Neil Warnock must strike gold for final shot at Middlesbrough

IT does not take a rocket scientist to deduce where Middlesbrough must improve if they are to have a fighting chance of returning to the Premier League in 2021-22.

A serial winner of promotion crusades in Neil Warnock knows it, so do scores of Teessiders.

Goal-scoring. Or specifically, the lack of goals, something that has bedevilled Boro in the past three seasons.

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Their haul of 55 goals in 2020-21 – they let in 53 – was the worst record of a side in the top 10. The season before that, their total of 48 goals scored was the poorest tally in the Championship.

Middlesbrough manager Neil Warnock. Photo: Isaac Parkin/PA Wire.

Back in 2018-19, when Boro just missed out on the play-offs, their total of 49 was better than just four sides. Relegated Rotherham United (52) mustered more goals.

It points to historic issues. Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher arrived amid much fanfare in the summer of 2017, but the return on that major investment was pitiful.

Boro must use the money now saved from their big wage packets following their departure to telling effect. If Warnock has his way, then another forward who has under-whelmed since arriving in Chuba Akpom will also move on.

Warnock will not have millions to play with and it will require all his years of experience and dexterity in the market to come up with the answers for a Boro side whose three main strikers netted a combined total of 14 goals last term, with the top-scorer being a wide-sided attacker in Duncan Watmore with nine.

Middlesbrough's Duncan Watmore.

Talk is of bringing in two or three forwards. Good strikers are always the most prized commodities and always will be.

Boro have missed out on a few in Warnock’s time at the club and have already seen a summer target in Luton’s James Collins already move to Cardiff, who beat them to the punch to sign Kieffer Moore in the 2020 close season. It does not get any easier.

Others being eyed include ex-Bristol City forward Famara Diedhou and Rotherham United targetman Michael Smith.

Alongside goals, home form has also represented an Achilles heel in recent campaigns and those statistics must improve if they are to progress from being merely contenders.

Rotherham United's Michael Smith.

In fairness, Boro showed signs of getting it right under Warnock up to the end of last year. The fact they have lost seven times on home soil already in 2021 is rather more incriminating.

In their last 33 league games at the Riverside since January, 2020, the hosts have lost 14, almost half.

What about the hope? Well, mercifully, there is some.

In Warnock’s last three promotion campaigns at this level, Cardiff City, QPR and Sheffield United finished in roughly similar positions to 10th-placed Boro last term ahead of going up in the following season.

Promoted in 2017-18, the Bluebirds finished 12th in the previous campaign under Warnock. QPR, who went up in 2010-11, were 13th under him in 2009-10.

Warnock’s Premier League-bound Blades side of 2005-06 ended up in eighth spot in the season prior to that.

Just as Warnock brought in the likes of Adel Taarabt, Jamie Mackie, Neil Shipperley and Callum Paterson to successful effect in those campaigns and used the loan market adeptly, he must now strike gold to secure that promotion that he craves to guild an outstanding managerial career.

Warnock’s optimistic tone regarding Boro’s prospects, should they bring in the offensive players that they hanker is deserving of respect. His record over many years at this level merits that.

Defensive options in Paddy McNair, Dael Fry, Grant Hall, Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola – with the latter duo coming on no end under him last season – measure up well with rivals.

Despite the acquisition of QPR custodian Joe Lumley, another goalkeeper may well be sought.

In midfield, there is experience aplenty in Jonny Howson, a top professional who is proving that age is no barrier in his early 30s, Sam Morsy and George Saville, although an added dynamic option or two would not go amiss.

It remains to be seen if Yannick Bolaise or Neeskens Kebano return, although there is a key figure on the flanks who Warnock has waxed lyrical about in Marcus Tavernier to count upon when he returns from injury.

Boro have plenty to do in the market to be firm contenders next season. Warnock has earned the right to be trusted and is energised in his quest to give it his best shot. His final shot maybe.

If things do not go well, Warnock is not the type to hang about. He recently said he will ‘be on my bike’ if fans want him to go and at his time of life, he will not be the sort to outstay his welcome.

It should be recalled that he has achieved surprises before on the promotion front. Shrewd observers will not be writing him off.

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