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Is Pulis the man for Boro’s Championship challenge?

Tony Pulis is the sort of character who polarises opinion among football fans. Sometimes sneered at by tactics-obsessed football hipsters and purists and yet sometimes revered by supporters of his teams or his steadfast traditionalism (see the memorable Goldie Lookin Chain track for evidence). Yet, wherever you sit on the Pulis spectrum there are some traits that most could agree with. He’s tough, driven, passionate, determined and defensively sound. Perfect, therefore, for the dog-eat-dog environment of the Championship, right?

Maybe. But, there is a nagging fear among some Boro fans that the man who famously sports the club shop’s finest attire might be as out of step with his tactics as he is with his touchline fashion.

That’s been exacerbated by a run of poor home results and a lack of goals. In the last four Riverside fixtures, Boro have drawn with Swansea, Rotherham and Derby and lost to Nottingham Forest. In those games, the only goal Pulis’ charges have mustered was a fortuitous Jayden Bogle own goal.

The season’s tally of 17 goals from the first 15 games looks pretty feeble for a side that wants to challenge for promotion back to the top flight. It’s two fewer than third bottom Reading and nine, ten and 16 goals behind promotion rivals Leeds, Sheffield United and West Brom. Those three all now sit above Boro as favourites to win the title with bookies Betway.

The goals might not have been as free-flowing for Frank Lampard’s Derby County, but the Rams showed their class at the Riverside, especially in an opening 20-minute spell when they had more than 80 per cent of the ball. An abundance of firepower and flair in Boro’s rivals draws some unfavourable comparisons for sure, but it’s maybe a stretch to suggest that Pulis has been overtaken by younger, hungrier and more astute coaches at this early stage of the campaign.

There is definitely a sense that this season’s Championship is there for the taking. There’s no runaway leader like Wolves last year – not yet anyway – but instead a clutch of maybe a dozen or so teams that are quite evenly matched and all capable of beating one another. Ex Boro bosses Aitor Karanka and Garry Monk will have their eye on the top six after strong recent runs for their respective clubs and Daniel Farke is showing signs of inspiring his Canaries to compete after never quite mustering a promotion push last time around. No-one quite knows if Dean Smith will be able to revive Aston Villa’s fortunes – their squad is certainly the envy of the rest of the division and contains plenty of the right ingredients – while Smith’s former side Brentford are one of the Championship’s classiest outfits and continue to punch above their weight.

Gary Rowett will be hoping he’s finally finding the formula at Stoke, while Bristol City, Swansea, Blackburn, Sheffield Wednesday and maybe even QPR are all looking up towards the top six. By anyone’s maths, that’s a lot of teams that might fancy their chances of being in the running for a promotion push and there’s bound to be a lot of disappointed chairmen in May.

When Boro beat Sheffield Wednesday on October 19, they were the only team in the top seven to pick up three points – and all of the other six teams lost. It was a weekend that summed up the Championship pretty well.

But, the existence of a large pack of rivals might actually help Boro. Despite stumbling in recent weeks, they still sit third within a couple of points of the summit and everyone is finding it tough to put a run of wins together. This, in fact, is where Pulis’ character comes into its own. Defensive solidity and organisation might not get the crowds roaring, but they can help to build a consistent string of results and ride out the storm when performances dip.

Yes, Boro might have only scored an own goal in the last four home games, but they’ve still only conceded three times at home and eight times all season. Yes, they’ve scored ten fewer than Sheffield United but they’ve conceded ten fewer too. When the fixture lists get congested and the harsh winter weather bites, the free-flowing pace-setters might well crave being able to fall back on the foundation of the division’s most miserly backline.

Indeed, it’s easy to forget that every other contender has their own doubts about their ability to stay the course. Will Derby’s loan rangers keep up their current standards for a 46-game slog? Have the Blades got the squad depth needed? Does Darren Moore have the nous to outwit his rivals? Can Norwich, Forest, Leeds and co really put a consistent run together?

With that in mind, Boro probably have the best all-round package when it comes to the experience of the manager and depth and track record of the squad.

There is the potential for things to pick up at the other end of the pitch too. As Pulis himself pointed out before the Derby game: “With the final third entries and the balls we’re getting into the box, we should be getting much more rewards for what we’re doing.
“I don’t think anybody can accuse us of not creating things. Stewart (Downing) put 18 crosses in himself on Tuesday night. We had 36 crosses, and we’re averaging 25 a game, which is in the top four in the league.
“We’re up there doing it. If we weren’t, and the stats were down at the bottom because we weren’t getting in that final third and we weren’t doing attacking stuff, then I’d start worrying.
“But if you have a look at our midfield, I think Besic and Howson are the best in the Championship in terms of their touches in the final third.”

There’s certainly a sense that Britt Assombalonga has had the chances to deliver a better return than his current five-goal tally – and his record at this level suggests that it won’t be long before he goes on a good run. If he can’t deliver, there are four more forwards who are now fit and waiting in the wings to step up. It might be time to look at fresh attacking targets in January.

It’s easy to see why some fans are nervous about what they’re seeing at the Riverside. Indeed, some fans of other clubs love nothing more than to offer their take on ‘Pulis ball’ at the moment. However, while it’s possible to weave a worrying narrative from the state of the league, there are just as many signs that the Newport-born boss can prove his critics wrong yet again and deliver the goods for Middlesbrough. Maybe we could learn a lot from the stubbornness and determination of the manager, if not from his choice of attire.