Dan Barlaser to Middlesbrough was confirmed on transfer deadline day, with the new recruit wearing the No. 7 shirt. The 26-year-old's arrival on Teesside would mean that Michael Carrick's squad will have the league's two best assist contributors among their number.
Born in Gateshead, Barlaser is one of several talented midfielders to graduate from Newcastle United's academy in recent seasons (see the Longstaff brothers), moving on loan to Accrington Stanley and Rotherham United for game time and first-team exposure. Barlaser would impress at the Millers with the newly promoted side forking out £275,000 for his services. He would also receive some international football experience during this period of his career, making appearances for both Turkey and England's youth squads.
After arriving permanently at Rotherham United, Barlaser impressed despite Rotherham's inevitable relegation. Despite showing that he was a capable operator at Championship level, he remained at Rotherham United, leading them to another promotion. Barlaser's single-season hiatus from the Championship hasn't hindered his development. On the contrary, Barlaser has been even more influential this season. The ever-present 26-year-old has contributed 7 assists and 2 goals to the Rotherham United cause. However, what he brings to Rotherham, and Middlesbrough down the line extends beyond these impressive figures.
Jonny Howson's Replacement:
Jonny Howson refuses to age at the heart of Middlesbrough's midfield. At 34 years old, the fan favourite is one of the club's most senior figures. Yet, he has been an ever-present figure at the heart of midfield, putting him under considerable physical stress. Howson has been thriving in his key first-team player role, but Middlesbrough needs someone to deputise and share the workload.
By bringing in a player to deputise now, Middlesbrough will allow them to learn the role without the pressure and expectation of instantaneously replacing one of Middlesbrough's top performers. Additionally, bringing in the to-be replacement before the club decides whether to extend Howson's contract for a further season means the player can learn from the vastly experienced schemer.
Middlesbrough believed they had found their deputy in Alex Mowatt. However, the once widely praised midfielder has struggled to impress in his occasional appearances pushing him to the fringes of the first team. While the loanee is likely to remain on Teesside for the remainder of the season, having played for West Brom before arriving at Middlesbrough (players are only allowed to feature for two clubs each season), it's clear that Carrick does not want to rely on the 27-year-old. Instead, he is more likely to deputise for Hayden Hackney, who could also be covered by Riley McGree if preferred.
Instead, Middlesbrough has dipped into the transfer market to find a player to deputise, and they have found their preferred option in Dan Barlaser.
Michael Carrick Parallels:
A deep-lying midfielder who signs for Michael Carrick will always be exposed to comparisons with the former Manchester United midfielder. However, the similarities between Carrick and Barlaser go beyond their position within the team.
Michael Carrick is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders that England has ever produced. Barlaser is playing at a level a few rungs below the level of his new manager. However, he shares a similar playing style with Michael Carrick, with both players earmarked as midfield orchestrators.
The most prominent of these similarities come in their distribution. Carrick developed a reputation for his capable and varied passing, making him one of Europe's most passers. Barlaser is also a competent passer averaging 45.6 passes per 90. While his reliability in circulating the ball reflects the gulf between his average passes per 90 and Rotherham's next frequent passer, former Middlesbrough defender Grant Hall, who has averaged 31.8 passes per 90. This shows that all of Rotherham's moves go through the deep-lying midfielder, making him integral to their system. Carrick was equally involved in team build-up during his playing career, often averaging more touches of the ball than his teammates.
While some players inflate their number of passes and pass success rate with simple, low-risk sideways passes, that was not the case with Michael Carrick. The new Middlesbrough manager was famed for his long balls. The 41-year-old was able to find an attacker's toe-end from 60 meters away, giving him all the technical ability to break down opposing defences from his deep midfield role. Carrick was so successful at the deep-lying playmaker role that he was likened to Andrea Pirlo. While he would dismiss these claims of similarities, it speaks to the effectiveness of his distribution that these comparisons were made in the first place. Daniel Barlaser is also known to vary his distribution. The 26-year-old has averaged 3.3 long balls per 90, which is the most long balls of any Rotherham outfield player. Equally, his club-topping 7 assists show that his distribution directly impacts the side attacking output, as further supported by his team-topping 1.7 key passes per 90 (passes which result in a goal attempt). Like Carrick, Barlaser typically starts in a defensive midfielder position, but he is an orchestrator of the play, resulting in him having an influence all over the pitch.
While both Daniel Barlaser and Michael Carrick predominantly focus on influencing the game when the team is in possession, neither of them shirks their defensive responsibilities. A quick google images search will bring up images of Michael Carrick lunging in to regain possession. His average of 1.47 tackles per game shows a player willing to do the dirty side of the game. Their similar playing style is also mirrored in the statistics, as Daniel Barlaser's 1.5 tackles per 90 this season is nearly identical to Carrick's output. Their interception statistics are similar, with Carrick edging Barlaser by 0.3 successful reads per game. This quick look into their defensive output shows that Barlaser can and will dig in and defend, like Carrick, but it is in possession when they are at their best.
The two orchestrators also share a similar temperament. Michael Carrick always cut a calm, considered figure on the pitch refusing to let the occasion or the opposition get the best of him. His composure was vital to Manchester United as he was often used to dictate the tempo. The new Middlesbrough manager could speed up the game or slow it down depending on what best served his side at the time. Barlaser shares a similar temperament to Carrick as he always looks confident and assured on the ball, refusing to let the occasion get to him. Likewise, Barlaser can easily dictate the game's tempo, allowing Middlesbrough better control over the match.
Middlesbrough has been lacking this temperament this season, but the need for this mentality in the midfield was laid bare against Sunderland. Middlesbrough's midfield struggled to get a grip on the game at the Stadium of Light, with the side conceding possession too cheaply and playing at the tempo Sunderland had dictated rather than trying to instigate their own. Michael Carrick cut a frustrated figure on the touchline against Sunderland as he urged his midfield to calm down. In Daniel Barlaser, Middlesbrough has recruited the right player to fix this issue.
In Barlaser, Carrick has found a surrogate for himself within the squad, allowing him to continue his possession-based, midfield-oriented system with a well-balanced midfield duo. However, at 26 years old, Barlaser still has room to develop, and in Carrick, he has one of the best players in his position as a mentor.
This could be an exciting partnership. Middlesbrough got a very talented orchestrator who could develop further under Carrick. Barlaser has moved to a team in the promotion push with the opportunity to develop his own game.
Fits like a Glove:
Dan Barlaser's appearance in the crowd for Middlesbrough's clash with Watford all but confirmed his imminent arrival at the club. The excitement was tangible across social media, with photos of the new signing spreading across Twitter. The news that Barlaser was in the crowd also made it onto BBC Tees' coverage of the game, where they discussed the pressure that his arrival put on Howson and Hackney, with the pair looking to keep their starting birth. The need to impress manager Michael Carrick was apparent, but both stepped up to the plate with a continuation of their current impressive form.
We alluded to him being a potential future replacement earlier in the piece, but Barlaser's ability and playing style mean that both players could be at risk of losing their starting spot as things stand.
Hayden Hackney often comes short to collect the ball from the defence before using a 1-2 with Howson to turn the opposition's first line of defence and mobilise the energetic central midfielder further up the pitch. If anything, Barlaser is overqualified for these instructions, as his distribution was highlighted as one of his strengths earlier in the article. While he has been seen to move into central midfield spaces on occasion, giving him the prerequisite experience to fulfil this element of Hackney's role.
Barlaser does fall short of Hackney in the final third. The midfielder's impressive creative numbers have come from his deeper creativity, and he certainly lacks the dynamism and off-the-ball movement which makes Hackney such a force in these areas. Instead, Barlaser is likely to have a more conservative positioning. While this will be an adjustment from Hackney, in McGree and Akpom, Middlesbrough already has several players aiming to play in the space between the opposition's midfield and defence. Meanwhile, Barlaser's assist numbers show that the team will not lose creative output by replacing Hackney; it will just come from a different area of the pitch.
Howson is often rudimentarily described as a destroyer. While he does put up respectable tackling figures, averaging 1.5 tackles per 90, he does have a lower tackle rate than Hayden Hackney. Instead, he can read the game, with a solid 1.2 interceptions per 90, making him a capable defensive operator. Barlaser has been able to match Howson's tackling rate, but his form at Rotherham indicates there will be a dip in interceptions, with him averaging 0.9 per 90. However, this is a manageable jump for Barlaser, who will also benefit from playing in a better team at Middlesbrough. His similar defensive output should mean that he can drop in with only a marginal drop in defensive output.
Meanwhile, Howson's current positional play suits Boro's new recruit better. The 34-year-old sits in front of the defence holding a deeper position to counteract Hackney's fluid play. He is not regarded as a creative player at Middlesbrough, but he has contributed 3 assists to Boro's cause meaning there is scope for Barlaser to continue to contribute going forwards. Howson has also seen a lot of the ball this season, averaging 53.9 passes per 90, showing that this is the role best suited to Barlaser's orchestrator tendencies.
Howson is the midfielder most at risk of losing his place to Barlaser. The 34-year-old's role in the side is the closest suited to Barlaser, but if it is this position that Boro had in mind when signing Barlaser, do not expect Howson to disappear to the fringes of the team. However, the former Norwich midfielder's age means that a rotation role may best suit him for the remainder of the season, with Barlaser picking up the slack.
Alternatively, a relatively simple tactical tweak could see Barlaser play alongside Howson in Hackney's position, giving Boro a more secure double pivot in front of the defence from which they can build their attacking moves. But, again, this may be an adjustment made down the line or for particular opponents; as the old adage goes, 'don't fix it if it isn't broken'.
Middlesbrough needed more depth in central midfield, with the brilliant but enigmatic Matt Crooks and out-of-favour Alex Mowatt the only alternatives to the starting pair. This meant that they had little competition for places, and Carrick relied on them remaining injury free, so he prioritised the midfield. Middlesbrough bought Barlaser to compete and alleviate Howson, with loanee Aaron Ramsey offering the same to Hayden Hackney.
In Barlaser, Middlesbrough has the joint best assister in the division who should comfortably settle into Carrick's system. However, at 26 years old, he still has space to develop under Carrick, whose experience could be invaluable in helping him onto the next level.