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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.



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.

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Aston Villa

Aston Villa’s James Chester comes back to haunt former manager Tony Pulis

The Welsh defender came back to bit his old boss in the play-off semi clash.

Max Cohen



James Chester
Photo: Getty Images

Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough side were expertly stifled by Aston Villa in their play-off semifinal, as the Villans held Boro to 180 minutes of scoreless football.

Villa centre-half James Chester was a constant rock at the back, revealing to Pulis that his former boss was wrong to sell him when the two were together at West Bromwich Albion.

Chester signed for the Baggies from Hull City in the summer of 2015, after five impressive seasons for the Tigers. The fee was reported to be in the region of £8 million and many expected the Welsh international to excel in the back four under Pulis.

Yet, frustratingly for the centre-back, Chester made only 13 league appearances for the Baggies in the 2015/16 campaign. The Welshman started just nine Premier League matches all season, as Pulis clearly did not consider him as first-choice at the Hawthorns.

After just one year at West Brom, Chester was sold to Championship side Aston Villa in 2016.

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

In the following two seasons at Villa Park, the centre-back has enjoyed tremendous success, making over 75 appearances and establishing himself as an indispensable presence at the back.

This season, Chester has struck up a formidable partnership with former Chelsea captain John Terry.

The airtight defensive combination was on full display during the two matches against Middlesbrough, as Chester and Terry stifled the high-octane Boro attack.

Featuring the likes of Britt Assambalonga, Adama Traore, Stewart Downing, Patrick Bamford, and Rudy Gestede, the Teesiders’ star-studded frontline was held scoreless due to Villa’s superb defense- led by James Chester.

As Tony Pulis watched his side run out of ideas and fall to a 1-0 aggregate defeat, he will surely be ruing his 2016 mistake.

Allowing James Chester to be sold to Aston Villa truly came back to haunt the Boro boss, as the Welsh international delivered Pulis a dramatic reminder of his abilities and cost the Teesiders a spot at Wembley.

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Nottingham Forest should seek George Friend reunion with Aitor Karanka

The experienced defender would solve a problem position at Forest.

Max Cohen



George Friend
Photo: Getty Images

Tuesday night brought disappointment for George Friend and Middlesbrough, as the Teesiders crashed out of the play-offs after a tepid 0-0 draw with Aston Villa.

Condemned to another season in the Championship, Friend should move to Nottingham Forest and reunite with former boss Aitor Karanka in order to fire Forest to promotion.

The signing of the 30-year-old Englishman would offer Karanka a top-quality full-back who has Premier League and Championship experience.

Friend played under Karanka from 2013-2017, enjoying numerous fruitful seasons as Boro thrived under the Spaniard’s direction.

The full-back played an integral role in Boro’s dominant 2015/16 promotion campaign, featuring 40 times as the club finished second in the league.

(Photo by Lindsey Parnaby/Getty Images)

The acquisition of the experienced defender would be welcomed at the City Ground due to Forest’s lack of depth in the left back position.

According to a column written by former Nottingham Forest player Kenny Burns, the left back position has been a worry for the club all season long.

Ben Osborn has deputised well, but is not a defender by trade, and Juan Rafael Fuentes’ performances were mediocre before he suffered a serious injury in late April against Barnsley.

It is clear that Nottingham Forest need a consistent, experienced left-back, and George Friend would be the perfect summer signing.

The influence of Karanka could prove crucial in prying the defender away from the Riverside Stadium, as the two have a close relationship thanks to their time at Boro together.

If Forest can secure the services of the Middlesbrough defender, then a promotion push might not be out of the question next season.

ddWith an experienced and impressive player like George Friend, Karanka’s side would be set to challenge for the top-six.

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Tottenham should swoop for Middlesbrough’s electrifying winger Adama Traore

The Spaniard is finally turning raw talent into end product.

Max Cohen



Photo: Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur have been persistently linked with a move for Fulham youngster Ryan Sessegnon, with recent reports in French outlet Paris United claiming that the north Londoners have already agreed a transfer.

But Spurs should resist a move for the 17-year-old and instead turn their focus to Middlesbrough star Adama Traore, the winger who tops WhoScored’s ratings for the best Championship player.

Traore is perhaps the most exciting raw talent in the entire division, possessing scintillating pace and remarkable explosiveness.

Crucially for the ex-Barcelona man, he has finally turned his natural talent into end product this campaign.

The 22-year-old has scored five goals and assisted ten for Boro, en route to amassing a remarkable 7.79 average WhoScored rating – the best in the league, by some distance.

His talents were on the show during Middlesbrough’s play-off semi-final against Aston Villa on Saturday, with the Spanish under-21 international representing Boro’s most dangerous offensive outlet.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Traore was a constant thorn in the Villa backline, using his magnificent acceleration and lightning quick turn of pace to elude defenders and get to dangerous crossing positions at ease.

The winger’s low centre of gravity and devastating feints give opposition players nightmares, a skill that would be welcomed at White Hart Lane.

After signing for Villa in 2015, the attacker struggled in an injury-hit debut season in England. A transfer to Middlesbrough followed, where the Spaniard suffered his second relegation in a row.

Now Traore has truly matured to English football and would be a superbly exciting signing for Mauricio Pochettino.

While Spurs have been linked with wingers such as Wilfried Zaha and Sessegnon to brighten up the club’s attack, Traore represents the ideal signing for White Hart Lane.

Finally able to consistently produce goals and assists in England, combined with his trademark swagger and skill, Adama Traore would be a fantastic addition to Tottenham this summer.

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