Middlesbrough column: Six things we want to see from Boro in 2021
Thursday, 7th Jan 2021 20:26 by Jake Emmerson
As we said goodbye (and good riddance) to 2020, we reflected on another year of ups and downs for Boro.
We were plummeting towards relegation, now we are pushing for the play-offs; Woodgate went, Warnock was welcomed; stalwarts Ayala, Clayton, Friend all left the club, as we witnessed the renaissance of bit-part players seemingly destined for the exit.
We now look to 2021 with a newly instilled sense of hope that has grown under Warnock’s reign.
We have picked out six key things we would like to see this year from Middlesbrough.
1. A contract extension for Neil Warnock
First up, a point that gets less contentious with every week that passes.
Warnock has been brilliant for Middlesbrough, from whatever angle you look at it.
From carrying out the original task of keeping us in the Championship last season, to developing the squad and, more importantly, the spirit within that squad to have us daring to dream, he has vastly exceeded the expectations of most fans.
He has developed players that a year ago many fans were desperate to get rid of, he has tied down key players to extended contracts and has given fans a reason to smile at a time when they are getting harder and harder to come by.
It is possible that contractual matters will be decided in the summer, as Warnock hasn’t provided any certainty around whether he wants to continue managing past this year.
He’s 72 and may decide he’s simply had enough, quit while he’s ahead. The Boro hierarchy need to assess whether any other viable options are available.
However, if what we have seen so far continues for the rest of the season, they should be doing everything in their power to convince Warnock to stay.
2. Stronger attacking returns
This has become a theme over the last few years for Middlesbrough.
In 2020, Boro managed 55 goals from 46 games in all competitions. In 2019, it was 54 in 50; 72 in 55 in 2018; in 2017 they scored 55 in 51 and in 2016 they managed a paltry 48 from 44.
You have to go back to 2015 to find the last time Middlesbrough averaged more than 1.3 goals per game in all comps.
Across this period, we’ve tried a number of managers, a number of formations and a number of different striking options. Nothing has seemed to work consistently.
It is to the credit of the defences we’ve had that we’ve managed to be promoted and reach the play-offs. Ultimately, though, you cannot win without scoring, and Boro don’t do it often enough.
This season has started well, Boro have averaged 1.39 goals a game in all competitions and in 2021 it is crucial that record continues, and even improves.
With Ashley Fletcher due to return this month and with potential additions in January, it would be great to see the attack achieving the same levels of praise that the defence usually gets.
3. A firm push for the play-offs
Despite the recent disappointments at Stoke, Preston and Sheffield, Middlesbrough have made a very positive start to the season and now find themselves 7th (only 7 points off the automatic promotion spots with a game in hand).
Managing fitness levels and avoiding injuries will be the crucial factor when it comes to final league positions. January may see some outfield arrivals which could be used for rotation but the position at the end of the season is most likely to be determined by the players who are already at the club.
If Boro can replicate the results from the first half of the season then based on the current points per game, we would end the season on 75 points, a total which has been sufficient to reach the play-offs for 4 of the last 5 seasons.
It may still seem a long shot to some but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected!
4. Tavernier, Fry and Wing cementing their place in the team
It goes without saying that the fans will hope for a big year from every Boro player.
For these three players, this feels like a particularly important one in terms of their development and future in the Boro team.
Dael Fry’s season so far has produced his best performances in a Boro shirt and of the three seems to be the most settled in the team.
He has more than played his part alongside Dijksteel and McNair and has shown a big improvement in the physical side of his game.
Now 23, this year is an opportunity to establish himself in the team for the long-term and stake his claim to the club captaincy in time.
Since Marcus Tavernier first came into the side under Garry Monk, he is best summed up in one word - versatility.
Featuring in every game this season, Tavernier has played in a number of roles, displaying obvious ability but not an obvious best position.
While the positional versatility can only be a strength, having an established role could allow Tavernier to become even more effective.
At 21, he has time on his side, and his stylish finish at Wycombe was a further reminder of the wonderful talent he possesses.
Of the three, Lewis Wing has the most to prove. He was Boro’s second highest league goalscorer in 2020 with 7 goals but his overall contribution to the team also drew criticism.
It feels like this year is probably his last opportunity to prove himself and at 25, he is at the stage where if he isn’t going to be getting in the team, he may want to consider his future at the club.
Warnock clearly rates him and the opportunities will be there – let’s hope he can take them.
5. A long-term goalkeeping solution
This is a matter that will likely go unresolved, at least until the summer, but one that must be considered this year.
Middlesbrough do not own a first choice goalkeeper. Marcus Bettinelli has performed pretty well - his clean sheet record speaks for itself, and the defensive unit plays well as a whole – the outfield players clearly have total confidence in the keeper.
However, the sobering fact is that Bettinelli is only on loan. Fulham have the option to call him back, even this month, if they receive an offer from someone to take him permanently.
Jordan Archer has handy experience as a back-up, but he is also currently on a short-term deal. Dejan Stojanovic didn’t cut it and has been loaned out.
Young goalkeepers Sol Brynn and Zach Hemming have promising futures but are more likely to go out on loan spells than to be given the no. 1 spot in the first team this year.
It may be that Bettinelli could be available on an affordable permanent deal in the summer.
Or it may be that another loan, whether Bettinelli or someone else, proves to be the best option for next season but it would be preferable for Boro to have a long-term, reliable option that can play as part of a settled system.
6. Fans returning to the Riverside
While this one is not down to the club, it is the one thing that absolutely every fan will agree they are desperate to see in 2021.
There is nothing better than being there. Every emotion hits that bit harder during a match - the atmosphere envelops you, whether it’s raging at a referee, anxiously holding out for a result or popping in that last minute winner - there really is nothing like it.
With the team performing as well as it is right now, a fan-filled Riverside would be absolutely electric at 3pm on a Saturday. May it become our “normal” again soon!
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Photo: Action Images
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