FOR most of this season, Neil Warnock has been looking ahead to the summer and claiming there will be no need for a major rebuilding project as he seeks to improve his Middlesbrough squad. The nearer it comes though, the bigger the challenge appears to be. With every game that passes, more and more problems seem to appear.

The forward line has long been an area of major concern, and it increasingly looks as though Warnock will be looking for three new strikers this summer. Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher will leave as free agents, and will have to be replaced. Chuba Akpom’s contract does not expire until 2023, but there is a mounting pile of evidence to suggest the 25-year-old is not the answer to Boro’s attacking issues. Warnock’s comments over the last few months suggest he is far from convinced despite signing off the striker’s arrival in September.

The wide-attacking positions have also been a problem all season, and again, a large amount of summer surgery is required. Neeskens Kebano and Yannick Bolasie have failed to convince since arriving on loan, and are unlikely to be offered permanent deals. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, who missed Saturday’s defeat at Barnsley with a groin injury, will come to the end of his current short-term deal in June and has done little to merit the award of another contract. Marvin Johnson, whose 79th-minute appearance as a substitute at Oakwell was something of an after-thought, is another who seems destined to leave at the end of the season. Potentially, there are another three or four players required there.

Then, there is the goalkeeping situation. Marcus Bettinelli will be available given that his contract at Fulham is due to expire in the summer, but if Warnock was considering making the 28-year-old his long-term number one before the weekend, he will almost certainly be having second thoughts now.

Bettinelli’s form has been dipping for a while after a reasonably bright start to his time on Teesside, but it nosedived dramatically against Barnsley. Goodness knows what he was trying to do when Alex Mowatt swung over the corner that proved the key moment in the game, but his collision with Paddy McNair led to him failing to make contact with an attempted punch and resulted in the ball ending up in the net. “Without me being too honest, I don’t know what to say,” said Warnock, when asked to comment on Bettinelli’s error. “I’m usually very honest, but it’s not a day to be honest.” Sometimes, saying nothing is the most powerful statement of all.

Bettinelli compounded his game-changing mistake with another error three minutes later, and was fortunate to remain on the field after he charged from his line and appeared to halt Daryl Dike, who went on to head home Barnsley’s second goal, with a mistimed challenge. Referee Keith Stroud gave him the benefit of the doubt, but Warnock is unlikely to be so accommodating when it comes to ruling on Bettinelli’s future come June. With reserve goalkeeper Jordan Archer also nearing the end of his contract, Warnock could be adding two shot-stoppers to his shopping list.

It is tempting, in conclusion, to ask who he would want to retain. Saturday's four defenders, along with Dael Fry and Anfernee Dijksteel once they return from injury. Jonny Howson and a fit-again Marcus Tavernier. Djed Spence and Duncan Watmore, although probably only as squad players. Beyond that? You suspect Warnock would happily get rid of just about everyone, so while he might claim he will be rebuilding from a position of strength, he finds himself with plenty of work to do.