WHEN Middlesbrough hit December sitting three points outside the play-off places and 11 short of an automatic promotion place, Garry Monk knows he still has plenty to ponder. Even though he wants healthy competition for places, he clearly has big question marks hanging over his team selection.

Bristol City, sitting five points above Boro, may well have the greater list of absentees going into Saturday’s fifth-versus-seventh tussle at Ashton Gate, but Monk has more than enough posers himself.

While Daniel Ayala looks like being the only player certainly ruled out for Middlesbrough, the Robins’ manager Lee Johnson has suggested he faces a “slight crisis” with a hefty number of players missing. Dangerous winger Callum O’Dowda has now joined Eros Pisano, Famara Diedhiou, Gary O’Neil, Jens Hegeler and Ivan Lucic on the sidelines.

On the face of it, Monk looks to have it easier because he should even have striker Rudy Gestede available again after a lengthy lay-off, while Jonny Howson is back from his one-match suspension. In fact, while Bristol City’s team will effectively pick itself, it is Monk who has the greater conundrums in terms of who to name in his starting line-up. Here’s why:


Daniel Ayala’s red card means at least one change at the back. Presuming Monk sticks with a back four, Dael Fry would seem the logical player to throw in for what would be his first start in the league since September 27 when he was guilty of a mistake that proved costly against Norwich.

Fry, 19, had been effective before that, so deserves another opportunity, while Ryan Shotton’s only appearance since his move from Birmingham arrived in the game straight after that against Brentford.

Other than that you would expect Cyrus Christie, Ben Gibson and Fabio da Silva to keep their places for the trip to Bristol. A longer term option could be to see Monk switch to three at the back which has become fashionable again during the last year.


While Ayala misses out, Howson’s one match ban is over. He had been playing his best football in a Middlesbrough shirt before collecting his fifth caution of the season against Birmingham, so it would be no surprise to see him thrust straight back into the mix.

It was a surprise, both to the fans and to the player himself, to see Grant Leadbitter left out as well against Derby, to hand Adam Forshaw and Adam Clayton an opportunity together in the middle of midfield.

Howson’s return, coupled with that defeat to Derby, presents Monk with this tough decision - should Forshaw and Clayton be left out again so soon?

What it will boil down to is who appears better suited to play with who alongside one another, when neither of the two centre-midfielders would be expected to really sit deep in the sort of position Clayton has effectively made his own.

The Leadbitter and Howson pairing won four of their previous five matches together in the middle, which would suggest they have the stronger claims at this stage of the campaign than the other two after last week's defeat.


How things can change quickly in football. Of all the players Monk has to call on on the flanks, Stewart Downing is the one demanding to start with his performances – just months after he had been made available for a free transfer.

Along with who to play alongside Ben Gibson at the back, arguably Monk’s other big headache is who to play on the left. Middlesbrough’s most consistent run of positive results was delivered when teenager Marcus Tavernier was there.

Few, though, could have disagreed that it was probably the right time to give the 18-year-old a breather after his impressive five-game run came to an end after Leeds, but who to field as his replacement was a different matter altogether.

Marvin Johnson, signed in the summer from Oxford, has more experience and has looked decent in flashes, particularly against QPR earlier this season. He has started the last two, but has hardly nailed down his place.

The alternatives are Adama Traore, Ashley Fletcher, Patrick Bamford or Lewis Baker. Only Traore, however, can be truly regarded as a winger and his inclusion would likely see Downing swap sides. How Monk must hope Traore can one day be trusted enough to deliver regularly.


Regardless of who starts out wide, Monk can at least be satisfied to know he has a front two that has started to gel. There are still signs of frustration at times, but the sight of Martin Braithwaite operating behind 11-goal Britt Assombalonga will cause any Championship defence concerns.

The pair have started the last nine league matches together, with Braithwaite operating more in the withdrawn role. Despite failing to find the net last weekend, Lewis Baker, Bamford and Ashley Fletcher face a real fight to get back into the mix ahead of either of them.

The return of Gestede will certainly give Monk and Middlesbrough a boost. The former Aston Villa striker is a different sort of front-man, capable of causing aerial problems which the others are unable to – even if it is from the bench.