Championship 2018-19: Week 19
Sat 08 Dec – 15:00: Boro v Blackburn
Such is the pace of this modern life we lead that some Boro followers are already expressing feelings of nostalgia over enjoying a complimentary warm pint of beer and remembering a time when leaving the house to head off for the match without locking the front door wasn’t regarded as a symptom of earlier-onset dementia but just sign of trust that nothing bad would happen. Yes, those hazy sunny days of August, where many wandered around in a dream-like state humming Dvorjak’s ‘New World’ Symphony as Boro made their best start to a season since some crazy jeweller from Iowa decided it would be a good idea to slice the bread before selling it.
Perhaps some weren’t so easily fooled as Tony Pulis’s makeshift team continued to confound their boss as he awaited that phone call from his non-committal targets. After that remarkable last-gasp comeback at Millwall with two late goals, together with that opening 25 minutes of Riverside action that saw them slice into the Blades, many had been left feeling giddier than their uncle’s wife as they struggled to acclimatise to the unexpected arrival of the Pulis goal machine. The lacklustre 1-0 win over the Blues and previous boss Garry Monk wasn’t particularly dwelled upon as a few days later the youngsters delivered a 3-3 draw in the Carabao Cup before winning the tie on penalties. Then following a rare and relatively comfortable 2-0 win at Bristol City, Dani Ayala’s very late and somewhat suspectly-controlled winner against the promotion-fancied Baggies delivered a fourth successive victory along with a fourth successive clean sheet. What could possibly go wrong?
Nevertheless, Tony Pulis was not getting carried away and unbelievably claimed that without significant reinforcements his side would most likely fall away during the season. However, once the loan window had closed and the dust from his crumbled deals had settled, he may or may not have been of a view that his squad had indeed been significantly reinforced. Although, he seemed to quickly decide that it was at least strong enough to discard some of the youngsters who had played a significant role in getting his team off to such a stunning start.
After the club decided against providing the dough demanded by their main targets, the Boro manager was left with few crumbs of comfort from his recruitment team as his squad appeared several slices short of a Wonder Loaf. As to whether there are still many left on Teesside who (as it was claimed in a 1928 article about the invention of the bread-slicing machine by the jeweller, Otto Rohwedder), “might find sliced bread startling”, is possibly something we should only ask in our heads. Though perhaps the sentiments expressed in the article about ‘the typical housewife’ experiencing “a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows” may strike a chord with the Boro recruitment department.
In some ways, that possibly describes the problem of the half-baked Boro squad as each player appears to be the exact counterpart of its fellow and often leaves the manager with few options to shuffle his pack and give the opposition something different to chew on. Though it’s quite possible some of the under-performing players will end up as toast come the January window – especially Martin Braithwaite, who has not really turned up since his August move to France failed to materialise and has now started to be panned by his critics.
It’s become increasingly clear that our illustrious August start to the season was deceptively impressive and has masked the reality of the overall performance of the season so far. Indeed, if we were to take away those first five games from our current total of points and goals scored it would give a picture of a team consistently performing far worse than the current table is showing. OK, the old adage that the table never lies may ultimately be true but it can be skewed and perhaps tell the odd white lie occasionally.
If we produce a table of the last 15 games in comparison to the current one of 20, it perhaps better demonstrates that Tony Pulis’s team are not visibly moving forward and looking on track for automatic promotion – in fact they are possibly struggling to even keep up with an outside chance of a play-off place. You might think that this could be the case for many clubs chasing promotion but the last 15 games show us that only Boro would drop out of the top six (seven if you include Derby). It actually sees us down to 11th spot in what is still appears quite a congested table and still clinging only three points behind the play-offs. Though by far the starkest statistic it reveals is that only currently second-bottom Bolton have scored fewer goals in the last 15 games than Boro have. This is ultimately what will probably see Tony Pulis and his team fail to secure promotion and as yet there is no immediate sign that the solution will be found in the near future.
|Championship table based on the last 15 games|
|1||( 1)||Norwich City||11||3||1||27||11||16||36||(40)|
|2||( 3)||West Bromwich Albion||8||4||3||29||20||9||28||(35)|
|3||( 5)||Nottingham Forest||7||6||2||25||15||10||27||(34)|
|4||( 9)||Birmingham City||7||6||2||26||18||8||27||(30)|
|5||( 2)||Leeds United||7||5||3||19||13||6||26||(39)|
|6||( 6)||Sheffield United||7||4||4||24||17||7||25||(34)|
|7||( 7)||Derby County||7||4||4||22||17||5||25||(34)|
|8||(11)||Queens Park Rangers||7||4||4||21||16||5||25||(28)|
|9||( 8)||Aston Villa||6||4||5||29||23||6||22||(31)|
|13||(18)||Preston North End||4||6||5||28||28||0||18||(22)|
Other points to note in this table is that leaders Norwich look like they’re forging ahead and for all the talk of them scoring goals (more than twice that of Boro in the last 15 games), they’ve also only conceded the same number as Tony Pulis’s defensively-focused outfit during the same period. Interestingly, our place in the top six has been taken by Garry Monk’s Birmingham, who have claimed all but three of their current haul of points in the last 15. Also Villa have fared the same as Boro during this period with 22 points but they certainly look to have found their rhythm and are looking upwardly mobile. Even Karanka’s Forest are looking well placed for a promotion push and they have also scored nearly double what Boro have managed while conceding just four more.
The question is should we be worried or is it something that could be easily turned around? Well the gap to Leeds and Norwich now stands at 4 and 5 points respectively – if that suddenly grew to 7, 8 or 9 then we’re beginning to enter the territory that saw the hopes of automatic promotion for Garry Monk’s Boro end before the Christmas decorations had hardly been up. If you need to win three more games than your rivals over half a season then it becomes a very difficult task – not impossible but little margin for error and also not easy for a low-scoring team.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see a change in methodology from Tony Pulis but can he find a way to play to the strengths of some of our under-performing attacking players – perhaps several of them have lost interest in the Pulis project or have just had their confidence ground down by failing to adjust their game. The £25m strikeforce that is Britt and Braithwaite just don’t look like they have the body language of players enjoying their football – plus how long can we wait for them to adjust? Gestede has barely looked match-fit since he arrived with his stop-start Boro career and has become a lazy signal to hit the ball aimless and long whenever he appears on the pitch. Fletcher may as well not be here if he only gets a few minutes on the pitch every month or so. Our diminished hopes appear pinned on home-boy Hugill adding goals to his all-round busy bustling line-leading role and anticipating that the likes of Tavernier and Wing continue to impress their manager enough to get a start.
We’re still waiting for Howson to show he’s a goal-scoring midfielder and for Downing not to panic when he catches a glimpse of the goalkeeper’s eyes. Will Besic just continue to flatter to deceive? Can Saville enlighten us on how he scored 10 goals last season for Millwall? The question marks are endless and it appears time is short for finding answers if we are to avoid pretty much the same kind of scenario as the last campaign. It may be fanciful to think the club will be able to bring in the ‘right’ players for Tony Pulis in the January window – especially if those paying the cheques get in a muddle again over what constitutes value for money. It’s been hard enough attracting players without a Teesside connection in the first place but expecting them to take a financial hit will make the exercise little more than a time-wasting exercise for all parties. It may be time to target the up-and-coming players who see Boro as step up rather than hope ‘bigger’ names will be persuaded to step down on the cheap.
In the end it is down to Tony Pulis to accept the reality of the situation and do what he did when he first arrived and get the best out of what he’s got. The problem may be that, like Karanka before him, he values more what players do without the ball than with it. Both had a similar belief that one of the main issues is that their strikers need to be more clinical as they pondered why they didn’t get the players they wanted in the transfer window. Both of those points are convenient hypothetical reasons why the team is not scoring goals and it’s easy to pass the buck and imply that you’re operating to the ‘best’ you can in an imperfect world.
Once you’ve convinced yourself that the best policy is to remain tight and nick games then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy as what remains is exactly that. The 3-0 defeat against Villa at the weekend will only be regarded as blip if it isn’t repeated – though it’s likely the same methodology will remain under Pulis as he has been often quoted saying something along the lines that as the game starts at 0-0 you at least have a point to defend.
I’m sure new Villa manager Dean Smith has a quite different philosophy and aims to play a more expansive game in the belief that goals win matches. Pulis on the other hand believes primarily conceding goals loses matches. It seems Dean is prepared to balance the risk of conceding in order to score goals but Tony is most likely not of that view. The question is what offers the greatest chance of success in the Championship? Should a manager simply stick to their belief or should they just try to adjust the balance depending on whether their team is conceding too many or scoring too few. Maybe it’s not possible to change tack without risking undermining your whole credibility. Although I suspect at this level nearly all managers will always need to work within the constraints of an imperfect squad and it’s how they deal with that issue which determines success or failure.
Talking of a Boro manager who encapsulated in phrase the process of accepting their failings in the less than grand scheme of an imperfect world with “It is what it is” – club legend Tony ‘Mogga’ Mowbray returns to the Riverside with his newly promoted Blackburn side on Saturday. Mogga’s Rovers ended a run of six games where they had scored just a single goal in each with a 4-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday – their problem appears to be keeping the opposition out and they have conceded 9 in their last three outings and sound like ideal opposition for a team struggling to find the net. Hopefully Blackburn, or ‘The Riversiders’ as they’re also known, will not feel too at home in a ground with such a familiar name – although they have drawn on their last three visits in the Championship with Boro’s last victory at home being back on Boxing Day 2012 when a Lukas Jutkiewicz goal decided the contest to send the Teessiders up to third. It was a goal that pleased his then manager, who was a certain Tony Mowbray, with other familiar faces playing that day being current captain George Friend, now first-team coach Jonathan Woodgate, plus current club captain Grant Leadbitter and Lewis Wing’s cousin Jason Steele in goal.
It may be a little early to talk about must-win games but the dismal display against Villa needs exorcising if it isn’t to become the beginning of something much more damaging. With Norwich being at home to lowly Bolton and Leeds facing QPR at Elland Road, anything but a win could see the automatic spots begin to disappear over the proverbial horizon. Tony Pulis and the players need a Riverside performance and three points – anything else will have the Boro faithful believing their stale promotion chances are brown bread.
A comparison to how Boro were performing under Garry Monk
At the same stage last season, Garry Monk was under pressure as the summer narrative that he had been given a squad capable of what became unfortunately known as ‘smashing the league’ was not going to plan. The supporters were vocal in their criticism that their manager appeared to be not getting the best out of his apparent riches.
Coincidently, Boro had just been beaten 3-0 at the Riverside by promotion rivals Derby and followed it up with a 2-1 defeat at Bristol City to leave Garry Monk’s team sitting in 9th place and six points outside the play-offs. It was perhaps the beginning of the end and maybe the point at which the decision was made by Steve Gibson to seek an alternative. Despite winning two of his next three games, Garry Monk was dismissed after just 23 Championship games.
We could maybe assume the decision to part company was probably taken around Game 20 before Monk won two of his next three games. If so, it would be curious to see how Monk’s Boro would compare in the same test of looking at their last 15 games before that point. What’s interesting is that his team had also achieved the exact number of points as Tony Pulis’s has with 22 in those same 15 games – though Monk had a better goal difference with +4 instead of +2.
Perhaps the decisive factor was that the other teams chasing promotion were performing slightly better last season than this term and had made Monk’s team appear to be performing relatively worse. Although, Fulham and Millwall had only just started their impressive runs that saw them rise up the table, the current top six were moving away from Boro.
|2017-18 Championship table based on Games 6-20|
|Pos||Pts 1-20||Team||W||D||L||F||A||GD||Pts||Pts 1-20|
|2||( 5)||Aston Villa||9||4||2||22||9||13||31||(36)|
|3||( 3)||Bristol City||9||4||2||25||15||10||31||(37)|
|4||( 6)||Derby County||8||4||3||25||14||11||28||(35)|
|5||( 4)||Sheffield United||9||1||5||28||20||8||28||(37)|
|6||( 2)||Cardiff City||8||4||3||20||12||8||28||(43)|
|10||(10)||Preston North End||5||6||4||21||20||1||21||(29)|
|11||( 7)||Ipswich Town||6||2||7||26||24||2||20||(32)|
|15||( 8)||Leeds United||6||1||8||23||23||0||19||(30)|
|18||(18)||Queens Park Rangers||3||6||6||16||23||-7||15||(22)|
Does this exercise actually show us anything meaningful? Well it may perhaps tell us that perceptions of how a manager or team is performing are related to expectations. Garry Monk was basically put in the position where automatic promotion was expected after the pre-season hype that Boro had supposedly bought the best team in the Championship – which was seemingly based on the price-tags paid for the new arrivals. Additionally, people will obviously look at the current table and make judgements based on how the club stands in relation to their rivals.
In the end Monk was judged to be failing to deliver and most weren’t too surprised to see him given the hook. Even though Pulis’s team has performed at almost the same level as Monk’s did since August, Boro are still positioned quite well in the league and there isn’t a groundswell of feeling that the club need to change the manager. Perhaps Pulis has connected better with the supporters and people can see he has a method in his approach, which he had proved last season would at least make the play-offs. Therefore his position appears most probably not in danger from his chairman either and he will be planning on hopefully getting a few players in January to help his cause. However, if Boro were to slip out of the top six in the coming weeks and performances on the pitch (particularly at the back) were below standard, then it could be an uncomfortable Christmas again for a Boro manager.
The main difference in terms of overall points between the two managers at the same stage in the season (35 versus 29) is that back in August Monk lost 1-0 at Wolves and 2-1 at Forest to start the opening 5 games with 7 instead of 13 points – the next 15 games panned out almost the same as they both acquired 22 from a possible 45. Incidentally, after Monk left Boro he successfully took on the task at Birmingham of saving them from relegation and we can see from the first table (shown in blue) that his Blues have out-performed Tony Pulis’s Boro during the last 15 games by five points. Given the similar failings in consistently getting close to that magic two points per game, perhaps the problems at Boro have less to do with who’s in charge and more to do with those responsible for putting the squad together.