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Middlesbrough column: Djed Spence's dilemma and why his destiny is in his own hands
Friday, 29th Jan 2021 15:02 by Jake Emmerson

Jake Emmerson discusses the full-back's career crossroads and what he must do to fulfil his undoubted potential.

Three damaging home defeats in a row has left Boro fans with that deja-vu feeling as the now traditional January woes worsen. After the humiliating loss to relegation-threatened Rotherham, Neil Warnock talked openly about his desire to recruit at right back, and it is fair to assume that in so doing he wasn’t singling out the absent Anfernee Dijksteel, but rather Djed Spence.

Spence’s Boro career took off rapidly but sadly seems to be in danger of tailing off at the same pace. It’s odd to think that as I sat with my girlfriend at Manjaro’s for a full time parmo after a drawn friendly with St Etienne in July 2019, Spence himself came in, in his Boro training gear, and sat at the next table having played half an hour in the game. I toyed with asking for a photo but didn’t – but if I knew he was about to have the season he was going to have I wouldn’t have hesitated!

Within 7 games of his first league appearance, Spence picked up the EFL Young Player of the Month for December following Boro’s only run of form under Woodgate - 5 league wins, 4 clean sheets and a match winning goal against Huddersfield. He was even reported to have caught Mourinho’s attention after an impressive FA Cup performance against Tottenham.

In a dismal season, Spence provided a breath of fresh air. In a stadium with a steadily deteriorating atmosphere as Boro slipped closer to relegation, he showcased the fearlessness, the spark and the desire that fans had been crying out for.

This form soon saw Spence signing a contract extension, keeping him at the club until June 2023. At this point, Boro fans were likely breathing a collective sigh of relief, knowing that if the Premier League links were true, the club was under no pressure to let Spence leave cheaply.

Although he has rarely been out of the squad, since this point Spence has struggled to hit the same heights. His defensive frailties have been exposed on several occasions and on Sunday, fans were left exasperated at a lack of tracking back by Spence, which left Joe Rothwell completely unmarked to score Blackburn’s winner.

Should we be worried about Djed? Are his performances getting worse or have the expectations been set too high? Is he losing confidence or is he getting complacent? He’s only 20 years old, and the current conditions football finds itself in means time spent learning on the training pitch is minimal and that Spence is having to do most of his developing with thousands of virtual eyes watching him.

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The fact remains that this season, Boro have fared better in games where Spence has not started. In the 13 league games he has started, Boro have won 3, drawn 4 and lost 7, while in the games he has hasn’t, Boro have won 8, drawn 2 and lost 2.

He has spent the season playing in various positions along the right-hand side. While originally billed as a right back, it is in this position that he seems least comfortable. When he came into the side, Spence was immediately appreciated for his desire to push forward and go on mazy runs. He injected speed and excitement into a one-paced team and he caused havoc among opposition defences who clearly had no idea what to expect from him.

Now with a reputation and having been linked to a multitude of Premier League clubs, opposition defences have become increasingly alert to Spence and have found it easier to snuff out his runs.

If playing as part of a back 4, he struggles to maintain his positional discipline, finding himself too often tempted to push forward. He has been guilty of losing his marker when facing crosses and showing signs of lethargy when tracking back - which has cost goals.
These positional issues persist when he is played as a winger/wide attacking midfielder. While his dribbling ability and eye for goal stand in his favour, his inexperience comes through at times in where he finds himself around the box.

Although not for lack of effort, Spence’s attacking returns have been disappointing, with only one goal and zero assists registered this season. This can potentially be attributed to his decision making, an attribute that he sometimes struggles with, but that will surely improve with more experience.

Many of Spence’s best performances have come when he played at right wing back. The position allows him the best of both worlds, a slightly more familiar defensive position but with more cover available, allowing him to push further forward with less hesitance.
With Warnock generally sticking to 4 man defences, this has made things more challenging. This has also been the case for Hayden Coulson, who showed great promise last season but has found himself largely frozen out under Warnock.

Whether Spence would have featured less if Dijksteel had consistently stayed fit or if there was a similar option to Marvin Johnson available down the right is debatable. Warnock has predicted a bright future for Spence and with 2 years on Coulson, he is arguably the better prospect of the two.

Many players have seen huge upturns in performance levels since Warnock’s arrival but Spence hasn’t been a name mentioned in amongst the likes of McNair, Dijksteel, Bola and Watmore. While he doesn’t seem to suffer a lack of confidence, it seems like something isn’t quite clicking.

The team spirit and work ethic Warnock has developed should benefit Spence, who already has over 50 first team appearances under his belt, but after this latest setback, it is possible Warnock’s patience may be wearing thin.

While squad size will ensure he remains a part of matchday action, should Spence be a regular starter or should he be thrown into the fray during the match? Marcus Tavernier’s absence will provide an indicator with how Warnock chooses to shuffle his attacking line; it may well be the promised activity in the transfer window impacts Spence more than others.

Ultimately, while his performances haven’t lived up to that amazing start, they can be attributed to any number of reasons. Did the early adulation lead to a sense of complacency? Does he feel the pressure of expectation? Perhaps, from one who promised so much, performances that don’t reach the early peaks are less well tolerated.
Spence could still make the Premier League within his career. He retains the attributes that won him his best young player award. This is a young squad that is finding its feet and Spence has the potential to be a key part of it going forward. It is up to him to keep pushing himself and to ensure that his early achievements do not represent the briefest of high points.

He has all the talent, not inconsiderable match experience for a 20 year old, and has an eye for goal. But unless he can consistently harness this, the likelihood is that any future visits to Manjaro’s will be just as anonymous as that of 2019.

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