Championship 2018-19: Week 5
Tue 28 Aug – 19:45: Boro v Rochdale (EFL Cup)
Fri 31 Aug – 17:00: Transfer Loan Window Closes
Fri 31 Aug – 19:45: Leeds v Boro
Having pushed his players to the top of the mountain in an attempt to gain the potential energy required to achieve peak fitness, Tony Pulis’s team have now shaken off any apparent pre-season legginess in their limbs and are now seemingly on a roll as they start to gather momentum in the embryonic promotion race. As yet no signs of the Boro hardened promotion stone gathering any of that Monk moss that lead to repeated fluffing of lines as the progress up the table was hindered. It seems the sum of the compact squad’s re-invigorated parts have so far added up to something a whole lot greater than many had anticipated following key departures – especially if the supposedly unmovable obstacle waiting in our path in West Yorkshire can also be negotiated ahead of the international break.
With Boro dropping just two points from their first five games, it’s got the statisticians trawling through the records to measure the achievement in the prerequisite ‘best since’ bracket – with the counter currently standing at best since 1994-95, when the club also managed 13 points at this stage. You may recall that season was Bryan Robson’s first in charge as Boro’s player-manager and he opened with four straight wins against Burnley, Southend, Bolton and Derby, before drawing at Watford. A 2-2 draw against Sunderland was then followed by victory over West Brom before the first defeat of the season away at Port Vale, which was the only loss in the opening ten games as Boro sat on 23 points at the first significant milestone. The omens may be good as Boro went up as champions that season – though it was with the relatively low total of just 80 points. That was just one point ahead of Reading in second, who missed out in the play-offs as only one automatic slot was made available when the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams from 22. In the end, despite only losing one of their last ten games, Boro just managed to hang on to top spot after drawing four of the last five games.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Boro are still facing the age-old problem of how to attract players to the club. Perhaps the main reason Steve Gibson chose the untested former Manchester United and England captain, Bryan Robson, as manager was to add some glamour and pulling power to Teesside. After joining the club, Robbo brought with him Viv Anderson and Clayton Blackmore from Old Trafford – also arriving was cult hero Uwe Fuchs from Germany and then later in March (in those nostalgic pre-transfer window days) came Jan Åge Fjørtoft for £1.3m to score some vital late goals. Of course not all the glamour came from abroad and big clubs like Man Utd, some of it was home grown too and perhaps the epitome of it was in the shape of Jamie Pollock, who emulated Gary Lineker as he went on to play in La Liga on his strict regime of Tudor crisps – albeit in the second tier in Pamplona for a couple of outings before returning to wet and windy Wednesday evenings with the Trotters after failing to take the bull by the horns in Navarre. Nevertheless, Robson’s arrival that season heralded the start of the transformation of Boro from an unglamorous club in a remote corner of England to an unglamorous destination for some of the biggest names in the game.
Unfortunately, the game has moved on and Steve Gibson’s financial clout is nothing more than a clip round the ear in today’s game dominated by billionaires and super-agents. The model developed back then is no longer viable for a small Brexit town in Europe who are now currently looking for value for money and the club have instead reverted to the no-nonsense common-sense approach of veteran manager Tony Pulis. The Boro faithful on Teesside don’t expect to be competing for the signatures of those who play regularly for the big Champions League clubs any time soon. In fact, this transfer window has shown that unless Boro decide to throw money around, they have to wait orderly in the queue until the likes of Villa have finished trying to impress our potential targets with their past glories.
Having said that, the irony is that it’s self-styled ‘big clubs’ trading on former glories signing players who are also trading on the past when they were going to be the next big thing. Yannick Bolasie turned down Boro after declaring “I looked around both Villa Park and the training ground, and me and my family just said, ‘wow’. It’s Premier League everywhere you look.” – though presumably they neglected to look at the fixture list on the wall that said loud and clear that the West Midlands club are still most definitely a Championship outfit and have been for the last three seasons. Incidentally, Stewart Downing is still Villa’s second biggest signing at £12m after moving from Boro back in 2009 – he sits behind Darren Bent who apparently cost somewhere between £18-24m from Sunderland and managed just 20 goals in four seasons before heading off on loan to Fulham, Derby and Brighton. You would suspect that the price of returning to challenge at the top of the pyramid is going to take very serious investment indeed before they can once again be taken serious as a ‘big club’.
At least Tony Pulis finally persuaded Mo Besic that his future in the short term lay on Teesside – though perhaps in the end both parties knew the best financial package on offer would need to include a contribution from the deeper pockets of Everton if the player wasn’t going to have to take a pay cut. Whether his agent did indeed ask for around a couple of million quid at the last minute to seal the deal doesn’t seemed to have affected the move. It may have even been a tactic designed to push it beyond the permanent move deadline – or at worse pocket a huge wad from a club desperate enough to pay.
With still a few days to go in the loan market, we may be about to enter a frenetic stage of transfer activity with some incomings leading to possible outgoings. The fact that loan deals can have buy-on clauses inserted that get triggered in January only makes a nonsense of the system. It will make little difference to the clubs once their accountants have sliced up the spending on the playing assets and spread them over the contract duration or added loan fees. Clubs will buy if they have the opportunity or means to do so, otherwise it will be a matter of making the numbers work for all parties with a loan deal. Joe Hart made the point that older players favour a permanent deal over loans as they are looking to settle in a club rather than move their families around – whereas younger players are looking for a chance to impress and get regular football. However, for the club paying for a player, they would most likely prefer the opposite – buying an older player with limited sell-on value and wanting a bigger contract is an expensive risk but young talent offers the possibility of profits down the line. Both sides will no doubt have to settle for something in the middle.
The Boro manager indicated last week that he owed it to his chairman to try and bring in players at the right age who would be assets for the club. By which he probably means ones in their mid-twenties rather than those looking for their last contract. There are reports that Boro are getting close to persuading Millwall to part with George Saville to add to their increasing row of midfielders. Hopefully he’s the tailor-made box-to-box midfielder that will be well suited to Tony Pullis’s new pressing style of play. Saville has spent 18 months at the Den and scored 10 goals last season – which is something the Boro engine room has lacked in recent seasons. We are also told he can play as a false number ten, which may have a few people who have been waiting for a real number ten wondering what that actually means. Apparently a false number ten lines up behind the striker but moves out wide when receiving the ball to overload the wings with a regular wide player or full-back. There are even discussions of how a false number ten can play with a false number nine but it may require more chalk and arrows than my virtual blackboard can cope with. The main issue at Boro is having teams with false dawns. Incidentally, Saville was also at the Chelsea academy before being sold to Wolves for £1m – with many on the message boards claiming they were “done” by Chelsea at that modest price.
Tony Pulis’s effective tactical variations have seemingly been foisted upon him by his limited options and recently claimed of the 3-5-2 formation: “It’s a system that we are playing at the moment because we haven’t got the wide players that we would like to have. If we can get a couple of wide players then we can be adaptable.” all of which may make some wonder whether Boro’s better than expected standing in the table was an accident that could have been avoided. Though the switch to a kind of 3-4-3 against West Brom certainly stopped the Baggies scoring spree in its tracks – though that came at the expense of dropping Lewis Wing and playing Downing in a more central playmaker role – actually similar to the one he enjoyed at West Ham. It seems Pulis still wants those wide players and the usual suspects of Sheyi Ojo and Robert Snodgrass are still being linked. Though latest reports suggest Ojo is to trade his number 54 Liverpool shirt for a loan to Belgium – with Snodgrass being challenged by Pellegrini to resurrect his or indeed both of their careers at the rock-bottom West Ham and has turned down a call-up by Scotland to focus on retaining his place at the Hammers.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Boro’s improvement is that the process of de-Karankifaction of the midfield mindset looks to be almost complete as the team now moves forward with purpose rather than reluctance. It appears that purpose is no longer focused on simply retaining possession by playing the ball in areas that the opposition are happy to let Boro boost their pass completion stats in. Thankfully, Boro now play with just one holding midfielder instead of three and even Clayton in that holding role has improved his distribution with Howson suddenly looking like the player he was sold as in a full-energy driving role. It may well be that with this extreme pressing game, Boro will need to have a couple of central midfielders available on the bench to freshen up tiring limbs in the final 20-30 minutes – especially with regular midweek games.
There are also suggestions that Boro still lack a goal scorer who can put away the chances that make automatic promotion a real possibility and it may be an outside chance we get a surprise striker before Friday. It will no doubt mean a couple will be heading for a Riverside exit – with interest in Fletcher and Gestede being muted from former Boro managers at Birmingham and Forest. Also expected to leave are those on the fringes like Marvin Johnson, who is wanted by the Blades and Julian De Sart, who has become less visible than the invisible man on Teesside.
Tuesday sees the second round of the Caraboa Cup, with Rochdale riding into town to take on Boro’s young guns. For many of the youngsters the prospect of being part of the senior squad seems to be slipping away with each signing and one hopes their enthusiasm to impress won’t be diminished as a result. Perhaps we’ll see a young defence again but with the likes of Leadbitter, McNair and Besic needing some pitch time it could be an experienced midfield. Up front Gestede, Hugill and Fletcher may also get an outing with Tavernier and Wing offering the pace.
Much will depend on Pulis’s plans for the main event on Friday as Boro will be looking to go into the International break in good spirits. Avoiding defeat against Leeds in the first 32Red derby of the season is probably the preference for most Boro followers. The prospect of having to wait two weeks to get it out of our system will perhaps leave many by day 11 predicting relegation as the likely impact of this setback. Of course win and we won’t want the break to end as staring at the top of the table becomes the pass-time of choice on Teesside – with some possibly opting for cutting out as many newspaper copies as they can find to fill in the hours of the international snooze-fest. At least the worst-case scenario is that only Bolton can equal our points total providing they win at Preston. In addition, with only four clubs on nine points, two of whom play each other in Sheffield United and Villa, plus Derby and Blackburn play away too – then three points on Friday holds the intriguing prospect of opening up a five point gap on third spot for the winners.
We know Tony Pulis has confessed to preferring not to lose over winning, so it’s possible he’ll employ similar tactics to those on show against West Brom last Friday. Although, he has tended towards a back four when playing away from home and has gone for the extra midfielder instead. Leeds are the Championship’s top scorers and perhaps that will drive his thinking on tactics – though Boro have the meanest defence and have not conceded for over 400 minutes. It will be the biggest test so far but we shouldn’t overlook that if either Sheffield United, Bristol City or West Brom had beaten us then they would be sitting one place above us in second spot. It should be a good encounter between the Championship form sides and perhaps not for the faint-hearted. Let’s hope the cracks don’t appear on Boro’s free-wheeling promotion stone as it continues to keep on rolling!