It’s about time Boro started playing Patrick Bamford in his best position

Harry Kane, who scored his 100th Premier League goal last Sunday, was born in in July 1993. Patrick Bamford, who has a solitary Premier League goal to his name, was born a few weeks later.

It a might seem a bit strange to compare them, but there was a time when the career trajectory of these two players was moving in a remarkably similar way.

As teenagers both were on the books at big London clubs as promising strikers. Both were sent out on multiple loan moves, and both had similar criticisms leveled at them. While seemingly intelligent and technically gifted players, were they strong enough, fast enough, or clinical enough to make it at the highest level.

In 2013, Kane sat on the bench with his future England strike partner Jamie Vardy, as they both watched Leicester crash out of the playoffs. Bamford meanwhile was banging in goals for League One side MK Dons alongside Kane’s future teammate Dele Alli.

The following season Bamford impressed in the Championship at Derby and Kane was given his chance in the Spurs first-team when his former youth coach Tim Sherwood was appointed manager briefly. The next season would be the break-through year for both.

Middlesbrough and Spurs were both managed by new, young and exciting coaches, in Pochettino and Karanka, and both Kane and Bamford thrived. Kane replaced Adebayor up-front scoring 21 goals in the league (31 in all competitions). Bamford was named Championship player of the year with an  outstanding season, helping Boro to the playoff final. The doubts aimed at the two players in their younger days had all but disappeared.

Nurtured under Pochettino, Kane would go on to evolve into one of the elite players in the world. For Bamford however, 2014-15 would be the peak. Believing he could play for Chelsea one day, rather than build on his season under Karanka, he had a trio of catastrophic loan moves at Premier League clubs. The old doubts about his capability and physicality at the top level returned.

While everything seemed to go right for Bamford in 2014-15, nothing has seemed to go right for him since. He made one start in the league in his first loan spell for Palace – a 5-1 thumping at the Etihad. Later in the season at Norwich he made his first start again against City, at Carrow Road.

Norwich were in the relegation zone and struggling to find the net, but held off City to draw 0-0. And it was actually Bamford who came closest to breaking the deadlock. Beating Otamendi to a loose ball, the ball sat-up for Bamford who hit a sweet half-volley that Joe Hart got nowhere near. Unfortunately the ball cannoned off the bar.

What could have happened had that rocket gone in? Suddenly rather than being the out-of-sorts failed loanee, Bamford would be known for the spectacular match-winner against City. It could have propelled Norwich to go on a run to secure safety. Instead Bamford only started one other game, and Norwich were relegated. He endured more misery at the start of the 2016-17 season, this time on loan at Burnley.

It seemed Aitor had saved him in January 2017 by signing him permanently from Chelsea. But the past 18 months had taken its toil and Karanka didn’t believe he was ready to go straight in the first-team. Karanka would be gone in a couple months and Bamford has struggled at Boro since. For over a year now fans have been saying the same question, “What has happened to Bamford?”

For me the start of the answer to that question is to look at where Bamford has been playing for Boro. At Spurs, Kane is the center forward, but he is more than a number 9, just like Bamford was more than a number 9 in 2014-15. They are, as Robin Van Persie liked to call himself, a “9-and-a-half.”

At Boro, like Kane and Van Persie, Bamford was a threat from multiple areas. He could be a poacher but often held his run and arrived late in the box to score. Bamford scored goals from outside the box, and regularly dropped off to slip into a no.10 role and let Kike or Vossen lead the line. It takes a player of unique intelligence to thrive in a role that complexity.

Watch Bamford’s goal in the crucial 1-0 away win at Derby. As Tomlin tears towards the goal Bamford goes to make a run before stopping dead. He then gestures to Tomlin where to put the through-ball and starts his run again, breezing past the defenders who are totally wrong-footed. It’s the movement of a player who has complete mastery of the penalty box, and also highlights a key point about Bamford’s skill-set; his sense of timing makes up for what he lacks in pace.

One of the most celebrated goals of that season is the wonderful team effort for the opening goal in the 3-0 win over Millwall. But the best piece of skill in that match came in the second goal. Clayton launched a long ball from his own half into the box. Bamford broke ahead of the defenders and brings the ball down with one touch. With his second touch he flicks it to Kike in the box who couldn’t miss. It was a piece of skill you rarely see in the Championship.

There are so many other moments to pick out from Bamford that season, and there’s no doubt in my mind had he been fully-fit for the playoff final at Wembley he would have been playing in the Premier League for Boro the following season.

But it brings us back to the question of Bamford the player here and now. It would be harsh to say Bamford has been playing badly. Of the 5 league home games he has started in the league Boro have won 4 and drew 1 (interestingly the 0-0 draw with Sheffield Wednesday at the end of January was the first time Middlesbrough failed to win in the Championship with Bamford in the starting line-up since November 2014. Boro have never lost at home in the Championship when Bamford has started).

While Boro are a better side with him in the team, neither Monk nor Pulis fancy him as a starting centre-forward. It seems the old doubts still nag, but his versatility has meant he has forced his way into the side, often as a make-shift answer to Boro’s left-side problem.

Confined to the left does not really suit Bamford. Notably when he was given a chance as centre-forward in the cup against Villa he scored twice. And against Ipswich at home he came into the side as a no.10 and played well. He operated effectively between the lines, linking up midfield with attack. He created space in the middle by drifting wide, which helped him score an excellent solo goal. It was arguably Boro’s most convincing performance under Monk.

At the time it looked like Monk had found his best 11,  with Bamford a key role, but they followed it up with a horrible defeat at Millwall. The following game, 2-1 win at Hillsbrough, would be Monk’s last and he has played mostly on the left for Pulis since, with Downing preferred at no.10 (it’s worth noting that Bamford played in the no.10 role in the 2-0 Boxing Day win against Bolton, which means when he has played in the no.10 position, Boro won 3 of 4 matches).

A player of Bamford’s intelligence and movement needs to be operating in the box. On the left-side he doesn’t possess the quick burst of speed to beat a man, and as a result has been a non-factor in recent games. While Downing has impressed at times at no.10, he lacks the mobility of Bamford and often drifts deep particularly when up against defensive side.

The other issue that has held Bamford back at Boro, and all three of his failed loan moves, was the number of lacklustre appearances he made coming off the bench. Bamford is not an impact player. He is not a plan B target man in the shape of Gestede, or pacey forward who can out-run tired defences. His forward play means he’s at his best starting in the no.9 role (or no.10) constantly asking questions of defenders, attempting to outwit them, which he did so often in 14/15 season.

In light of the “striker crisis” at Boro I think it’s the opportunity for Bamford to be given a chance in the role in which he had so much success. In Pulis’s system both Assombalonga and Gestede have struggled to hold the ball up effectively. Bamford is more comfortable with his back to the goal than both of them. He is a proven finisher at this level, and is also willing to do the sacrificial work that Pulis requires from a center-forward.

Fans continue to ask, “Where is the Bamford from 2014/15?” If he is shackled to the left-side of midfield or left on the bench and expected to be an impact sub, we will simply never see a return of the player we loved and adored 3 years ago.

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