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

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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.

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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