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How Matt Crooks can still play a pivotal role next season

Last season fell short of expectations for Matt Crooks as the towering versatile player struggled for form. However, his performances did not represent his ability, and the best may be yet to come from him.




Matt Crooks arrived on Teesside for £1.3m in 2021 after an impressive season at Rotherham United. He would become a fan favourite and developed a cult following on Teesside. His tall frame, physical presence, and technical proficiency mean he cuts a distinctly unique figure on the pitch. While off the pitch, his lively personality, which came through in his preseason vlogs, made him a fan favourite. He is also one of football's good guys, with his impressive work with the Jordan Sinnott Foundation emphasising his character away from the game. However, to understand Crooks is to understand his career to date.


While he is a Huddersfield Town youth graduate, having played a single league game for the Terriers, it is reasonable to state that his career began when a loan to Accrington Stanley was made permanent. Matt Crooks settled into life in League Two and thrived. Earning a move to Scottish giants Rangers. However, the transfer was not a success. The Leeds-born midfielder made just three appearances before travelling back across the border. Crooks would later reflect on his struggles at Rangers after joining Middlesbrough, seeing the transfer to the North East as a second lifeline for his aspirations.


He would sign a permanent contract with Northampton Town in 2017, costing the Cobblers £115,000. Crooks would settle into the first team at Northampton, once more showing his abilities. His performances would earn Northampton Town an undisclosed fee as Crooks moved to Rotherham.


Crooks would step into his own at Rotherham. Now playing as a pressing second striker, his nine goals and four assists were a welcome contribution as the side won promotion to the Championship. The step-up did not faze him either, as he managed to rack up six goals and three assists for a struggling and ultimately relegated Rotherham United when he caught the eye of Middlesbrough's hierarchy.


The following summer, Middlesbrough announced the signing of Matt Crooks from Rotherham for £1.3m. Crooks has had to fight his way up the footballing pyramid from his early non-league loans to playing in front of 25,000+ supporters at the Riverside Stadium. He has also had an upward trajectory on the pitch, starting his career in centreback but playing in every position along the team's spine, including upfront.


Matt Crooks adjusted quickly to life on Teesside, improving his output in the previous season by racking up double figures. His ten goals and two assists were no less impressive because he had been playing in midfield. At first glance, last season appears to be another steady improvement from Crooks. While his goal-scoring rate decreased from 10 to 7 goals, his overall goal contributions (goals and assists) rose from 12 to 13 and within considerably fewer minutes. However, this stark drop-off in minutes (from 3,494 to 1,794) indicates that all was not well last season.


Hernia Injury

Matt Crooks looked out of sorts at the start of the season. He was consistently a moment behind the rest of the game, taking a telling few extra seconds to make and receive passes. At the same time, his characteristic drives with the ball grew increasingly sparse and less effective. Naturally, this downturn in performance led to fans questioning his involvement in the starting XI. At this time, rumours surfaced that Matt Crooks was carrying a hernia injury. Crooks would later confirm these rumours, stating that he intended to play through the injury until the mid-season break for the world cup.


The mid-season break came, and Matt Crooks underwent surgery to remove the hernia. At this point, he had struggled through a fair portion of the season to find his best form.


During his recovery, Middlesbrough enacted a management change. Chris Wilder was sacked to be temporarily replaced by Leo Percovich and then Michael Carrick. While Crooks had recovered from his surgery on Carrick's arrival, he would not be fully fit and so unavailable for selection. Despite having the opportunity to impress on the training ground, Matt Crooks' was unable to stake a claim on a first-team birth during these pivotal early weeks. These weeks would further set back Crooks' pursuit of form and minutes last season.


Managerial Changes:

Middlesbrough built a reputation for giving head coaches time and resources to succeed. This reputation has allowed the club to attract many excellent head coaches. However, the club has been turbulent in recent seasons, with four head coaches taking the helm in 2 years. The club may now look to stabilise under the tutelage of Michael Carrick. Still, the turbulence has had consequences for its squad members.



Since he arrived in 2021, Matt Crooks has played under four managers with four different managerial styles. Veteran manager and fan favourite Neil Warnock is famous for his man-management and getting the best performances from his players. Chris Wilder was an abrupt shift from this personable management style. He is a system-based manager where the players are replaceable cogs in what is supposed to be a smooth and high-functioning machine. Leo Percovich temporarily reintroduced a man-management methodology and a return to basics before Michael Carrick laid his foundations with a fluid philosophy-based management style.


Matt Crooks is a versatile player. However, these frequent and sometimes radical shifts in direction may have eventually caught up with him.


Tactical Fatigue:

Each of those four head coaches brought different tactical identities to the club along with different management styles. Neil Warnock played a defensive wing play style. Chris Wilder tried to deploy the overlapping centreback system that brought him fame while managing Sheffield United. While he could not play under him, Leo Percovich brought the side back to basics with a 4-4-2. Before Michael Carrick brought a fluid system to the club. Each change demands adaption from the players.


While each of these head coaches gave Matt Crooks different roles and instructions, which included a recent stint up front. Equally, each tenure emphasised and deemphasised parts of his abilities; these were a lot of shifts for Crooks to have adjusted to in recent seasons. Which, after a career playing in almost every outfield position, is well within his remit. However, it is a lot of changes to adjust to, and a settled season for Crooks under Carrick could help to remedy the effects of the recent constant adaption.


Misuse/Underutilising:

While Matt Crooks is adaptable and will take tactical changes in his stride. It does not mean these changes get the best out of his abilities. The 29-year-old was arguably at his most impressive the season before he arrived on Teesside. He played in the hole behind their primary striker. The Millers utilised his aggressive defensive style and on-the-ball nous to great effect. Crooks racked up a considerable record despite Rotherham's ultimate relegation.


When he arrived on Teesside, Warnock maintained his defensive style. He would earn a reputation for his physical playing style with a prolific ability to pick up yellow cards. However, he was moved deeper into midfield which meant some of his attacking impetus needed to be recovered. Nonetheless, he was convincing in the role. Nonetheless, he would be an effective player for Warnock.


After Warnock, Wilder moved him into a more attacking role, using his aerial prowess as a target for cross-field balls. However, he was asked to play in tight intricate triangles, which he never considered comfortable with, underutilising his ball-carrying skills. This played a pivotal role in his downturn in form. Coupled with his hernia at the start of the season, he became a controversial figure.


Once he recovered from his injury. Matt Crooks was moved to playing up front. This role emphasised his aerial ability, movement, and nous for finding the back of the net. However, displaying his defensive abilities, as has his ball-carrying skills, has become less frequent. While he did have a few impressive impact substitute appearances in the second half of the season, he never looked wholly comfortable in the role.


Wilder's use of Crooks and the significant change from midfield to striker mid-season almost certainly made him fall short last season.



Why he can still be pivotal next season

Criticising a player who has had a good season on paper is unusual. His seven goals and six assists were a better return than his previous season and from fewer minutes. However, the eye test showed that he fell below his usual standards. Instead, his return during a season of limited minutes should reflect how much impact he could have when he finds his feet again. Chuba Akpom was Middlesbrough's top performer last season. However, with his future in doubt, Crooks' output last season indicates he could be well-placed to take over the throne in the near future.



Despite being a tall and physical player, Crooks has technical proficiency and on-the-ball ability, which is rarely seen in such players—a gangly but majestic player with something special that can be all the difference in tight fixtures.


Last season would have been a testing time for any player. Matt Crooks' went through a downturn in form, a hernia, surgery, and time on the first team's fringes during the season's second half. However, Crooks has the character to bounce back and stake a claim on a first-team birth over the summer. An upbeat player whose preseason vlogs last season became popular with the fans, his continued work with the Sinnott Foundation highlights his continued pursuit of a better world.


Meanwhile, Michael Carrick's style of play could be well suited to Matt Crooks' strengths. While he did not appear natural in the striker position, he can adapt to the role next season. The end of Archer's loan means that the primary striker position is an open birth coming into preseason. Yet, other positions may suit him better and have a shorter adaption period.



Chuba Akpom made the No. 10 position his home during the second half of the season. However, his occasional absence was felt in the later stages of the season. The side needed a ready-made backup for the role. Yet, this was the same position in which Crooks thrived at Rotherham. Equally, Carrick's high press would allow Crooks to regain his defensive fervour, which allows him to be even more effective.


Unfortunately for Crooks, Akpom would remain the first choice in this role. However, with Ramsey and Archer's loans ending, Crooks could also occupy a more comprehensive birth.


A Final Concern

Matt Crooks enters the final year of his contract next season. A decision must be made on whether his future is at the club or elsewhere.


While he has not become an indispensable squad member over the past few seasons. Crooks has proved himself to be a worthwhile asset to the club. His unique playing style and consistent contribution to the cause mean the club should focus on extending his deal.


Entering the final year of a contract can be a precarious position for both parties. For the player, they are playing with uncertainty over their future, which can have an impact on their performances. For the club, the value of their asset drops as the player could leave on a free at the start of the season. So, if Middlesbrough plans to extend his contract, it would be best to get the deal over the line as soon as possible. Alternatively, if a deal cannot be agreed, then, despite the potential for Crooks in the upcoming season, it may be best for him to be sold this summer.

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