Middlesbrough is back in the Premier League! The return journey to the top-flight took seven years, so it's no surprise they've made more than their fair share of moves in the summer window. Manager Aitor Karanka, a former assistant of Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, has made it clear that he will do whatever it takes to avoid relegation. And Boro's current squad seems to stand in support of this, at least on paper. This is in reference to the arrivals of Alvaro Negredo and Jordan Rhodes, as Karanka will have two candidates to spearhead the 4-2-3-1 formation that helped secure promotion last season.
Last Season in Brief
Even though they secured the second automatic promotion spot by edging Brighton and Hove Albion on goal difference, Premier League football was always in the cards for Middlesbrough. This was due to a league-best defense anchored by center-backs Dani Ayala and Ben Gibson, and offensively potent left-back George Friend. While the defense carried the club throughout the season, their attack picked up significant steam in January after the arrival of Gaston Ramirez on loan from Southampton. The addition of Ramirez paid serious dividends, as Boro finished the campaign on a 10-match unbeaten run during which they never dropped below 3rd in the table.
However, Karanka will need to add some new faces before the transfer window closes to ensure similar success this term.
The Summer So Far
With time still remaining, it's safe to say the signings so far have greatly improved the squad. In terms of fortifying the squad, the likes of Vitkor Fischer and Marten De Roon have given Boro much needed depth. Fischer, a 21-year-old winger with lots of potential, scored 12 goals in all competitions for Ajax last season, while De Roon will challenge for a starting role in central midfield. It’s also no secret they’ve upgraded at goalkeeper by signing Victor Valdes and Brad Guzan, given the incumbent Dimitrios Konstantopoulos was never going to be enough. Should one be sidelined due to injury, Karanka will still have an experienced backup.
Those moves aside, the most intriguing storyline comes with the arrival of Alvaro Negredo on loan Valencia. When the La Liga outfit paid a handsome fee to acquire him just a year ago from Manchester City, it’s for certain they expected more than five goals in 25 appearances. Should the striker channel his form from 2012-2013, a season that saw him score 23 goals for Sevilla, it's likely relegation won't be a concern at the Riverside Stadium.
Remaining Summer Business
The most pressing issue is adding depth at the heart of defense, especially with Karanka in a selection dilemma for their opener against Stoke City. With both Dani Ayala and Bernardo Espinosa likely to miss out, Karanka could be forced to partner right-back Antonio Barragan alongside Gibson in central defense against Stoke City. This might not seem a like a big issue, but it does highlight the need for another center-back with first-team quality.
Middlesbrough appeared to have the situtation under control earlier this summer when they targeted Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic. However, the transfer fell through when a medical revealed he would need chest surgery. While the failed move was a big miss, the recent signing of Cardiff City fullback Fabio da Silva could be labeled as an above-average consolation. Despite this, who could the club target to sure up the middle of their backline?
One potential solution could be Zenit St. Petersburg's Nicolas Lombaerts, following speculation the Belgian international could leave the Russian outfit before the window closes. The 31-year-old would be a relative inexpensive signing for a defender with over 30 international caps and experience playing in the Champions League. Should Karanka prefer to seek an option currently plying his trade in the Premier League, they could revive interest in Hull City's Harry Maguire. The 23-year-old's contract is set to expire at the end of the season and could be on the move come the winter window, with the former England Under-21 international keen to play more regular football.
Fantasy: Salary Cap Superstars
Alvaro Negredo – For a striker who scored 9 goals in 2013-14 for Manchester City and won’t hit your salary hard, grabbing him early in the season could be a smart piece of business. Middlesbrough have a favorable run of matches to open the season...Stoke City, Sunderland, West Brom...and Negredo looks set to spearhead Karanka's 4-2-3-1 formation. He's a striker with a low-cost and high ceiling.
Jordan Rhodes - If you’re looking to gamble on a sleeper, the 26-year-old should be a consideration. Rhodes, who scored 79 goals in four seasons at Blackburn, could be a huge fantasy bargain if Negredo fails to live up to expectations. Chances are that one of the two will be responsible for the majority Middlesbrough's frontline production.
Gaston Ramirez - Based on his loan spell, it's realistic to believe Ramirez will again be essential to Boro's attack. The attacking midfielder scored seven goals and four assists in 18 Championship matches last term, and is now surrounded by upgraded weapons. Set to play in a role behind Negredo or Rhodes, Ramirez’s value could be further increased if Fischer has a strong debut campaign. Why? Fischer likes to cut inside and lay the ball off, presenting chances for Ramirez to strike from distance.
George Friend - For what he’ll cost, it’s a buyers-market for those in need of a Friend. In addition to a low market price, you can never have too many attack-minded full-backs. Friend is a good piece to hold as his value will hinge on the club’s ability to keep clean sheets. However, although not a weekly-basis, it’s likely he’ll grab at least a few assists this season.
Fantasy: Draft Details
Downing in the later rounds - Don’t be scared off by single season away from the top-flight. Stewart Downing is an experienced veteran of the Premier League who boasts career totals of 36 goals and 45 assists in 378 appearances. Fresh off a Championship campaign in which he recorded five assists from 79 chances created, he’s someone to consider drafting in the later rounds. Why? On a match-to-match basis, he’ll generate enough key passes and successful crosses to score relatively well even when he doesn’t grab an assist. He’s a midfielder with sleeper value in deeper leagues.
Choosing a Rhode forward - There are a few ways to judge the where you should draft Jordan Rhodes and Alvaro Negredo. Those in favor of Rhodes will likely stash him on the bench and justify doing so based on his prolific scoring record in the Championship. Meanwhile, the argument for Negredo is ground by the fact he scored nine goals in 32 appearances with Manchester City during 2013-14. Whichever way you lean, each has holes. Judging them based on PlayTogga’s pre-season rankings, it’s best to view them as “handcuffs”. Why? Their values will be interchangeable until one has an outright claim to the starting role.
Both goalkeepers have value - Prior to signing Brad Guzan, it seemed Victor Valdes would be the clear-cut starter. However, with the U.S. international now in the mix, there could be a two-headed competetion for the starting role at the Riverside. While Valdes will open the season as Karanka’s number one, Guzan would have equal value should the former Barcelona and Manchester United stop-stopper get hurt. In short, whoever starts should have top-10 value on a weekly-basis.