MIDDLESBROUGH return to action when they head to Deepdale to take on Preston on Wednesday evening.

Saturday’s home defeat to Bristol City delivered more questions than answers in terms of Michael Carrick’s team selection, meaning the Boro boss has plenty to weigh up as he ponders his line-up for Wednesday’s game.


GOALKEEPER

Prior to picking up a thigh injury in December’s win at Swansea City, Seny Dieng was Boro’s undisputed number one. However, the Senegalese shot-stopper has missed the last 12 matches, giving Tom Glover an opportunity to stake his claim between the sticks.

Glover’s performance level in the last couple of months has been patchy. There have been some excellent saves and assured performances, most notably in the Carabao Cup home win over Chelsea, but also some shakier moments, such as the error that enabled Nazariy Rusyn to level the scores in the Tees-Wear derby.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough goalkeeper Tom GloverMiddlesbrough goalkeeper Tom Glover (Image: Tom Banks)

With Dieng back on the bench, Glover’s weekend display was something of a mixed bag too. He made an important save from Sam Bell shortly before half-time to prevent Boro falling three goals behind, but might have done better with Matty James’ goal via the inside of the post and was almost beaten from the halfway line by Jason Knight.

Is it time for Carrick to restore Dieng to the starting line-up? Assuming he can return at the same levels he was displaying in the first three months of the season, the summer signing from QPR surely remains Boro’s most reliable goalkeeper.


DEFENCE

The January signing of Luke Ayling enabled Michael Carrick to move Rav van den Berg across from full-back to central defence, where everyone seems to agree his long-term future lies.

Van den Berg is clearly a hugely-talented player, and he performed excellently in the derby draw with Sunderland. He was much shakier at the weekend though, with his partnership with Dael Fry stuttering repeatedly in the first half as Bristol City’s forwards pierced Boro’s backline seemingly at will.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough defender Rav van den BergMiddlesbrough defender Rav van den Berg (Image: Tom Banks)

Matt Clarke and Paddy McNair were on the bench on Saturday, and while neither can match van den Berg for footballing ability, perhaps they would offer a greater level of defensive security and physical presence than the 19-year-old. Carrick could well be tempted to turn to one of them at Preston, or in Saturday’s away game with league leaders Leicester City.

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Might Luke Thomas get a chance in one of those matches too? If he does, it will have to be the former as he is unable to play against his parent club at the King Power Stadium. Lukas Engel has improved markedly after a shaky start to his Boro career, but Thomas will hardly have moved to Teesside just to sit on the bench and Wednesday’s game might be the time when he is offered a first start.


MIDFIELD

For much of this season, Boro’s central-midfield was a settled unit, with Jonny Howson playing alongside Hayden Hackney. In the last couple of months though, Dan Barlaser’s stock has risen and Lewis O’Brien has returned from injury, increasing Carrick’s options in the central third.

In the last couple of games, the Boro boss has tried to accommodate three members of the quartet in the central area, pushing Hackney further upfield as Howson partnered Barlaser in the draw with Sunderland, and also when O’Brien played alongside Barlaser against Bristol City.

Hackney did reasonably well in a more advanced role against both Chelsea and Sunderland, but the tactic unravelled dramatically at the weekend, to the point where it had to be abandoned in the second half. Hackney returned a deeper-lying position, O’Brien was pushed on, and Boro looked more balanced as a result.

The Northern Echo: Hayden Hackney finds his route to goal blocked against Bristol CityHayden Hackney finds his route to goal blocked against Bristol City (Image: Tom Banks)

With Riley McGree now back in the fold following his return from the Asian Cup, and Finn Azaz settled in after joining from Aston Villa, Boro have plenty of options in the attacking-midfield positions, even accounting for the ongoing absence of Isaiah Jones.

So, does Carrick need to be pushing one of his central midfielders further forward, especially if the move disrupts the balance of the rest of the midfield unit? Or, for the time being, does he need to accept that four into two does not go and leave a couple of his central-midfielders on the bench? At the very least, Saturday’s game would suggest that Hackney’s best role remains as a genuine box-to-box midfielder playing in a central position.


ATTACK

The trickiest part of Carrick’s selection dilemma comes in attack because, unlike in the other areas of the pitch, the options are simply not there. With Josh Coburn and Emmanuel Latte Lath both currently sidelined through injury, Boro do not possess a natural ‘number nine’, so to a certain extent, whatever Carrick does will involve putting a square peg into a round hole.

That said, Sam Greenwood has now had a couple of games in which to stake his claim for the central-attacking role, and on both occasions, the Leeds United loanee has not really looked like the answer to the problem. His movement outside the area was good at the weekend, and he displayed commendable energy, but his impact in the 18-yard box was extremely limited, even accounting for the offside goal that might perhaps have been allowed to stand.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough forward Sam GreenwoodMiddlesbrough forward Sam Greenwood (Image: Tom Banks)

Carrick clearly feels Marcus Forss is a better player coming in off the right than playing through the middle, but the Finn is the most natural finisher in the Boro squad and might well offer more of a goal threat playing as the central striker than Greenwood.

Admittedly, with Jones still absent, moving Forss infield would leave a gap to be filled on the right, but Azaz, Greenwood or Sammy Silvera could play there. Not ideal perhaps, but if Boro are to start climbing the table, they need to find someone capable of scoring while playing as a number nine.