At the fraught and tense Arsenal general meeting last October, Arsene Wenger said these few words:
“Society always follows the way of the game. And what is for sure, in our game, the weight of the past, the weight of the future has been kicked out of the game. The weight of the present has become heavier and the only thing people want. The present.”
This concern for only the here and now is a wider reflection of society as a whole. And in football the weight of the presence is at its heaviest during the January transfer window.
This window has been disappointing for a lot of Boro fans. The squad now appears weaker, and our chances of promotion diminished. Like Wenger said, immediate issues are at the forefront of our minds and the January window is seen as the chance to address them. Instead I believe Pulis and Gibson are focused on the future, while also avoiding mistakes of the past.
Middlesbrough are in 8th place, 3 points off the playoffs. We still have a good chance to make the playoffs – but the playoffs are always a gamble.
Last season Huddersfield qualified for 5th place with a negative goal difference, and were never once in the lead during the two-legged semi-final with Sheffield Wednesday or the final with Reading, winning both ties on penalties. League form goes out the window (Huddersfield lost twice in the league to Wednesday last season).
In 2014-15, Middlesbrough dispatched Norwich City with ease at home 4-0, and then ground out an ugly 1-0 win at Carrow Road, before losing to the Canaries at Wembley. So why would Steve Gibson look to pay over-inflated fees to strengthen the squad to improve chances of getting into the playoffs, knowing how unpredictable they are?
If we had a genuine chance at automatic promotion, it would be a different story. But we don’t. Right now Pulis and Gibson see promotion though the playoffs as a bonus, but in terms of long-term planning and investment they are looking to the Summer and focus on challenging for automatic promotion next year.
On the opening day of the season we fielded six debut players and were ready to smash the league. Yesterday three of those players left who cost us around 18 million combined. This points to huge issues in our recruitment strategy and we need to address these issues before Gibson starts spending that kind of money again.
Fans have been particularly disgruntled at the departures of Braithwaite and Christie. When Pulis arrived he talked about a desire to improve the unity and team spirit of the squad.
Braithwaite is looking to go to Russia in the summer, so if he’s not in the line-up he cannot be a positive presence in the squad. Christie is another international who would be the first-choice right-back for every team in this league not managed by Tony Pulis. Selling him to Fulham – a playoff rival – is a risk of course, but January is a seller’s market, and we’ve made a profit which we may not have done had he sat on the bench for the second half of the season.
For his replacement Pulis brought in Martin Cranie. Instead of having a frustrated and bitter Christie as back-up RB we have the man who was back-up right-back for the team that got promoted in the playoffs last year. That is a much better situation for the squad.
We also signed Mo Besic on loan. Reaction to his signing was underwhelming, but he is an international midfielder, who without injury problems, would be playing regularly in one of Europe’s top five divisions. You could have written the exact same sentence about Gaston Ramirez when he signed at the exact same time two years ago.
And then there’s Jack Harrison. It would be unwise to expect instant impact. There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling when it comes to his potential, and you couldn’t ask for higher praise that what he received from Pirlo, Lampard and Villa.
He is a very exciting prospect. But the football he’s been playing in the MLS is a much slower, more possession based and less physical league compared to the Championship. Not to mention the season finished nearly 3 months ago. Much like Lewis Baker, he could find it very difficult to adjust to the league initially. Like Baker we cannot write such a talent off if that happens.
I’m hopeful both Harrison and Baker have a part to play this season. And it’s encouraging to see Pulis saying that he hopes to keep him on loan next year. Harrison is an example of Boro having an eye on the future.
The squad Pulis has at his disposal should still be the envy of almost every manager in the league except Nuno Santo. Playoffs are attainable, but with with automatic places out of reach over-spending on panic buys this January would barely have improved our chances of promotion.
In a recent interview Adam Forshaw spoke of how under Garry Monk there was confusion among the players over their role in the squad. There will be none of that now. And for those who made the cut it is time to put the work in and deliver.
There are still areas Boro are weak. They have made some smart acquisitions but have decided against big money signings. For us fans, this January may seem like a missed opportunity, but sometimes you have to stop focusing on the present and look at the bigger picture. It seems that is what Pulis and Gibson are doing.