What next for Middlesbrough's George Friend? Jonathan Woodgate's captain dilemma assessed ahead of crucial Stoke City clash

After just six minutes of Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Swansea City at the Riverside Stadium, it was clear Middlesbrough were in for a tough afternoon.
George Friend returned to Middlesbrough's starting XI for the visit of Swansea on Saturday.George Friend returned to Middlesbrough's starting XI for the visit of Swansea on Saturday.
George Friend returned to Middlesbrough's starting XI for the visit of Swansea on Saturday.

The ball had broken loose near the centre circle and was flicked forward by Swans striker Rhian Brewster for team-mate Aldo Kalulu to chase.

Boro captain George Friend was closest to the ball, yet an untimely slip allowed the pacey winger to charge past him and bare down on goal.

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After chipping goalkeeper Dejan Stojanovic, Kalulu’s effort rebounded off the post to let Boro off the hook. Still, it was a sign of things to come.

Boro’s defence was all over the place as Swansea scored three times in 34 chastening minutes.

With space for Kalulu and fellow Swans winger Andre Ayew to run into, Boro looked particularly vulnerable on the flanks, with the opening two goals coming from crosses.

It was a shocking way to restart the campaign, while Friend in particular endured an afternoon to forget, later conceding the penalty which led to Swansea’s third goal.

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You couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the popular defender, 32, who has been an excellent player for the Teessiders since moving to the Riverside eight years ago. Unfortunately, he no longer looks like the adventurous full-back who can repeatedly charge up and down the flank.

Friend remains an influential figure at the Riverside, a leader both on and off the pitch, yet this season’s significant dip in performances and appearances is a real concern.

Friend’s rustiness was understandable considering he’s only just returned from a long-term injury and had only made five league appearances all campaign.

But if Saturday is anything to go by, it’s hard to see how the defender can continue to play on the left side of a back four.

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The problem is that withdrawing Friend would mean dropping Hayden Coulson back into defence. The 22-year-old has been Boro’s breakthrough star this campaign, with the flanker performing well in left-back and wing-back roles.

Yet Coulson also has the pace and ability to cause problems in the final third, like he was doing a couple months ago in a more advanced position.

One solution would be to play Marvin Johnson at left-back, which happened against Nottingham Forest and Charlton before the season was suspended.

Even so, despite some decent displays in more defensive roles this season, Johnson is naturally a winger and has played there for most of his career.

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So where does that leave Friend, who is also out of contract at the end of the season?

Despite his lack of game time, the defender has shown signs that he can slot in at centre-back, a position he played regularly before signing for Boro.

After Saturday’s defeat, there seems a good chance Woodgate will revert to a back three with wing-backs for this weekend’s trip to Stoke - a switch which could suit Friend.

The defender looked far more comfortable as a left-sided centre-back against Swansea after Boro changed formation at half-time.

Woodgate has plenty to think about ahead of Saturday’s relegation battle. The use of his captain is just one of them.