Boro need a win and players are returning - what team will Chris Wilder pick?
AS part of Chris Wilder’s plans from the summer months, he wanted two players for every position in a 3-5-2 system that would go head-to-head for a place in the side. While the club fell short in those demands, he does effectively have those choices with the exception of one or two players having to play out of position. Nevertheless, with Boro in need of a big result on Saturday against rock bottom Coventry and with speculation suggesting Wilder was red hot favourite for the vacant Bournemouth manager’s job, this weekend’s team selection should make for very interesting reading.
The Boro boss said before the international break that the fortnight would allow his players some breathing space to work on team matters on the training ground whilst injury struck personnel would be able to work their way back into the fray. Judging by a recent video published on the club’s website documenting a recent training session, Chuba Akpom’s involvement seems to suggest he is on his way back. However, there was no sign of Darragh Lenihan who has been suffering with a foot problem since the defeat to Watford. The manager did say it was ‘not a great one’.
There will be light shed on the fitness of the squad ahead of the weekend but if Lenihan were to be out for the trip to the Sky Blues, that effectively takes care of Dael Fry’s involvement in the team in the heart of defence. But who will be the man to his right? Anfernee Dijksteel or Paddy McNair?
The Dutchman was handed the responsibility against the Millers and helped the team to a clean sheet on the evening as they draw 0-0 at the Riverside Stadium. McNair was an unused sub that night and then linked up with the Northern Ireland squad for two Nations League games, where he played the full 90 minutes in both games. Could that strengthen his cause or weaken his case? With Dijksteel, he has been at the forefront of training with Wilder (notably) in attendance while the out-of-form McNair could have been out of sight and out of mind.
In attack, Rodrigo Muniz has started the last four games as Boro’s main man but has had several different strike partners to align with. Will Akpom be thrown straight back into the mix or will the manager have other ideas?
Given how Wilder has waxed lyrical about Akpom’s performances, and rightly so, the temptation could be to start him alongside Muniz with Boro desperately needing a result to drag them away from the bottom two. Akpom’s last involvement in the side was scoring twice in a 2-2 draw against Sheffield United where he well and truly cemented his place in the side for the forthcoming season.
After a 4-5 week timeline was placed on his recovery from a knee injury he picked up in that game, seven weeks will have gone by when this weekend’s game arrives meaning he should be fighting fit for the game. Expect Akpom to be in the matchday squad but regardless, Duncan Watmore’s dazzling display against Rotherham throws him into contention while Marcus Forss, who made just one substitute appearance during his time with Finland on international duty, will want to throw his name into the hat.
With Akpom nearing a return to the side, Riley McGree’s reign as a number ten looks to be over for the time being. The Australian spent the majority of pre-season playing in that position where the manager seemed to be impressed with what he saw but that was at a time when Marcus Tavernier was still at the club.
During this season, he has shown moments of promise as an attacking midfielder and speaking to The Northern Echo earlier in the month, he was hellbent on increasing his tally in goals and assists this season. But the general consensus from the fanbase seems to be that he is better served as being part of a three man midfield providing the service for strikers going forward. For the last game against Rotherham United, McGree was used in midfield at the expense of Alex Mowatt.
Another source of encouragement was seeing long-term injury absentee Darnell Fisher involved in training. The right-back has been out of action since April 2021 and whilst he was not expected to be back in the fold for another a couple of months, it only provides more options across a back three or at wing-back.
There will be some tough calls to make this weekend but regardless of how tough they are, it’s a team selection Chris Wilder has to get right. For the team’s own sake alongside his own.
Predicted Boro XI vs Coventry City (3-5-2): Steffen; Dijksteel, Fry, Clarke; Jones, Howson, Crooks, McGree, Giles; Akpom, Muniz