Middlesbrough triumphed over fellow-Championship side Preston North End in the third round of the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night, and Boro had made 11 changes to their previous league game.
Middlesbrough’s strength in depth was highlighted by their victory over a Preston side who had only made three changes from the defeat at Sheffield United on the weekend. Alex Neil’s side weren’t far from fielding a full-strength team, whereas there were seven starters for Boro aged 23 or under, with some having not played a minute of league football for the reds.
Boro’s academy production line has never been questioned, with the likes of Stewart Downing, James Morrison, Ben Gibson and Chris Brunt coming through the youth ranks on Teesside. But the more players graduate from the illustrious academy, the more competition for places there is.
Tony Pulis already has selection headaches each week, with plenty of players looking for minutes out on the pitch, and ultimately a lot of players don’t get the minutes they feel they deserve.
Competitions like the Carabao Cup have given Pulis the opportunity to see fringe players and under-23s squad members in a competitive fixture and play against teams from the Football League.
Players like Marcus Tavernier, Lewis Wing and Nathan Wood showed on Tuesday that they can compete against Championship opposition, and could be knocking on the first team door in the weeks ahead if they weren’t already.
Tavernier and Wing may feel aggrieved to not be in the first team picture week-in-week-out, with both players impressing in the Championship when they have played this season.
Tavernier sparked the fight back at The Den from two goals down, grabbing the assist for Martin Braithwaite for the first Boro goal, and Wing started numerous games in a row in midfield at the start of the campaign and posed a huge threat over a dead ball and linked play from deep to the strikers.
The youngsters will certainly have a part to play this season, whether their playing time is limited to the Carabao Cup remains to be seen, but with nearly 50 games in the Championship, they will be called on at some point no doubt, and deservedly so.