Middlesbrough seem to be picking up at just the right time under Tony Pulis. How have the last few months been at the Riverside?
Since he took over on Boxing Day, Middlesbrough have been more organised and more disciplined in the way they play, which you would expect from a Pulis side. The back four has been more settled - it’s pretty much been the same four players. That’s helped and given them a base to build. The problem that Pulis inherited was a lack of goals; they knew how to create chances but they hadn’t been able to convert them. The injury to Rudy Gestede raised a few eyebrows as Patrick Bamford and Britt Assombalonga just weren’t getting the goals. However, all of a sudden, Bamford has hit a purple patch and that’s really kicked them on and given them the extra inch. Boro have added goals to their game and established solidity at the back - that’s why they’ve managed to get themselves in the Play-Offs.
We’ve got to talk about Bamford, who seems to have rediscovered his knack for goal-scoring after a challenging few seasons. What’s clicked for him of late?
The season Boro played Brentford in the Play-Offs (2014/15) he was unbelievable - the player of the season. They were unsuccessful in the Final and because they didn’t go up, Bamford went to the Premier League and had three loan spells at Norwich City, Crystal Palace and Burnley. He hardly featured during those loans; when he returned to Middlesbrough last January his confidence looked shot to pieces. He didn’t look the same player – he couldn’t hold down his place or get a run in the side and then, due to injuries and very few options, he’s been given a chance now up front and has got his confidence back.
There are still plenty of teams in with a shout of the Play-Offs; how do you rate Boro’s chances?
At the start of the season I thought they would finish in the top two because of the money they’d spent and the managerial appointment, but it didn’t work out that way. It looked doubtful as to whether they would get promoted before Christmas, but as soon as they appointed Pulis it felt as though they would still manage to sneak into the Play-Offs. Boro have got every chance of going up because they’ve got the squad, the talent, the ability and they can beat anybody on their day.
How are Middlesbrough likely to set up?
Pulis has basically settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation. They’ve got that settled back four, with two midfielders, which will be Muhamed Besic and either Grant Leadbitter or Adam Clayton, and in front of them it’ll be Traore on the right and Stewart Downing on the left. The wingers tend to swap over the course of the game, with Bamford leading the line up front. He’s got them scoring goals in that formation, so I’ll be amazed if it changes before the Brentford game because it’s put Middlesbrough back in the Play-Off picture.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
I was at Birmingham City recently and despite the fact they were going for it, Middlesbrough still got the job done and defended very strongly. Brentford are a decent side and it’s away from home, so I would probably bank on it being quite a tight affair. I’ll go for 2-1 to Boro.
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