IF Middlesbrough are to transform a season which has all the portents of being a potentially grave one, the input of two players is likely to be especially pivotal.
With just three frontline strikers to call upon – one of whom has endured an injury-ravaged and nightmare time during his spell on Teesside – Jonathan Woodgate’s faith in Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher has to be non-negotiable.
With the alternative option of Rudy Gestede having struggled to get out on the pitch on anything like a regular basis and with just rookie Ste Walker as back-up, the Boro chief has little choice.
But therein some issues lie.
Mindful of workload issues given the congested Championship schedule, especially during three-game weeks, Woodgate dropped top-scorer Assombalonga to the bench at Huddersfield on Wednesday night, with a view to freshening him up for today’s tough game with Fulham.
Given Boro’s lowly league position and lack of trusted cover, an injury to Assombalonga or Fletcher would be seriously damaging.
Just as big a concern for Woodgate will be helping to replenish the reservoirs of confidence of both, which has taken a battering of late.
Fletcher looked visibly affected after producing a contender for miss of the season at Huddersfield, while Assombalonga also spurned a good chance, with the £15m man having scored just once in his last seven games.
Admirably, Woodgate still retains confidence in both as he aims to build up the pair – who have scored a combined total of just one Championship goal in their last 18 league appearances.
Fletcher has not found the net in his past 11 outings, while you have to go back to the opening game of the season at Luton Town for his only league goal of the campaign.
He said: “Britt has played every single minute, so I thought I would take him out of the firing line (at Huddersfield) and give Fletcher a go. It was always the plan to give Britt 20 or 30 minutes and we could have had the goals.
“I will be staying with the pair of them, they are my players and I will back them when they play good and don’t and when they miss chances. I will stay by my players through thick and thin”.
All told, Boro have scored just 11 league goals in 2019-20, the same amount that a player they face today in Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic – someone they tried to sign in January, 2018 – has managed this term.