It was just two months ago that I wrote about the return to the Premier League of Middlesbrough Football Club. After seven difficult years away from the top flight, the Teessiders are back and seemingly intent on ensuring their Premier League return is not just a fleeting one.
As last season ended, I felt that Middlesbrough would need to improve, strengthen and reinforce if they were to be in a strong position to stay up this coming season. In particular, the spine of the team was where I felt Boro needed to be stronger for the challenge that lies ahead. First and foremost was the goalkeeper, Dimi Konstantopoulos has been ok for Boro – capable of making a great save, but equally capable of dropping a clanger and simply not good enough to be first choice in the Premier League. At 37 years old, he also doesn’t have too long left, but could be a decent back up and Aitor Karanka looks to have sorted that issue out by signing former Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes. At 34, he’s no longer at his peak, but his experience at the top level could be vital and after being released by Manchester United, he could prove to be a very shrewd acquisition. Whilst I’ve never been a big fan of Valdes as I always felt he was too error prone, he can be excellent and his distribution is very good, so coupled with that experience and fellow Spaniard Daniel Ayala marshalling the defence in front of him, Middlesbrough could be the platform Valdes needs to give his career a resurgence.
Middlesbrough boosted their defensive options by signing Bernardo Espinosa on a free transfer from Sporting Gijon and whilst he is unlikely to start, he does add some depth. If Middlesbrough are able to sign Neven Subotic from Borussia Dortmund, as has been rumoured, then they really would be in with a great shout of maintaining their top flight status and stabilising the club by having a sloid defensive platform. Having Subotic alongside Ayala would give Ben Gibson time to acclimatise at the top level and the space to grow and learn.
In front of the defence will now be Dutch defensive midfielder Marten De Roon, signed from Italian club Atalanta. He may not be a household name, but his statistics show Boro have been doing their homework. A fee of around £12m may sound steep for a 25 year old with no international experience, but in today’s market it could turn out to be a smart buy for the role he plays and what Boro will need. Tall and combative, De Roon is a player who likes to make tackles, a lot of tackles, something that could be vital for Boro to compete and whilst his tackling and interception rate may not compare with N’Golo Kante, they are impressive. Just to give a picture of how De Roon compares for last season, I’ve included his new team mates Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton, as well as the Leicester City midfield pair of Kante and Danny Drinkwater. Whilst it emphasises just how effective Kante was, it also shows that a pairing of De Roon and Clayton could be the way forward for Boro.
In terms of improving their attacking options, Karanka has already added Danish winger Viktor Fischer from Ajax for what could be a potentially bargain fee of £3.8m. When he first emerged, there were very high hopes for Fischer, with some of Europe’s biggest clubs monitoring his progress. Despite that progress derailing and his career stalling somewhat over the past couple of years, with a point to prove, the 22 year old still possesses the talent and ability to be a game changer and match winner for Boro.
What Karanka really needs next is a striker of proven quality to lead the line and help that all important cutting edge. Former Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo has been heavily linked in recent days and if that deal comes to fruition, he could be just the man to get Boro firing in front of goal, with the likes of Fischer, Albert Adomah, Stewart Downing and possibly Gaston Ramirez providing the ammunition.
Whilst Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson may have annoyed local fans with extortionate rises in ticket prices, he is backing manager Aitor Karanka in the transfer market as he shapes a Middlesbrough squad that increasingly looks to have a very good chance of staying up and building a brighter future on Teesside.