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Luck or Judgement: Middlesbrough’s late Championship play-off push

Tony Pulis has turned things around at the Riverside to earn Boro a play-off place.

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Middlesbrough
Photo: Getty Images

Call it luck, call it fate, call it good management.

Whatever you call it, Middlesbrough’s run to the playoffs, secured after grinding out a 2-0 win over momentum team Millwall, has featured a few sliding doors moments.

The upturn in performances and results since March has coincided with injuries and suspensions to key Pulis men.

The resulting tactical shifts have ironically served Boro well as we shall see.

Is Pulis lucky or does it show his adaptability? Perhaps to be successful you need both.

Rudy Gestede injury

(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

In stereotypical Pulis fashion, the early part of his reign at Boro saw him overlook top scorer and record signing Britt Assombalonga and former Championship Player of the Year Patrick Bamford in favour of the biggest, most physical striker on the Boro books: Rudy Gestede.

Boro struggled for goals and results and Gestede took most of the fans ire for perceived favouritism and an agricultural style of football that wasn’t the easiest on the eye.

Nonetheless, when it finally clicked, with Gestede bagging a brace against Hull at the Riverside, the target man broke his ankle. We all wondered how Boro would cope without a player who was so integral to the Pulis style of play.

Patrick Bamford was introduced to the team in his favoured striking position, Boro stopped playing quite so direct, and the Englishman bagged seven goals in his next four games as the club went on an unbeaten run which saw them climb into play-off off places.

Grant Leadbitter suspension

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Despite the upturn in results, Pulis still hadn’t got the balance right in midfield, a problem that had hungover from the reign of Gary Monk.

The addition of Muhamed Besic had brought quality to this area of the pitch but, regardless of whether a midfield two or three were chosen, Boro tended to lose the central battle and contributed very few goals from this position.

Club captain Grant Leadbitter had featured regularly under Pulis, with Jonny Howson usually being the one to miss out if changes were made to the Boro engine room.

That all changed when Boro visited play off rivals Sheffield United. More common failings under Monk surfaced; a slow start and a defeat to a top half team, with the added blow of the skipper getting himself stupidly sent off for two bookings in the first half.

The more defensively minded Adam Clayton was called into the team, which allowed both Howson and Besic to play further forward, utilising their undoubted attacking skills.

Boro went on to beat play-off rivals Bristol City, Derby and Hull. Besic broke forward to score at Derby and Howson repeated the trick against Millwall.

Adding the defensive discipline of Clayton had allowed the Boro midfield to become a more effective attacking outlet.

Bamford KO’d

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

One of the Tony Pulis success stories has been the transformation of Patrick Bamford, a player who looked devoid of confidence, back into the player that terrorised Championship defenders under Aitor Karanka in 2014/15.

Bamford had formed a deadly link up with another Pulis success story, Adama Traore, a combination that was firing Boro to success.

The Riverside regulars were understandably concerned when Bamford was stretchered off against Bristol City, landing head first after challenging for a high ball.

Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt but he was forced to sit out the Derby game. This left Boro with one fit striker, Britt Assombalonga.

The record signing had been one of the few success stories of the Monk scoring 12 goals in the first half of the season.

That changed drastically under Pulis, who dropped and publically criticised Boro’s top scorer.

Brit looked a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the season, scoring only once in 2018.

He fell so short of confidence that he wrestled the ball from Grant Leadbitter in the game against Reading only to send the resulting penalty into orbit.

Few fans expected the Britt we have seen since his return to the team, silencing the Derby fans with a match-winning second Boro goal and grabbing the opener against Millwall.

Is this the result of a player who is determined to prove his manager wrong? Therefore, clever man management by Pulis?

Either way, Boro now have two in-form strikers to call upon, which could be crucial in a tight play-off tie.

Everton

One winner, one loser as Mo Besic heads to Middlesbrough

Everton’s Bosnian midfielder was also linked with Leeds United.

Mathew Nash

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As reported by Sky Sports News, Mo Besic is on the verge of a permanent move to Middlesbrough. The Everton midfielder spent the latter half of last season on loan at the Riverside, impressing during his time at the club.

The deal is said to be worth around £6 million and will help Boro in their push for promotion.

But who else might it help and who has lost out because of this deal?

Here is one winner and one loser from the Besic to Middlesbrough deal…

(Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

Winner – James McCarthy

The Republic of Ireland midfielder is currently out of action after suffering a horror leg-break last season. However, he recently returned to light training and is targeting a return to action before the end of the year.

With Besic out of the way, there is very little stopping him from moving straight back into the first-team fold at Everton with Idrissa Gana Gueye, Morgan Schneiderlin and any potential new central midfield signing.

Loser – Leeds United

Prior to a deal being struck with Boro, it appeared Leeds United might have been closing in on the Bosnian.

Marcelo Bielsa is still in need of a new central midfielder after losing Ronaldo Vieira to Sampdoria.

However, Leeds will now need to look elsewhere in order to fill the void.

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Middlesbrough

Jordan Hugill’s Middlesbrough loan is just what the West Ham outcast needs

The former Preston striker has made just three appearances for the Hammers.

Max Cohen

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Jordan Hugill
Photo: Getty Images

On Wednesday, West Ham striker Jordan Hugill joined Middlesbrough on loan, less than a year after the frontman joined the Hammers from Preston for around £10 million.

The season-long switch to Boro is exactly what the West Ham outcast needs to get his career back on track, as he will become part of a fearsome attacking line at the Riverside Stadium.

Hugill made the big-money Premier League switch to east London in January from Preston North End, but has endured a torrid time at the London Stadium. The striker made just three league appearances for West Ham, racking up a grand total of 22 minutes for the club.

It signifies a harsh change of fortune for Hugill, after he scored 20 goals in his last season and a half at Deepdale.

The 26-year-old Englishman is now desperate for playing time and a return to goalscoring form, and the move to Tony Pulis’ promotion chasing side represents the ideal move for Hugill.

The striker will be returning back to the Championship, a familiar league where Hugill enjoyed his best form as a footballer. In addition, he will be joining forces with an already formidable strikeforce, featuring the likes of Britt Assombalonga, Rudy Gestede, and Ashley Fletcher.

While playing alongside fellow experienced Champisonhip frontmen such as Assombalonga and Gestede, Hugill can rediscover his true form and kickstart his floundering career.

Few would have expected his first four months at West Ham to be so deflating, but the centre-forward now has the opportunity to play consistent football for a quality Championship side.

With crucial first-team minutes under his belt, Jordan Hugill will be primed to reignite his career and become a goal-scoring star on loan at Middlesbrough.

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Middlesbrough

Tony Pulis should target loan reunion with Yannick Bolasie as Adama Traore replacement

Yannick Bolasie was a star for Crystal Palace under Tony Pulis.

Mathew Nash

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Yannick Bolasie appears to be on his way out of Everton this summer. TeamTALK reported yesterday that the DR Congo winger is in danger of being left out of Everton’s 25-man Premier League squad. They also suggest, should Everton fail to find a buyer by Thursday’s deadline, Championship teams could be in luck with a loan move.

If that is the case, then Middlesbrough must make a move.

(Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

The Teessiders are set to lose their star winger. Adama Traore is all set for a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Bolasie would be the perfect replacement.

Everton paid £25 million to sign Bolasie from Crystal Palace in 2016. His ability and skill are not in question. Injury has impacted his time at Goodison Park but he is now fully fit. Bolasie would, therefore, be a bargain if snapped up on a reasonable loan.


“I’ve got a lot of time for Tony Pulis. Yeah (I was sad when he left), a little bit. He’s the one that gave me a lot of confidence. He come in and told me to believe in myself. He kept telling me I’m a ‘top, top player’. Those exact words. And I’d laugh at it. I’d go: ‘Ha ha’. But he said: ‘No, I’m being serious.’”

– Yannick Bolasie on Tony Pulis’ impact


Middlesbrough boss Tony Pulis also knows him well. The Welshman got the best out of Bolasie during his spell working as Crystal Palace manager.

It was a working relationship that was clearly profitable for both parties. It was the sort of form he exhibited under Pulis, that led Everton to spend big on the electric winger two years ago.

If Middlesbrough boss Pulis can lure Bolasie back for a reunion, then they might just have their Traore replacement.

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