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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.



Tony Pulis
Photo: Getty Images

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.

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Middlesbrough defender Dael Fry could help England bring football home in 2022

The talented Middlesbrough defender has a chance to be a national team star.

Mathew Nash



England are out of the World Cup following defeat against Croatia in the semi-finals last night. But the future looks bright for England. They had the second youngest team in the tournament and are the current under-20 and under-17 World Champions.

So who could help them bring football home at Qatar 2022?

One player who is certainly worth keeping an eye on is Middlesbrough defender Dael Fry.

(Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

The 20-year-old will be 24 come 2022 and is already looking like becoming one of England’s future centre-back options.

Fry has not yet established himself as a regular at Middlesbrough. He played just 12 times in the Championship last season but was a regular on the bench at the Riverside. At his age, this is not unusual for a central defender.

“He’s Mr Consistent really.

“Like a lot of the lads, Dael had a brilliant summer winning the World Cup with the Under-20s, we’re happy to see him building on that with Boro this season.”

– England under-21 boss Aidy Boothroyd on Dael Fry

Boro could lose Ben Gibson this summer, however, which would give Fry the chance to cement himself into the first-team picture on Teesside. Middlesbrough obviously think so, having handed him a new five-year deal in April.

On the international stage Fry has excelled. He was part of England’s under-20 World Cup win last summer and has also won the European under-17 tournament as well as the Toulon Tournament this summer.

With the likes of Phil Jones and Gary Cahill unlikely to be at Qatar in 2022 and with England playing three at the back currently there is room for centre-backs to emerge and make it in four years time.

If Fry can force himself into the Middlesbrough first-team in the years to come then perhaps he could be on the plane to Qatar in four years time.

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Aston Villa

Tony Pulis should take advantage of Aston Villa plight and finally get Scott Hogan

The Irish striker was wanted by Middlesbrough boss Pulis in his previous job.

Mathew Nash



Aston Villa look set to go on something of a firesale this summer, as concerns over their financial standing grow. The Villans have spent big over the past two seasons in order to win promotion back to the Premier League. Following their play-off final defeat to Fulham, it became clear that club chairman Tony Xia had left the club in a sticky situation.

Aston Villa spent big to bring players such as Jonathan Kodjia, Ross McCormack and James Chester to Villa Park. They also paid a lot to sign striker Scott Hogan from Brentford.

As reported by the BBC at the time Aston Villa paid £12 million to sign the striker, beating off plenty of competition to snap him up.

One such club was local rivals West Bromwich Albion. As reported by The Sun in December 2016, West Brom were one of several teams considering a move for the player in the winter window following his brilliant form for the Bees.

But in the end, it was Villa who convinced him to leave Griffin Park.

The manager at West Brom at the time was Tony Pulis. Which begs the question. Should he try again for the Republic of Ireland striker?

(during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Bristol City at Villa Park on January 1, 2018 in Birmingham, England.

Pulis is now manager at fellow play-off failures Middlesbrough who themselves will be pushing for promotion from the Championship next season.

If Hogan is set to be moved on, not many teams in the Championship will be able to afford him. Middlesbrough are one of the few that might be able to put a deal together. Boro have shown they are not afraid to spend big themselves in recent times and Hogan would be a brilliant addition to the striking positions at Boro.

He would complement Britt Assombalonga and Patrick Bamford well, whilst he could also play up top with Rudy Gestede when the Benin striker is back to full fitness.

The bustling striker would suit Pulis’ style and, with Villa looking like they need to move some players on, they would jump at the chance to get a decent amount for the 26-year-old.

Tony Pulis should try and get the striker he wanted at West Brom to make a move to Middlesbrough this summer.

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Middlesbrough should be gutted to be losing Aitor Karanka signing Antonio Barragan

The Middlesbrough defender has been in fine form at loan club Real Betis.

Mathew Nash



Middlesbrough came up short in their hunt for Premier League football last season. After relegation under Aitor Karanka, they could not quite make their way back to the top-flight under the guidance of both Garry Monk or his replacement Tony Pulis.

Next season they are however in a great place to try again and push for promotion to the Premier League.

New faces are bound to arrive at the club and Middlesbrough also have several loanees who will hope to have an impact at the Riverside next season. Unfortunately for Boro, one of them will not be returning.

(Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Antonio Barragan has played a qualifying amount of games to earn a permanent move to La Liga side Real Betis permanently this summer. The reason why it is bad news is the form he showed at the Benito Villamarin this season.

The 30-year-old had an excellent season with the Verdiblancos. A regular in the right-back position he featured 31 times in all competitions for the club. He also managed a very impressive six assists and was one of the more consistent performers for the Seville side.

It was such form that Karanka had hoped for when Barragan was signed by Middlesbrough in a deal worth around £1.5 million in the summer of 2017. Whilst he did not have a terrible season on Teesside, it was nowhere near as impressive as he has been with Betis this term or in his previous stint at Valencia.

Barragan is now on his way out of the club and Middlesbrough never got to see the best from the 30-year-old full-back. Judging by his displays for Betis this season, that appears to be a real shame.

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