End of Season Review: Midfielders
A look back on individual Boro performances from last season.
Part Two: Midfielders
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)
Howson had a difficult start to his Middlesbrough career in the 2017/2018 season but he quickly turned it around to become another of Middlesbrough's consistent men. This rise in form also saw him become a fan favourite and the following chant: 'There's only one Jonny Howson' mocked his struggled start before admiring his consistent form thereafter. The former Leeds player has played all over the pitch for the North-East club pitching in at right-back and centre back when needed. So the 33-year-old will have been relieved when he discovered that he would have a settled position for this season: at the base of the midfield.
This did bring some controversy at the beginning of the season with some preferring the player in his usual box-to-box midfielder role. However, at 33, Howson will be beginning to feel the effects of ageing and so a steady position that relies on his reading of the game, positioning and neat distribution proved to be the best route forward for the player.
Howson had a very impressive season and proved that he was capable of being the Lynchpin that Warnock believed he could be. While a number of his most prominent performances saw him dictate the game from his deeper role with calm efficiency.
Overall, Howson had an impressive season and managed to fulfil the managers' expectations. He is a player that should be considered as one of the clubs top performers last season.
Howson may be on the wrong side of 30 but he has continued to perform and thrive at Championship level meaning that he could see out the remainder of his professional career at this level. Middlesbrough will be hoping that they can continue their involvement in his career by at least one more season, fulfilling his current contract. Beyond the end of his contract, Howson's future at Boro will depend on how he deals with the physical demands of the league.
The Egyptian was signed from a Wigan Athletic that had fallen into administration so they were forced to offload some of their best players, including their captain who had encouraged a late improvement in form the season before. This move followed a precedent set by the signing of Hall as the club looked to bring more leaders into the squad. A mentality that fans have argued to have been lacking since the departure of Grant Leadbitter.
However, this would be an oversimplified view as Saville, McNair and Howson certainly hold leadership attributes but their lack of experience in such a role is notable, which isn't the case with Morsy and the previously mentioned Hall. All the same, this augmented the squad as such characteristics are indicative of the type of player with the extra drive to accomplish their goals. An extra drive will be needed should Boro aim for promotion next season.
Morsy is at his best in defensive situations, able to put his body where it hurts, the small central midfielder is solid at breaking up play and using short simple passes to other players with more creative nous. This is recognised by Warnock too as he was surprised by some of his performances this season and his ability to get five assists and a goal, which didn't appear to be in his remit on arrival, indicating that he is a solid and consistent performer above a match-winner and goalscorer.
Sam Morsy played 31 games this season and he performed consistently well during those games, almost always giving exactly what you would expect from the player, though occasionally springing up a few surprises. This season was his first in a Boro shirt, and that fact could be seen at times though as he didn't appear to completely align with the dynamic in midfield. This should improve further next season which would make him a well-oiled cog in the midfield machine.
It is unlikely that Sam Morsy will leave this summer. He may not be regarded as integral to Warnock's plans but he is recognised as the type of player that Warnock prefers and his consistency has been highly praised by the Boro manager. If he can jell better with the midfield then the player can improve further next season. A key season in the players' career as he makes his mark during his prime.
The Northern Ireland international is a figure that has divided fans. Some fans see the player as an overrated and overzealous combative central midfielder. Some see the player as a vital component to how Warnock wishes to deploy his side, praising both his offensive and defensive work in equal measures.
The evidence from this season backs up the former perspective. The 28-year-old has been a large influence going forward in contributing some six goals and four assists to the Middlesbrough cause averaging 541 minutes per goal, a solid return for a central midfielder. While the player is combative and sometimes overzealous in his attempts to get the ball, resulting in 8 yellow cards, and a few games where he was lucky not to get booked, it is his proactive energy and attempts to break up play through pressuring defenders and deep-lying midfielders that has been integral to a defensive structure that would otherwise allow the pressure to mount.
Overall, Saville has had an impressive season, even if he has gone on to split the Boro fan base, it is important to remember that without his 6 goals and 4 assists, and his defensive contributions higher up the pitch then Middlesbrough may have been in a worse position when they concluded the end of the season.
The 28-year-old is another player that is contracted to the club until next year, simultaneously and conversely putting the power in the hands of the club and presenting a looming threat that the player may leave on a free next year.
It is more likely that he will stay at the club next season as there has been little rumour surrounding a departure from the club so far. His exclusion from the squad towards the end of the season indicates that it isn't a surety, so he may well be shifted on for the right price.
If Saville remains at the club next season then he may be key to the success of the side.
The English midfielder is another of the clubs' young prospects. He graduated from the youth academy in the 2018/2019 season and soon established himself within the first team making 99 appearances for the team in red and white.
At just 22-years-old, he has consistently played beyond his years with fans growing to expect increasingly experienced performances from him. He managed to score three goals and provide four assists in 29 appearances despite struggling with injuries this season. The player added a different dimension to the side with his ball carrying, passing, shooting and willingness to play a role defensively. So the player was sorely missed when he spent time on the sidelines which highlighted how big his impact was on the side and its success this season.
Marcus Tavernier will not be short of admirers this summer. His performances this season may reignite interest from north of the border as his brother, James Tavernier, has previously revealed a desire to play with his younger sibling. At 22 years old, Tavernier still has the bulk of his career ahead of him and he has been earmarked by Warnock as an integral component to his plans next season meaning that it is highly unlikely that he will be moved on in the summer transfer window. However, a substantial transfer offer may make the club change its mind. Ultimately, these decisions lay in the hands of the club as Tavernier's current contract doesn't run out until 2023, giving Middlesbrough ample time to attempt another push for promotion with the player and still garner a profit from the academy graduate.
If he stays at the club then Tavernier's versatility will be a massive bonus for the side giving Warnock a very impressive option across the wide and central midfield positions. However, the player will want to find a settled position in the side next season and his desires may be met depending on the clubs' recruitment in the wide areas during the summer.
While Middlesbrough isn't lacking in Championship and above level talent they are arguably lacking in depth. While Jonny Howson, George Saville, Sam Morsy and Marcus Tavernier will be happy to play the majority of the upcoming season, while McNair, as previously discussed, may be happy to play in midfield, and Dijksteel if imposed, can play as a central defensive midfielder. However, this reliance on players that may deploy in other areas of the pitch is a concern. Alternatively, Hayden Hackney and Connor Malley have shown that they aren't far away from playing a more permanent role in the Boro first XI. So a lack of depth may prove to be the opportunity that they need to break into the side on a more permanent basis. At best Middlesbrough has five experienced central midfielders available to Neil Warnock, one short of the 'two players in every position' rule of thumb that is used by the vast majority of football managers (in his favoured 4-3-3). However, contrary to popular belief, I believe that Middlesbrough has enough cover in this position. The potential for exciting young prospects to stake a serious claim for a first-team position is one that should excite the vast majority of Middlesbrough fans. In short, Middlesbrough should focus their attentions elsewhere and only look towards the midfield when other issues in the squad are resolved.