or allow him to leave for free in the summer. Both would mean that Assombalonga would be by far Middlesbrough’s biggest net loss in the history of the club.

Other strikers who have been flops in comparison have recouped at least some of their fees. Afonso Alves went for between £7-10million, Jordan Rhodes was sold for a reported £10million and Braithwaite was sold for £4.5million with further money gained from a sell-on clause upon his move to Barcelona. More recently, Gestede was allowed to leave on a free but his original transfer fee was less than half of that of Assombalonga.

Even without the contract consideration, it is unlikely Assombalonga would command a similar fee to that which Boro originally paid in today’s market.

Further to this, the current financial climate means that it is unlikely that teams will be looking to spend much in January. One possibility is that Middlesbrough could consider a player swap, either for a more unproven young player or for a battle-hardened Championship veteran with only a year or two left in them.

Warnock has previously stated in a press conference that he sees Britt and Chuba Akpom as very similar players and this could allow him to bring someone in who brings a different style of play into the squad.

The option of letting Assombalonga go for free in the summer does not make a lot of sense. Apart from the improvement to the wage bill, there are very few positives that could result from allowing him to leave for nothing. He would likely strengthen a direct championship rival and would leave a large number of goals to replace, a task for which Akpom has yet to convince he is capable. There is no obvious replacement in the Championship, especially with the limited funds we would likely have again in the summer.

Some of Warnock’s biggest positives so far have been the talent he has been able to bring out in so many players and the fact he has been able to tie many of those most improved players down to longer term contracts. It may be that handing the captain’s armband to Britt was part of his plan to increase his commitment to the club and change his thought process regarding a new contract.

It could be that Boro encourage him to earn himself a new contract in what remains of the season, but this would be a risky strategy once he can speak to other clubs, regardless of anything he has said about wanting to stay. It may be that his demands are too high for Boro to justify but there is no reason why he should not be offered a contract, potentially on lower wages but with added performance related bonuses.

Ultimately, Warnock has proven himself trustworthy enough to make the best decision and only last week he spoke about a potential striking option that Boro were interested in. It remains to be seen whether this would be in addition to the current options or as a replacement. For now, it should be said that while it is easy to remember the wasted opportunities, being the top scorer for Middlesbrough since 2000 should not be forgotten.

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