His style of play may not have earned rave reviews, or have helped his side to score more than three goals in a league game all season, but Tony Pulis has been quietly, and, at times, unspectacularly, been preparing Middlesbrough for a second successive shot at promotion to the Premier League.
Though the Welshman guided Boro to fifth in his first five months in the job, they lost 1-0 on aggregate to Aston Villa in the Championship play-off semi-final last term, thanks to Mile Jedinak’s strike 15 minutes into the first leg. Having fallen away from the automatic promotion-chasing pack around late November this time around, there are bound to be fans who have had the fear of God struck into them with the mere mention of the end-of-season lottery. They did, after all, falter against Norwich in the 2014/15 edition.
The manner in which they’ve drifted away from the top two places in the Championship hasn’t been shameful whatsoever; other than a 3-0 defeat to Villa on 1 December, their three subsequent defeats - to QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United - have been decided by a narrow one-goal margin.
Therefore, their drop in league position has, perhaps, been simply born out of their stubbornness in defence. Their sheer pride in keeping clean sheets - of which they have 16 from 34 league games so far – coupled with a distinct lack of potency in attack. It’s something that has, for the most part, served them well, though, as Pulis’ side have occupied one of the division’s top six spots since the second week of the season.
As Mark Drury of BBC Tees Sport put it prior to the return fixture at Griffin Park on 24 November: “I don’t think there are any surprises about the way it’s been done; Tony Pulis building his team in the way that he always does, very stingy with a strong defence. Almost all of the building blocks are in place for the way he likes to go about things…but the style of football certainly hasn’t won everyone over.”
Regarding the aforementioned lack of goals scored, Boro’s is a tally that totally belies their lofty league position. Only six of the 24 teams in the second-tier have scored fewer than their current haul of 38, with five of them sitting among the bottom six teams, at present. And with 10 of those goals being scored by Britt Assombalonga, the reliance on the Congolese striker is a slight cause for concern, particularly after the 26-year-old’s comments to Teesside Live this week, in which he said: “Scoring goals in the hardest job in football”.
The unrelenting schedule of the Championship is reaching one of its most challenging periods, with plenty still to be decided. There seems to be a three-way battle between Norwich, Sheffield United and Leeds for the top two spots and though, as we all know, anything can, and will, occur in this division, at present, a play-off place is what it seems Boro will have to settle for.
LAST TIME OUT – BRENTFORD 1-2 MIDDLESBROUGH
Tony Pulis’ side, at the time, moved up to second in the Championship after a narrow defeat at Griffin Park back in November in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Jordan Hugill poked home Jonny Howson’s pass to give the visitors the lead before Marcus Tavernier added a second just after the hour mark. Alan Judge struck his first league goal since February 2016 to offer the Bees a glimmer of hope after 75 minutes, but Boro held firm.
Currently on a three-match unbeaten run in the league, Middlesbrough ended February with a 1-0 victory over Blackburn and a 2-0 win over QPR, before playing out a stalemate against Wigan at the DW Stadium last time out. Prior to that, they were edged out 1-0 by Sheffield United at Bramall Lane and though they avoided defeat in their first five league games of 2019, they didn’t keep a solitary clean sheet until the victory over Rovers at Ewood Park on 17 February.
THE STAR MAN
There are a number of candidates to take this title: 21-year-old academy graduate Dael Fry has been a revelation in defence during his first full season in the starting lineup at the Riverside, while Mo Besic and Jonny Howson have, as ever, impressed in the midfield unit. Recently, though, Jon Obi Mikel returned to the UK from Chinese Super League outfit Tianjin TEDA and has turned in some eye-catching performances as he and his club both seek a return to the Premier League as soon as possible.
Judging by recent fixtures, Tony Pulis is likely to employ a formation which is a variation of a setup with three at the back, with 3-5-2 having often been favoured. Previous lineup: Randolph, Fry, Shotton, Friend, Howson, Mikel, Besic, Saville, Wing, Fletcher, Assombalonga.