The appointment of Chris Wilder at Middlesbrough probably means one thing above all else: the return of his notorious 3-5-2 formation.
Boro have played with three at the back under his predecessor Neil Warnock this season, although it could be argued that formation was enforced due to their recent injury crisis, still doing well against the likes of Peterborough United, Barnsley and Cardiff City recently though after adapting.
This can only be a benefit to Wilder, who may have an idea of his starting lineup already after spending less time focusing on former club Sheffield United since March and more time taking a look at other clubs.
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It is still early days and players will need to impress in training if they want to start under their new boss, but Boro certainly have the necessary ingredients to adapt to a system similar to the one the 54-year-old employed at the Blades.
One piece of the puzzle he is currently missing is Djed Spence who is currently out on loan at Nottingham Forest, but as per The Athletic, the club do have a recall clause in January and that’s something they are likely to activate after seeing him make such a bright start to life at the City Ground.
So when the next calendar year comes around, the Teesside outfit could easily have a lineup that looks like this:
You have to say this lineup is incredibly harsh on the likes of Marcus Tavernier, Onel Hernandez and Jonny Howson, all of whom probably deserve a start in this team.
But there is one key issue to address in January. Apart from Lee Peltier who can do a job in a back three, they don’t really have any other players in their squad who could operate at centre-back regularly apart from Paddy McNair who you would ideally want to keep in the middle.
Not only is midfield his preferred position, but it also gives the wing-backs and the likes of Crooks and Payero license to get forward and a needed layer of defensive protection.
Keeping him in midfield does have its consequences though with Nathan Wood currently out on loan at Hibernian. You guessed it: a lack of depth in central defence.
Championship rivals West Bromwich Albion quickly learnt about the importance of depth in this position when operating with a back three, with Matt Clarke’s hamstring injury and Dara O’Shea’s fractured ankle leaving the Baggies in crisis back in September and needing to recruit in this area to make up for these absentees.
Luckily for them, they were able to sign previous target Kean Bryan on a free transfer, something that helped to provide needed cover at the back until his recent ACL injury against Hull City.
36-year-old Sol Bamba has done remarkably well for Boro this term, but he isn’t guaranteed to play a full 46-game season anymore and if Boro’s recent injury crisis in defence is anything to go by, they can’t rely on others either to be fully fit all the time.
And this is why they need to address this position as a matter of urgency. Jordan Archer will keep Joe Lumley on his toes in the goalkeeping department, Isaiah Jones, Williams Kokolo and the previously mentioned Hernandez and Tavernier will help to provide depth at wing-back, with Anfernee Dijksteel due to return at some point but Darnell Fisher not expected to be back this season.
In midfield, James Lea Siliki and Howson are decent options to have in the midfield alongside McNair and Crooks. And the likes of Uche Ikpeazu and Duncan Watmore will always be pushing for a spot up top.
So this leaves that one key position to take care of in the heart of defence – and even a temporary deal until the end of the season would suffice to allow Wilder to welcome Hibernian loanee Wood back into the fold in the summer and re-assess the state of play at the back at the end of the campaign.
There’s every chance they may need to have a rebuild in central defence at the end of 2021/22 with a fair bit of movement in and out of the Riverside likely to occur next summer.
Those few months between the climax of this campaign and the beginning of 2022/23 will allow them to do that, so a loan move will be good enough for now after investing a fair amount in the squad during the previous window.