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After their relegation from the Premier League, Middlesbrough’s £10m purchase of Toulouse’s Danish international forward Martin Braithwaite is a sizeable gamble. With Garry Monk installed as coach and a competitive season ahead is Braithwaite really the signing to propel Boro back into the promised land at the first attempt?
With Toulouse ten points from safety with just ten games to play, Pascal Dupraz had a lot to accomplish upon his arrival at the Stade Municipal in Spring 2016. Top of the new manager’s to-do list, however, written in bold, was ‘make Martin Braithwaite captain’. Not the most vocal of on-field presences, Braithwaite lead by example. Moved out to the left in support of Sevilla-bound Wissam Ben Yedder, the Danish international’s fight, aggression and intensity bullied defenders into errors, hauled his team forward and saw him maintain a steady stream of goal across a glorious run for Les Violets, snatching back their Ligue 1 status on the final day of the campaign.
Ben Yedder gone and the 2016/17 season underway, Braithwaite returned to his favoured central role and flourished. Riding the crest of the violently charismatic Dupraz’s wave, his cult hero status at it’s peak, Toulouse charged into the the new term, swords aloft, with captain Braithwaite in the vanguard.
Braithwaite’s unassuming but powerful presence as a leader coupled with Dupraz’s unbridled passion and affection for his players and his new club had Toulouse playing some of the best football Stade Municipal regulars had seen for some years. Characterised by a fierce sense of togetherness, a forceful press and the intense leadership of coach and captain, Toulouse firebrand football proved too much for eventual champions Monaco and PSG’s Galacticos.
A brace in the 3-1 win over Monaco was the zenith of Braithwaite’s best period of form since arriving in France from hometown club Esbjerg in 2013. Braithwaite’s six goals in TFC’s first nine games partnered with some stirring all-round performances edged Toulouse into the European places last autumn. After years of skirting the event horizon of Ligue 1’s relegation blackhole, Braithwaite and Toulouse looked to be genuine challengers for a top 6 spot.
The Dane’s infectious intensity and ability to pinch the ball in advanced positions were proving a to be a cornerstone of Dupraz’s rejuvenated outfit while his sharp feet, pace and precision, in both pass and finish, were key factors in stealing points from tight encounters.
After Ben Yedder’s departure Braithwaite had been convinced to stay on by Dupraz, the striker telling Omnisport last year: “I want to stay in Toulouse one more year because we have something really nice going on. This is a big city in France and we have so much unfulfilled potential.” His extended stay was helping to realise that potential.
However, reports suggested an agreement between Braithwaite and club President, Olivier Sadran had already been reached to allow him to move on this summer, the signing of fellow striker Andy Delort in January seemed to confirm this before Dupraz stated outright last month the he would be leaving. It was clear from Braithwaite’s play in 2016 that not only was he playing for his club but he was playing for the best move possible.
As winter arrived however, Toulouse and Braithwaite began to slip. Dupraz’s young team started to look tired, burnt out even, as the effects of their hectic 2016 became increasingly apparent. The intensity of a squad wound tight by Dupraz began to ebb away as performances became lethargic and lacklustre. Crucially, Braithwaite’s goal tally slowed, almost to a halt. Six in his first nine Ligue 1 games was followed by just 5 in 28. Although his intensity and leadership remained to start with, his form was quickly eroded.
Promise of a revival upon the signing of Delort in January was short-lived as Braithwaite was again shifted out to the left. Although Dupraz was still able to cajole his team into a comfortable 13th place finish, his Captain never recovered. Now seemingly uncomfortable or unwilling playing the supporting role that he had mastered during the previous run-in, and perhaps now sure of his move away, Braithwaite’s display’s became passive and uninspiring.
As a result, although Middlesbrough’s cash flow is likely not too much of an issue despite their relegation, Braithwaite’s £10m remains a sizeable gamble. Whatever the cause for his dramatic downturn in displays this year, consistency has long been an issue for the Danish forward. Despite his 11 league goals in consecutive seasons often coming as part of a struggling side in a league where it is notoriously difficult to score goals, his performances have not been as even as Boro fans might anticipate with goals and landmark display coming in patches.
Braithwaite has the talent and the skill-set to be a success in the Championship, or even the Premier League, West Ham and Southampton were also keen, but 40 Toulouse strikes in 149 games for the 26 year old puts him closer to a goal in every four than every three games, while 19 in 97 across five seasons in Denmark, admittedly as a youngster, makes for little better reading. These numbers are skewed somewhat by time he has spent out wide but nevertheless Garry Monk is left with a choice.
Firstly, assuming he sticks with the 4-3-3 he employed at Leeds, Braithwaite could be deployed on the left. He proved his worth in this role during Toulouse’s Dupraz inspired bid for safety in 2016, hustling full-backs, providing chances for the central striker and maintaining a moderate stream of goals. But it seems as if Braithwaite has decided he is a central striker and, if his performances in this position last season are any indicator, it may be hard for Monk to convince him otherwise.
Alternatively, Monk keeps his new Danish international striker as just that. As a far superior option to Patrick Bamford or Rudy Gestede, this would make more sense especially given Braithwaite’s desire to make a central role his, as the Dane’s best displays have arguably come when he feels he has something to prove. But Monk then runs the risk of Braithwaite’s lack of consistency in front of goal continuing as it has for the previous few seasons, eventually becoming a hindrance to Middlesbrough’s challenging task of a swift return to the Premier League.
Whatever Monk decides to do, the capture of Braithwaite is still something of a coup for Middlesbrough; he’s bullish, pacey, a strong leader and, at his best, deadly, both in support and in front of goal. Premier League interest was justifiably strong both this and last summer. Meanwhile this move also arrives at the perfect time for the player.
Four seasons in Ligue 1 has seen him mature steadily as a footballer and if he ever is going to achieve true success outside France, at 26, now is the time to prove he can fulfill his potential. However, only once in the last four seasons has a side been automatically promoted to the Premier League without a 20 goal striker (ironically, Middlesbrough in 2016) is Martin Braithwaite that man for this Middlesbrough team? £10m says he is.
by Adam White