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Middlesbrough

Five New Year’s Resolutions for Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough

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Photo: Reuters

Is there anything more cringe worthy than a football cliché? But clichés are clichés for a reason and the New Year’s Day clash between Middlesbrough and Preston was truly a game of two halves.

Boro were fortunate to be only 2-1 down at half time after being played off the park by the home team, only for a change of formation and some inspired substitutions to help turn the game on its head.

In truth, Preston still deserved something from the game and will have left Deepdale wondering how they lost a match in which they registered twenty shots, almost three times as many as the visitors.

Given how terrible 2017 was, anyone with a Boro allegiance will have been happy to pick up the win regardless of the circumstances, although the performance still leaves a number of questions for Tony Pulis to answer.

So swiftly onto another cliché, the New Year’s Resolution list…

Favoured Formation

Garry Monk tried almost every formation possible during his disastrous days as Boro manager. As a result, the players often seemed unsure as to what role they were expected to play and displays were disjointed. Pulis’s experiment with 4-3-3 at Preston backfired as the Lilywhites ran amok in the first 45 minutes.

However, Boro looked much more solid when reverting to the 4-2-3-1 which gained them promotion during their last Championship campaign. The majority of the squad had this system ingrained into their consciousness in the Aitor Karanka days; reverting back to it may be the way forward for Pulis and in doing so it could also cure another big Boro curse…

Contain the Crosses

Boro have been the Championship’s Dracula this season, with teams simply putting in a cross to the back post to drive a stake through the heart of the club’s defence. It was hoped that a manager as defensively minded as Pulis would put paid to that tactic, yet Villa and Preston have plundered three goals using that simplest of strategies.

Will Pulis opt for a tactical tweak that looks to prevent the cross being put in, or will it be a question of adjusting the positional play so that balls into the Boro box are once again blasted away by the foreheads of Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala?

Siphoning the squad

“It’s a big squad so there are players there I need time to look at and assess”, said Pulis shortly after the 1-0 reverse to Aston Villa. With the transfer window open though, time is in short supply. A number of players have been tested by Pulis in the Villa and PNE games, so the FA cup derby against Sunderland looks like a final audition for some.

Adam Clayton and Adam Forshaw were starring in the Premier League early last season but haven’t had a look-in under Pulis. Britt Assombalonga has been subbed in the last two games.

Promising youngsters Fry and Tavernier, one of the only bright spots of Monk’s reign, are yet to feature for a manager who stated during his time as Stoke boss that he would rather spend the academy budget on a squad player. Expect the January sales to start soon at the Riverside.

Backroom boys

Normally when a new manager arrives he comes with an entourage of coaches, scouts and analysts. Initially Pulis was the only person to replace Monk and his team, although a goalkeeping coach and his long serving assistant Dave Kemp have since been announced.

Monk had to do without an assistant manager thanks to Boro’s very own Lord Lucan, Steve Agnew, who has now surfaced at Villa, but can Pulis really manage this team with just his two additions plus Jonathan Woodgate for support?

The length of Pulis’s deal has not been disclosed by the club, so perhaps an agreement is only in place until the end of the season which makes Steve Gibson reluctant to cough up for support staff. If that is the case, then questions over the lack of vision at the club will arise again, particularly if Boro are looking for their fifth manager in two seasons come summer 2018.

There are plenty of posers for Pulis to ponder. With pressure on to get the results desperately needed to keep Boro in pursuit of promotion and the clock already ticking on the January transfer window, we can expect plenty of activity on and off the pitch in the coming weeks. It certainly promises to be anything but that word so frequently associated with Pulis, dull!

Championship

Martin Braithwaite finally scores, but Middlesbrough won’t get £7m for the Dane

The Dane has struggled to find his best form on loan at Bordeaux.

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In the summer Garry Monk decided to improve the striking options at Middlesbrough. He spent big on Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher, but before that snapped up Danish international Martin Braithwaite from French side Toulouse.

It was a costly deal. According to a report from Sky Sports, Boro spent £9 million to sign the player.

But things didn’t pan out the way Braithwaite would have liked. The 26-year-old scored six goals for Boro but Monk was soon on his way and the Dane found himself out of favour under the new manager Tony Pulis.

(Photo credit should read NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images)

With that in mind, he was sent out on loan back to France in the winter. The 26-year-old forward joined Bordeaux on loan until the end of the season in order to play first-team football ahead of the World Cup in Russia.

This weekend saw him score in Ligue 1. Bordeaux defeated Montpellier 3-1 away from home, with Braithwaite starting the scoring in the ninth minute.

But this was his first goal for the French side. Braithwaite finally ended his drought with the French side, scoring after nine previous appearances for the club.

(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

His lack of goals since moving to France has certainly justified Middlesbrough’s decision to let him move on in the winter.

Boro, who are still chasing the Championship play-off places, have not missed out on the Dane. In the summer, according to the Daily Mail, the French side have the option to but Braithwaite for a fee of £7 million. But given his struggles since making the move, it would be a shock to see that fee being spent by the Ligue 1 side.

Middlesbrough. May have to try and find another buyer or give him another chance to shine at the Riverside.

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Championship

Middlesbrough made a mistake by appointing Tony Pulis

Tony Pulis has experienced a disappointing start to life at the Riverside Stadium.

Jake Jackman

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Middlesbrough
Photo: Getty Images

Middlesbrough are at risk of missing out on the play-offs after a disappointing away loss to Sheffield United this week.

The defeat means that Tony Pulis’ side have taken only five points from their last five fixtures.

At this stage of the season, momentum is a huge factor and the Teesside club have lost theirs.

Meanwhile, Millwall have won nine of their last 11 matches and haven’t lost in the Championship since the first day of the year.

This season was all about promotion for Middlesbrough and their summer recruitment highlighted that.

The relegated club spent just over £50 million, according to transfermarket.co.uk, and started the season as the favourites to win the Championship.

It is a thankless task to return at the first attempt and only five clubs have managed it during the past five seasons, with only two of those finishing in the automatic promotion places.

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Although Middlesbrough have been competing in the top half for the majority of the season, they haven’t stood out as one of the better teams in the division.

They are currently 23 points behind league leaders Wolves and that is a testament to the challenges posed by the division.

Tony Pulis was appointed in December and it was an appointment made with the view of becoming an established Premier League club as he has never been relegated as a manager.

However, he has only won promotion from the second tier once and that came ten years ago.

As years past, managers become pigeonholed as specialists at certain jobs and his spell at Middlesbrough suggests that the Welshman is better suited to fire-fighting at the bottom of the top-flight rather than challenging for promotion to it.

That is in contrast to managerial peers Neil Warnock and Steve Bruce.

Neither have managed to have Pulis’ success in the Premier League, but they have both become renowned for thriving in the Championship.

During his 20-match spell at the club, Pulis has led the club to nine victories.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

To put this into context, his win percentage of 45% is only fractionally higher than the 42.86% he managed with Crystal Palace when fighting relegation.

Considering the quality in the Boro squad and ambitions of the club, to win less than half of the matches in charge is disappointing.

It is interesting to note that Middlesbrough have kept only six clean sheets in that period of matches and that is a worrying sign for Pulis.

He is a manager known for making teams difficult to beat and it appears that he is struggling to marry that while threatening in attack.

In his previous jobs, there has been less pressure to play attacking football as the objective was to remain rather than progress.

The team selected to play against Sheffield United showed the quality that remains at the club.

Ben Gibson, Jonny Howson, Stewart Downing and Adama Traore were all in the starting eleven among others.

(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Traore has been a revelation this season and benefitted from a season outside of the Premier League, but a better coach would be able to get more from him and the rest of the attack.

They have four matches remaining and their fate remains in their own hands, as they have Millwall left to play at the Riverside Stadium.

That is shaping up to be a huge match during the penultimate week of the regular season.

At the time of writing, there is only one winner on paper and that isn’t Middlesbrough.

There was logic behind appointing Pulis. He is an experienced Premier League manager who is very good at stabilising a team in the top flight.

In time, Middlesbrough will need this, but he isn’t the right fit for the club right now and that will be clear if they miss out on a play-off position.

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Brentford

Who will win the race for the Sky Bet Championship play-offs?

The Championship play-offs are just around the corner.

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Photo: Getty Images

The Championship is a league renowned for its unpredictability and twists and turns in what is a 46 game long season.

On any given weekend, any team can beat another which makes it one of the closest and exciting leagues in the world.

This season has proved no different, with six teams still competing for a play-off place with just six games to go.

In 5th place currently is Derby on 68 points, three points clear of 7th placed Millwall with a game in hand.

They are at the moment the favourites to secure a play-off spot, with the top three having already practically guaranteed their places if they do not gain automatic promotion.

Aston Villa look to set to join them, with a maximum of eight points needed from their last five games to be sure of making the play-offs.

Gary Rowett’s side have bounced back well from the loss of Johnny Russell in January to the MLS and a string of first-team injuries that have decimated the squad in recent months.

Most of their stars, including Tom Huddlestone and Joe Ledley, returned for their 1-0 away win over Preston on Easter Monday, a result that was desperately needed.

They followed that up with a 3-0 win over Bolton at the weekend, and the goals of Matej Vydra plus the defensive experience of Curtis Davies and Scott Carson should see them over the line.

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Two points behind them in 6th is Tony Pulis’s Middlesbrough, who have seen an upturn in form since the former West Brom man took over in December.

Pulis is known for his defensive style of play but Middlesbrough have scored plenty since he came in, with Adama Traore in particular impressing.

A club like Boro will be expecting play-offs as a minimum, and you would expect them to achieve that goal given the quality of their squad, although even if they don’t get there this season, they will be one of the favourites to go up next season under Pulis.

(Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

The surprise package of this season has been Millwall, with Neil Harris leading his side to an unexpected 7th place berth at this stage of the season.

The Lions have only lost one game all season, that being on New Years’ Day at Norwich.

They have relied on a mixture of youth and experience, with younger players like Jake Cooper, Jed Wallace and George Saville complemented by the likes of veteran Steve Morison, and an immense run of form has given them every chance of making the play-offs, which would be a remarkable achievement.

Most fans surely would have been happy with a mid-table finish on their return to the Championship, but they have defied expectations so far.

They face tricky trips to Middlesbrough and Sheffield United, and home games against Fulham and Aston Villa, but win at least a couple of those and the Lions could be roaring at the end of the league season.

(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Behind them on 62 points is Bristol City, who have had a mixed run of form since the turn of the year.

They briefly went 2nd in the table after a Boxing Day win against Reading, just a week after Lee Johnson’s side defeated Manchester United to reach the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup.

They eventually lost on aggregate to Manchester City after giving them a stern test, but have only won twice since then.

Like Millwall, they too face a trip to the Riverside to play Middlesbrough and host Sheffield United on the final day, but they are only four points off the top six and can still make it in.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Another side who had an excellent first half of the season is Sheffield United, Chris Wilder’s side briefly sitting in top spot after a 2-1 away win against Leeds in October.

They have fallen away since then, currently sitting 9th and behind Bristol City on goal difference, but regardless of whether they qualify for the play-offs or not, it has still been a good season for Wilder’s men.

They drew 1-1 with Cardiff last week, a game which they had the better chances in, showing the fine margins that exist in the Championship.

The Blades lost in the Yorkshire derby against Barnsley on Saturday, a result that puts them four points behind Middlesbrough.

They host Preston before the season is out, a game which could still prove crucial for both teams, and also play Bristol City and Millwall.

Brentford sit just one point behind them in 10th, having shown some resurgence in recent weeks.

Their transfer policy is a very effective one, using a stats model to sign players both from England and all around the world.

Some of their signings appear to be gelling together well, with summer signing Neal Maupay netting the winner in both of their previous two games.

Manager Dean Smith has been linked with Premier League jobs in the past, and has done an excellent job at the Bees, who will surely be challenging at the end of the season.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The final team that have a realistic chance of reaching the play-offs is Preston North End, Alex Neil’s side currently occupying 11th place on 60 points.

They have lost their last three league games, although they were unlucky to lose against Derby and had the fair share of possession and chances against Reading.

Neil’s side face only one team out of the top 11 in the remaining fixtures – Sheffield United – which could work in their favour.

They have missed the firepower of top scorer Sean Maguire, who missed four months of the season due to injury, but his return has boosted the team, who have seen some outstanding performances already this season from the likes of Ben Davies, Ben Pearson and Alan Browne.

If Neil’s side can get substantial points out of their remaining games, they still have a chance of qualifying for the play-offs, although like the teams above them up to 7th, will need to rely on Derby and Middlesbrough dropping points.

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