End Of Season Review: Defenders
A look back on individual performances from last season.
Part One: Defenders
Middlesbrough fans will have been disappointed by the side finishing 10th last season after holding hopes the side would find their way into the top 6. The sides target at the start of the season. However, this season has been far from a failure for Middlesbrough due to the notable improvement on their finish two seasons ago. All the same, Middlesbrough will be looking to improve in the summer transfer market as the club looks to do one better in the 2021/2022 season by returning to the Premier League. The side has already dipped into the free transfers market by bringing former-QPR goalkeeper Joe Lumley to the club. The 26-year-old will likely start the season between the sticks for Boro. But it will depend on the other players that they bring in for the goalkeeper position between now and the start of next season.
To qualify for an end of season review the player had to have played over ten games and have the potential to remain at the club next season, hence why the goalkeepers were excluded.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
Many Middlesbrough fans saw Marc Bola as the surprise package this season after a less than stellar 2019/2020 season. Admittedly, I believed that Marc Bola's Middlesbrough career might have come to an end with a 2020 summer departure and, though I highlighted that we may see an improvement in the player with change in manager. The idea that he would become an integral part of the team for the 2020-2021 season felt like a stretch. However, I was proven wrong, and I am glad I was too. Marc Bola put in some very mature performances for Warnock, with the gaffer managing to lead him into the type of form that had brought the clubs' interest.
The fullback is best in defensive areas of the pitch as a resolute fullback whose 1-on-1 defending is some of the best in the league. Marc Bola may play a progressive role when the opportunity arises, but he struggles for quality in these areas. This isn't to say that he is ineffective but his profile is better suited to a defensive role and supporting role rather than as a primary drive down the left flank. This fact can be seen in Boro's offensive balance when the side played a back 3 with Bola as a wingback, as the majority of the play went down the right side of the pitch.
All the same, Marc Bola was convincing this season and he built a reputation as Mr Reliable with his 2019-2020 season performances quickly disappearing into distant memory. Neil Warnock trusts the former Arsenal-man too with the Sheffield-born manager deploying the player at the centre back when needed, a position that is made or break. A position that Bola adapted to with relative comfort.
Overall, Marc Bola had an impressive season where he highlighted just how good he could be.
Neil Warnock rates Marc Bola. He has praised his performances and attitude in equal measure when discussing the player with the press as he has been a top and consistent player for the Sheffield born manager. So it will be a surprise if the player doesn't line up for Middlesbrough on the first game of the season, and most likely beyond that point, but that would depend on Boro's summer transfers.
Middlesbrough signed Grant Hall from QPR last summer. The former Rangers player agreed to join the club on a free transfer with the hope that he would establish himself as a key player for Middlesbrough this season. That hasn't happened for the player this year though as several injuries forced him onto the sidelines. He did establish himself in the first team towards the end of the season, replacing the injured Fry at the heart of the defence and he put in several impressive performances garnering praise in Riverside Observer's post-match reaction. These performances at the end of the season highlighted the talent of the player and, if he can stay injury-free, then he will be a massive asset next season.
A Grant Hall interview on arriving at the club revealed that he believes in his passing ability. A feature of his game that hasn't come to the fore so far during his Boro career, as the default of using McNair's outstanding passing range and intelligence to build up from the back when needed. Instead, this may be a feature of his game that comes to the fore next season should McNair move further forward or find himself on the sidelines next season.
On the other hand, his most prominent abilities this season has been his aerial proficiency, at both ends of the pitch as the 29-year-old found the net twice last season. His overall presence and his impressive man-marking capabilities supported these abilities. Yet it was his leadership capabilities, as a former captain, that helped him marshal a relatively inexperienced backline to a position of impressive strength. Finally, his assets as a good traditional English football league centre-back complement those of McNair indicating that they make a good pair at the heart of the defence. Alternatively, his experience and commanding abilities could help Fry, who performs at his best alongside an experienced defender. This would allow the side to play a deeper defensive line that uses directness and pace in transition to score goals. Meanwhile, this would allow McNair to play further up the pitch. On the other hand, the trio could play together in a back three, as such allowing McNair would play a Libero role while Fry and Hall would supply solidity behind him.
Grant Hall has done enough during his 19 games this season to earn his place in the squad for the 2020-2021 season. Yet, the extent of his involvement next campaign remains to be seen, which could drastically change depending on the incomings and outgoings during the summer transfer window.
Ever-present. McNair was the only Boro player to play in every one of his side's games this season, and in his spare time, he donned the shirt of Northern Ireland, showing the impressive physical engine that supports one of the most talented players in the Championship. Middlesbrough fans have been aware of his talent for some time. Yet the player had struggled to be as effective as his talent would suggest, until the 2019-2020 season where he played a massive 41 games for the club scoring 6 goals in the process. While the 2020-2021 season was a step further than that.
McNair provided 2 goals and 7 assists across his 46 Championship appearances last season, a solid return for a player that played the majority of the season at the heart of the defence. While, he is defensively solid and his ability to read the game and position himself to protect the goal shouldn't be overlooked; it was his distribution from the heart of the defence and his ability to contribute to other areas of the pitch from the defensive position that has impressed. Neil Warnock dubbed the Northern Ireland International a 'Rolls-Royce' defender and the description has stuck because of its accuracy, he is capable of finding progressive passes, picking out offensive players from his position at the heart of the defence and carrying the ball into midfield areas to overload the central spaces while simultaneously becoming an ever-present cog in one of the best defences in the league last season. Some Middlesbrough fans believe that the player would do better in central midfield. The theory behind this change does make sense: push the player further forward to allow him to do more of what he does best, but it is in these areas that Boro have attempted to deploy him with mixed success and, at the moment, he appears to be very comfortable at the heart of the defence and it may not be a good idea to disrupt it without the right recruits this summer.
Overall, McNair has to be considered one of, if not the best performer this year, and he was certainly the most consistent establishing him as a vital player for Boro and one they could ill afford to lose.
It wouldn't surprise if rumours about a transfer rose during the upcoming window as McNair has been nothing short of phenomenal this season. However, he seems settled in the area, Neil Warnock has earmarked him as integral to his plans next season, and his contract runs until the end of the 2021-2022 season, so the power is essentially in the clubs' hands. Yet the club may wish to tie him down to a long term contract soon to secure their investment if they plan to keep him this summer.
Should he stay at the club, which is the most likely outcome, then the question is: where will he play next season? There is no way to be certain about where his future lies on the pitch. Warnock usually favoured him at the heart of defence but he has been willing to push him further up the pitch on certain occasions with a pretty solid track record. Ultimately, I believe his position next season will come out from a combination of three things: 1) Where McNair would prefer to play, 2) Who Middlesbrough recruit in the summer 3) How Warnock plans to line up his side next season. We will only get the answers to these questions at the start of next season.
There is pride on Teesside for local footballers who manage to succeed in the professional game, as shown in support for former Boro player Ben Gibson. So Dael Fry's success last season will have been enjoyed by everyone on Teesside.
The 23-year-old came through the youth academy before establishing himself as a first-team player in the 2018-2019 season that saw him feature in 34 matches. Unfortunately, he was not at his best during the 2019/2020 season as he had to contend with an ever-changing backline. So Middlesbrough fans hoped that he would get back to his best under the tutelage of Neil Warnock. Yet, he didn't just return to his best but surpassed it this season as he had dozens of top-quality performances across his 32 game season. He also managed to break his goalscoring duct this season as he found the back of the net for the first time in his professional career. He will want to continue to improve his goalscoring record next season, one of the few issues that Warnock sees in the youngsters game.
The tall centre back has been performing with a maturity that is beyond his years this season. He sat in the heart of the defence, and he marshalled the vast majority of the leagues' strikers. Despite his agile appearance, Fry can stand his own against physical forwards and, his man-marking has been impressive too. His height is another undoubted plus, frequently winning aerial duels, with an outstanding 68 headed clearances last season. However, his distribution isn't the strongest. While his relatively young age means that he performs the best with an older, more experienced defender alongside him.
Overall, Fry has had an impressive season, and Middlesbrough will hope that he is fit and firing for the beginning of the 2021/2022 season.
Fry is another player that will probably interest some footballing parties. Yet, like McNair, Warnock has earmarked his 23-year-old centre back as integral to his plans next season and, so he will most likely remain at the club over the summer window. Dael Fry's contract does not expire until 2023 that also provides the club with more leeway regarding how to deal with any offers in the summer. Expect the centre back to be lining up for Middlesbrough at the start of next season.
Middlesbrough had a relatively proactive January transfer window last season with some high-profile signings joining the club. So Darnell Fisher has been a player that has gone under the radar in a transfer window that saw Mendez-Laing and Yannick Bolasie join the club.
Yet the 27-year-old would go on to make 12 appearances during the second half of the season for Boro, usually occupying the right-back or right-wingback role. While he doesn't receive the same attention as other players in this position, namely, Dijksteel and Spence, Fisher has had a respectable season.
Fisher is relatively fast with the ability to deliver some impressive balls when he is at his best but, these can suffer at times. He is similar to Bola in that his best attributes support his defensive game but they are not at the same level as Bola's. However, Fisher is ahead of Bola in offensive attributes, helping to balance the pair's usefulness. He also possesses the "dark arts" of the game, in as much that he will push the limits of the rules; while this does not necessarily mean constant two-footed tackles, such characters are needed in a squad if they want to achieve success such as Fernandinho at Manchester City and Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid [up until his recent transfer] to name a few. So his inclusion in the squad should be appreciated even if he will relinquish the top spot at right-back once Dijksteel returns to full fitness.
Fisher is a recent signing and so it is highly unlikely that he will be moved on this summer. However, Middlesbrough now has three comfortable right-backs: Dijksteel, Spence and Fisher. This is more depth than is needed for the position, yet questions about this role in the side become more prominent with Dijksteel and Spence.
For Fisher, he will aim to pick up from where he left off last season. He had begun to adapt to Warnock's expectations of the player and blend with the squad, which should allow him to be on the same wavelength next season. This, in turn, would help the player to improve and feel like a more cohesive part of the side.
Another surprise package following the 2019/2020 season, Anfernee Dijksteel was able to hit the ground running for Middlesbrough this season and he managed to keep pushing and improving his reputation at Championship level making 29 appearances for the club during a season that was largely hindered by injury, such as his current ankle injury that is set to keep the player out of action until mid-July.
It did not take long for Dijksteel to adopt a nickname from the Boro faithful: 'Virgil Van Dijksteel'. The complement highlighted his strengths on the ball and his pace to recover when the side was struggling. Unfortunately, it was not a perfect performance from the Dutchman as he occasionally made mistakes in key areas of the field. He recovered well in most of these instances due to his pace and physical stature. Meanwhile, the player was solid going forward and offered a passing option to more offensive players but he rarely attempting crosses and instead favouring more conservative progression.
The Dutchman gained his nickname for a reason. Some of his performances last season were phenomenal and managed to save the side points. However, he did struggle for consistency, especially when trying to regain full fitness following his injuries. Which was an issue that Warnock will, most likely, aim to manage next season, and, if possible, he will be hoping that his fullback remains fit for the whole season next year.
It is due to the players' frailties that Middlesbrough invested in another right-back in the January transfer window, turning to Fisher to fill in the gap, and so Warnock may decide to maintain strength in depth in this position due to the injury issues.
If Dijksteel can return from his extended period on the sidelines and fighting fit for the start of the season then, in all likelihood, it will be the 24-year-old starting at right-back.
While Dijksteel and Bola improved their reputations exponentially in Warnock's first full season under Covid limitations, Spence's reputation took a hit. Everyone saw the player as one of the clubs bright sparks following Woodgate's season in charge and most fans expected him to follow this path of improvement under Neil Warnock.
Unfortunately, the 20-year-old struggled for form across his 38 appearances last season. Some fans begrudged his inclusion in the starting XI by the end of the season. So what went wrong?
The first thing to consider is the change in the style of play, both Coulson and Spence looked phenomenal under Woodgate in the 2019/2020 season and they appeared to be the clubs best youth prospects. However, Woodgate's tactical philosophy encouraged drive from wingbacks on each side, namely Coulson and Spence. Which fed into their strengths with runs from deep at the opposition's midfield and defence. Warnock, on the other hand, had different expectations of his fullbacks. He quickly realised it didn't suit either player so their strengths were either handicapped or they were pushed further forward, usually occupying a winger role which frequently saw them struggle to have any impact of note.
The second thing to consider is the players' personality, an issue that was highlighted both by Woodgate and Warnock, through benching the player and putting a call to action into the press to try and draw the best from the player. There is no secret that Neil Warnock favours hardworking players, sometimes regarding it over a player's natural ability, and so, while the likes of Dijksteel and Bola improved considerably under Warnock, others like Spence fell off.
Finally, it is important to consider the possibility that the wide player simply had a bad season, after all, we are only human, as are footballers and so drops in performances can just occur.
Either way, Djed Spence will be hoping to return to his best next season to validate the reputation he built during the 2019/2020 season.
Djed Spence's future has become a relative unknown. He adopted a new position in the side last season with mixed results. While he has undoubted talent, it appears as though he doesn't fit into the system and philosophy that Neil Warnock is trying to implement at the club. Meanwhile, Djed Spence has become the focus of the rumour mill again this summer. Neil Warnock and the Boro hierarchy may decide for the young talent to move on, for the right price, to reinvest that money into a squad.
The defence is one of Middlesbrough's strongest positions which is safe in the hands of: Marc Bola, Dael Fry, Grant Hall, Paddy McNair, Marc Bola, Anfernee Dijksteel, and Darnell Fisher. However, Middlesbrough may look to the transfer window to bring in strength in depth since the side's defence looks considerably weaker when one or two of the key players are out injured.
Middlesbrough only has three auxiliary centre backs at the moment. While Dijksteel can play at the heart of the defence, his injuries mean that he shouldn't be relied on as first-choice right-back and backup centre-back next season. Meanwhile, recent calls for McNair to move further forward may be answered next season, which would thin the position out even further. The club could opt for two different options: 1) Bring in a ball-playing footballer as a backup to McNair. 2) Bring in a traditional solid, take no risks, centre back in and turn the passing responsibilities to Grant Hall. Alternatively, they could aim to do both: ensure that they have strength in depth, and free up McNair for a more forward role (or adequate cover for a three at the back formation).
Equally, Middlesbrough is currently short of left-backs following Marvin Johnson's departure from the club, leaving Marc Bola as an auxiliary fullback. So it may be best for the club to find a backup for the former Arsenal defender.
If Middlesbrough can make wise additions in these areas, the defence should not pose any problems next season. Which will give incoming goalkeeper Joe Lumley enough support and defensive strength to limit his exposure and, thus, conceding goals.