Championship 2018-19: Week 9
Tue 25 Sep – 19:45: Preston v Boro (EFL Cup)
Sat 29 Sep – 15:00: Hull v Boro
When it comes to surprises, there can be few Boro followers who bore the shocked expressions of disbelief on their faces as they discover that Tony Pulis has now built a team in his image to pragmatically tackle the task ahead. As those anticipating more entertaining football pinned their hopes into the over-inflated balloon of their wider aesthetic aspirations, the barely audible bang was neither unexpected or startling. The Boro manager has primarily built sides not to lose and generally works on the basic principal that if the opposition don’t score they can’t beat you.
Tony Pulis last week proffered the somewhat radical hypothesis that the teams who concede the fewest goals will generally finish in the top two – with the supporting evidence put forward that Wolves and Cardiff had the meanest defences last term after only conceding 39 each. Those fond of the art of extrapolation, will be pleased to hear that if Boro continue in their current vein they will end the season with a mere 15 goals tarnishing the against column, with possibly every one known by name. Nevertheless, many were disappointed with the stalemate at home to Swansea after it turned out to be a missed opportunity to go clear at the top following Leeds first defeat of the season. Though in retrospect, following a game of limited goalmouth action, it was perhaps not unexpected to learn that matches involving both clubs have seen the fewest number of goals so far this season – with Boro’s lucky followers witnessing just one more than the 13 that supporters of Swansea have enjoyed.
It’s hard to envisage under Pulis that defensive solidity will be sacrificed in the quest for finding a more expansive attacking game – especially with only one goal conceded in the last eight games. Scoring goals has been a long-standing issue for Boro and indeed keeping it tight has become the mantra for many a cautious manager on Teesside over the years. Of course, the amazing Aitor Karanka was the embodiment of that game-plan and some may or may not be surprised to see that his Forest side have actually scored the same number of goals as Pulis’s high flyers – though I suspect even more will be surprised to see that this is also the same total of the more attack-minded Tony Mowbray at Blackburn. However, 11 goals each for those former managers is positively prolific compared to both Garry Monk’s Brum and Steve McClaren’s Hoops, who have seen their teams only net a less than magnificent seven – as one of them might say. It’s perhaps a similar curse that quickly turns any previously prolific striker arriving on Teesside into a wandering minstrel, who first loses his mojo, before hanging up his banjo in the cow shed.
Clubs who have aspirations of promotion normally find a way of getting the ball into the back of the net and supporters will be well aware from recent campaigns of how a lack of goals can hinder a push for an automatic spot. Whilst Karanka’s teams were also mean in defence, they often missed out on points due to their failure to trouble the opposition – with many believing only the arrival of Gaston Ramirez subsequently gave his ultra-organised team that improvised creative spark to secure a top two finish. Perhaps it is inevitable once the players have been tutored through many training exercises that their ability to ad-lib is diminished by concentrating on adhering to the instructions of the game-plan hatched by a perfectionist manager.
Until the players have become comfortable in their primary roles on the pitch, we may be waiting a little while yet before we see some fast flowing attacking football start to emerge on it. Though, we shouldn’t think that the likes of Pep and Klopp don’t spend many hours in training honing the apparent instinctive attacking football they regularly serve up. But for teams set-up like Boro, it will be more likely that pouncing on the second ball and taking advantage of mistakes will prove most productive. The problem faced now is that there is little element of surprise when Boro’s big players gather at corners, long throws and free kicks with their rehearsed lines – it’s all about placing psychologically pressure in the minds of defenders and looking to take advantage of errors. Not exactly a blueprint for breath-taking football but still statistically solid in terms of finishing near the top of the table – which is mainly what Championship football is now about for aspiring promotion contenders.
However, Boro once again have appeared less than lethal in front of goal when it matters and maybe a few players would benefit from some shooting practice. It’s now just three goals in our last five games, a creative block made worse by the fact that those were reliant on two dodgy Trotters gifts and an Ayala injury-time steal against the Baggies where he escaped being caught red-handed following suspect control of a stinging cross. Clear-cut opportunities have been at a premium and therefore it will be important to take whatever chances come our way. Glaring misses are the age old problem and it could be anecdotally a close contest with many a supporter’s grandmother as to whom could have done better.
Although, you may have heard this week that some old ladies can indeed be pretty lethal, with reports that great-grandmother Judy Cochran killed a 560lb alligator on her ranch in Texas after blaming it for eating one of her miniature ponies two-years earlier. OK, not quite yet in the Teesside grudge territory – though before any of you start wondering whether it was with her bare hands, I should remind you that in many parts of America you’re patriotically encouraged to take up your right to bear arms instead. She actually dispatched the poor beast with a single shot from a high-powered rifle after uttering the words ‘Don’t mess with Nana’ – something many a grandchild running along the back streets of Middlesbrough will have probably heard as they grew up, though usually without such severe consequences. However, as far as I’m aware, the makers of My Little Pony have no immediate plans to use ‘Don’t mess with Nana’ in their festive advertising campaign this year – which is surely an oversight.
Before many of you think it’s just a typical red-neck family taking the law into their own hands, I believe they are apparently good upstanding citizens with permits and are supporters of WWF – though that’s the World Wrestling Federation not the World Wide Fund for Nature. In addition, they have kindly given the dead ‘gator (as they’re normally called) to the local mayor so he can make some trophy boots from the belly. Incidentally, we also learned that her grandson has also killed a 500lb ‘gator when he was just 5 with his junior-sized shotgun – apparently the force of the recoil from a normal one left him with a cut eye so they had to get him a smaller one. Before you start thinking giving such a young boy a shotgun is completely irresponsible, you’ll be relieved to know he’d been an experienced gun handler after being taught to shoot at four and knows all about fire-arms safety and can even drive an all-terrain vehicle to join in alligator hunts. Whether the good folk on Teesside would be happy to see a five-year old wandering the streets with a shotgun is another matter – especially if he’s being a bit pushy when asking for a squeeze on matchdays!
Talking of lumbering big beasts being on the end of both barrels, Rudy Gestede may be close to returning to action this week and the Riverside faithful will be hoping that he’s unearthed a pair of shooting boots during his enforced absence – alligator skin or otherwise. Though I’m informed by certain specialist websites that the big Benin forward actually wears Nike Mercurial Vapor XII Elite boots, which was possibly not a particularly vital piece of information that many had been living without knowing. Whilst the words ‘mercurial’ or ‘elite’ are seldom mentioned in the same sentence as Gestede, you may be pleased to know that these are the same precision tools worn by Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and French World Cup sensation Mbappé. So whatever happens on the pitch for the Boro target man, we shouldn’t blame the footwear if the ball ends up in the Riverside stands rather than the goal.
In truth, the options available at the sharp end for Boro are not convincing many that it’s only a matter of time before the floodgates open and the goals begin to flow over the somewhat barren Riverside pitch. Britt Assombalonga has often appeared to be a fish out of water as he regularly flounders as a lone target man under Tony Pulis and usually looks fed to the gills when he’s hooked after failing to make the net bulge. His main rival for the striker’s shirt in Jordan Hugill has offered a more physical battling option but doesn’t appear to have the finesse or even fitness to run opposition defences ragged. Indeed both may only be keeping the shirt warm for perhaps Pulis’s preferred option of the big man from Benin and few will be surprised if Gestede is soon bamboozling opposition defences and team-mates alike as they fail to click with his flicks, kicks and lack of confidence tricks. Though we shouldn’t forget we also have another £7m surplus striker from the Hammers waiting in the wings too – though the chances of him taking a bow anytime soon in the Championship seem remote as he appears to have fallen through the trapdoor on the Boro stage under the direction of Pulis.
Despite not having a goal machine up front, perhaps we should place the blame elsewhere as even average strikers need service before they even get a chance to miss it. The failure to recruit much in the way of creative talent in the summer has been well documented and it seems the subject has been for now brushed under the Hurworth carpet after the recruitment team seemingly pulled the deep-pile rug from under Tony Pulis to leave his plans in an even deeper pile of something steaming.
This has subsequently left the Boro manager continuing with his early-season Plan B of a back-three with wing-backs providing the width instead. To his credit, Ryan Shotton has proved more than useful in the role on the right but George Friend has never looked like he will be as effective on the left after migrating from his earlier back-three role. Most observers know Friend is unlikely to provide too many assists and even the charade of possessing the weapon of mass distraction with the pretend long throw has not convinced many that his floated lobs are nothing more than catching practice for the opposition keeper. Nevertheless, the Boro manager has persisted with the tactic but has now in recent games reverted to a more conventional back four in order to accommodate an extra forward.
That extra forward is Martin Braithwaite, who often looks sharp and busy, with a little more intensity on the ball than those around him. He’s made more attempts on goal than any other Boro player this season in 14 with 7 on target and is currently joint-top scorer with Assombalonga on 3 goals. Having said that, he’s been less prolific since the transfer window ‘misunderstanding’ that nearly saw him leave for Spain but has promised to put it behind him and get his head down. Though whether his stop-start Boro career will begin to look up may depend on what happens around him. The Dane looks to potentially be Boro’s most explosive striker but last season saw him sometimes drift out of games – something if repeated under Pulis may ultimately see him losing his starting place under a manager who probably appreciates work-ethic over ability.
Whether Tony Pulis can find the right combination in midfield to get the crowd on their feet is another matter but I suspect the best three to get the gig in the middle of the park in terms of making the Riverside rock will probably be Barlow, Owen and Orange. Although, officially still a boy band, Take That are now at an age where even Tony Pulis may consider picking them – especially if they play his favourite song ‘Giants’. Though whether just sixty per cent of the original group are still the real deal or just another nostalgia trip hoping to recoup some of the money they had to quietly return to the taxman recently is probably just Teesside cynicism. Those familiar with celebrity tax avoidance schemes may have read that the Take That trio ‘invested’ £66m in an artificial tax-shelter called Icebreaker. Their pleas to HM Customs and Revenues to have a little patience were met with deaf ears as the government agency declared they wanted the £20m owed to them back for good – with Barlow, Owen and Orange no doubt innocently declaring “Whatever I said, whatever I did I didn’t mean it.” Incidentally, it’s a pity that the trio opted against renaming themselves with the initials of their surnames, as it will prevent certain elements among the Riverside faithful fully enjoying the occasion by not being able to indulge themselves by shouting BOO when they walk off the pitch at the end.
Back to footballing matters, this week sees a return to action in the reserve competition that is Mr Caraboa’s dead buffalo cup. Naturally, in a manner befitting to the sponsors, the object of the exercise is to progress while keeping the energy levels of the First XI intact – something Tony Pulis has been closely monitoring since the international break after he rested both Fry and Besic for having below par biometric data during the Norwich game. Boro make the trip to a Preston side that are surprisingly languishing at the foot of the Championship after failing to win since the first game of the season. Last season they were known for being a defensively solid side and only conceded more than one goal in a game on eight occasions as they ended up finishing one place outside the play-offs. However, they’ve been leaking goals badly this campaign, conceding three goals in each of their last three games and two goals in each of the four before that. Alex Neil is under pressure to turn their form around and will hope the cup offers them some respite – they did in fact win at Leeds in round one so Boro will hopefully not take them too lightly.
For those in the squad who have struggled to get a game recently, it offers an opportunity remind Tony Pulis that they can do a job – with perhaps Lewis Wing and Paddy McNair looking to make an impression. It’s possible that Jordan Hugill will fancy playing against his old club but he may be kept back in preparation for the game on Saturday, with perhaps a seat on the bench instead. It’s likely man’s man Danny Batth will make his debut and possibly Sam McQueen will also get a start if he’s still eligible after being named as an unused sub for Southampton in their win over Brighton. Other players hoping for a run out will be strikers Rudy Gestede and Ashley Fletcher, but it will most likely on the whole be a young side deployed. The prize on offer for the winners will be a potential last sixteen tie against a big Premier League team and a return to visibility – though chances of sneaking under the radar into the last eight are diminishing with only three other ties not involving top tier opposition.
Whilst I’m sure Tony Pulis will be keen to progress to the last 16, he’ll no doubt be fully prioritising Saturdays trip to Hull. The Tigers sit just one place and one point above the relegation zone after already losing six games this campaign, including their last two on the road at Reading and Wigan. It should be seen by Boro as an opportunity to pick up three more points to secure their place in the top two, in what has become quite a congested table. With Leeds and Boro tied on 18 points at the top, West Brom sit a point behind in third and then come those in the play-off positions on 16 – though only three points separate Sheffield United in fourth to Swansea in fourteenth. Once again the Championship is proving to be a tight affair and Boro will need to remain focused to keep ahead of the pack. This weekend sees the season reach the ten-game mark and the traditional time to assess how the season is going but the Boro manager claims he never looks at the table until after 15 games. Defeat would give Tony Pulis a haul of just 5 points from 5 games and could lead to some talking down of promotion chances. Though with three winnable games on paper before the next international break, now is surely the time to apply the pressure.