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Tony Pulis promotion woes lie in the Middlesbrough engine room

Tony Pulis
Photo: Getty Images

Middlesbrough

Tony Pulis promotion woes lie in the Middlesbrough engine room

Boro are in serious need of a goal scoring presence in the centre of the park.

Abject against Aston Villa, Middlesbrough’s performance in the play-offs mirrored much of their season under manager Tony Pulis.

When up against the true contenders, Boro failed to land a blow, not picking up a win in any of the league fixtures against the four teams that finished above them.

It could be viewed that a 5th place finish provides something for Pulis to build on but the fact that Boro never looked like picking up a win in any of those eight fixtures hints that something serious needs to be changed.

In order to be serious promotion contenders, Boro need to make the small step of beating the divison’s best and that small step is often the most difficult one to make.

Some surgery is required to a key area of the squad in particular – the midfield.

A common Boro failing this season was of the misfiring midfield to function against the better teams in division regardless of what combination of personnel was used.

This was illustrated again in the two play-off games against AgainstVilla as the Boro three struggled against the guile of Jack Grealish and the physicality of Mile Jedinak.

Meanwhile, against Wolverhampton Wanderers, in the 60 minutes he was on the pitch before being sent of, the Boro midfield could get nowhere near Ruben Neves.

So how has what was a strength in the promotion side under Aitor Karanka turned into something of a weakness?

Under Aitor Karanka, the midfield – usually Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter – were instructed to shield the defence at the cost of contributing further up the pitch.

This worked to an extent in the Championship but this negative approach was soon found out in the Premier League, were better teams could dominate a Boro midfield who dropped deep.

Changing to three in midfield and various permutations of players could not wrestle control of the midfield back from the opposition.

Upon relegation, Boro tried a different tact under both Garry Monk and Pulis of allowing the midfield some license to attack. This license was seldom used and is a long standing problem; for the past three seasons no player has scored more than five goals from midfield for the club.

Season Player (s) Goals scored
2017/18 Howson/Leadbitter 3
2016/17 De Roon 4
2015/16 Leadbitter 4

Johnny Howson often looked like he was caught in two minds between whether to defend or attack, with the paltry return of three goals reflective of that indecision.

 

Grant Leadbitter has been a great servant for the club but his legs are gone at this level and he commits too many fouls as a result.

Adam Clayton is a useful defensive shield but rarely plays the ball forward and suffers from nose bleeds when he gets into the final third – the box-to-box midfielder who once scored seven in a season for Huddersfield is yet to be spotted on Teesside.

Muhamed Besic did offer the perfect blend of silk and steel when he arrived on loan during the winter window but even if Everton are prepared to sell him he is unlikely to slum it in the Championship; he is too good for this level.

So what can be done to address the shot shy engine room?

(Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Boro need to add two attributes to the middle of the park, physicality and goals.

Howson started to break into the box more regularly towards the end of the season and was rewarded with successful strikes against Millwall and Forest. Pulis must continue to give him license to break forward next season.

Another solution could be to move Stewart Downing into the middle.

Stewie lacks the legs for the left wing but could be perfect to link midfield to attack from a deeper position, something he did effectively during the early days of the last Premier League campaign, particularly with Clayton to do his tackling and Howson to do his running.

In terms of physicality, both Howson and Clayton aren’t shy when it comes to a tackle but aren’t the most physically imposing.

A midfielder that ticks the boxes Boro need is unlikely to come cheap so it is imperative that Boro make the right signing.

Someone like Mo Diame would provide both the physicality and goals needed from midfield but would he drop down a division?

Jedinak could be picked up on the cheap from cash strapped Villa but, although he ticks the physicality box, he is unlikely to score the goals.

Paddy McNair has been linked by BBC Sport from Sunderland but his job in midfield is very much skewed towards the defensive element of the game.

Such considerations show the challenge ahead if Boro are to fix the engine room and transform themselves from playoff hopefuls to promotion contenders.

Fan of football with a realistic look at life.

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