When Tony Pulis departed Premier League strugglers West Bromwich Albion in November, his name was immediately linked with the Welsh national team job, from which previous incumbent Chris Coleman had just resigned, in addition to the vacant Swansea City job.
However, with Boro Chairman Steve Gibson eager to jump the expected queue for Pulis’ services, the Welshman opted to drop a division and move north to replace Garry Monk at the helm of the Teeside under-achievers.
And since arriving at the Riverside Stadium, Pulis has guided Boro back into the reckoning for a play-off place and a chance of an immediate return to the lucrative Premier League. But how has Pulis resurrected the Smoggies hopes of a top six finish? Here we examine three ways in which he has transformed Middlesbrough from Championship strugglers to play-off hopefuls.
The January Transfer Window
The rumblings of unhappy players at the Riverside were addressed by Pulis in the January transfer window with the Welshman recently intimating that certain individuals at the club were not 100 per cent committed to the cause, as reported in the Middlesbrough Gazette.
Subsequently he allowed forward Ashley Fletcher to join Sunderland on loan, terminated Adlene Guedioura’s contract and allowed regular right-back and Republic of Ireland international Cyrus Christie to join Fulham. In addition, forward Martin Braithwaite, who only signed in the summer from Toulouse for a reported £9 million, was granted a swift return to French football with a loan move to Bordeaux.
Pulis, in search of a settled squad also claimed that he only wanted players in the squad “with the required character and commitment to be in and around the first team squad” until the end of the season. Hence, he strengthened his options by recruiting Manchester City’s young winger Jack Harrison, formerly of New York City FC, on loan. Mo Besic, Everton’s forgotten Bosnian midfielder also arrived on loan while Huddersfield defender Martin Cranie also signed a contract until the end of the season to represent a solid month’s work for Pulis.
Shape And Structure
During his time in charge of Stoke City and West Brom, Pulis developed a reputation for producing physically tough football teams. And although his teams tend to play a pragmatic style of football, he also ensures his teams are extremely hard to beat. Boro may have suffered four losses since his arrival in the North East but Pulis’ men are now showing signs of being a well-organised unit from back to front. Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson have struck up a decent partnership in front of goalkeeper Darren Randolph in the centre of defence while the experienced Ryan Shotton, who played under Pulis at Stoke, has played with aplomb since replacing Christie at right-back.
Jonny Howson, who had struggled to find his feet under Monk is also starting to show his potential in the centre of Boro’s midfield alongside captain Grant Leadbitter while Besic is also starting to show his Premier League class. Meanwhile, former Barcelona starlet Adama Traore is finally starting to showcase the skills which prompted Aston Villa to stump up a fee of £7 million for his services two-and-a-half years ago, despite his sending off against Sunderland last time out. Pulis has also redeployed former England winger Stewart Downing in the number 10 role and is reaping the benefits of the local boy’s talent and will to do well for his boyhood heroes. Patrick Bamford has also started to find a bit of form recently, playing on the left side of an attacking trio also consisting of Adama and Downing.
Boro were three points outside of the play-off positions when Monk was sacked following an away win over Sheffield Wednesday just before Christmas. They could however finish the weekend above their play-off rivals Sheffield United and Bristol City if after beating Leeds United at Elland Road on Friday evening, other results go in their favour.
Putting Chances Away
Since taking over at the Riverside, Pulis’ Boro have notched 16 goals in 10 league matches and conceded 11. They have picked up 14 points in that time, although it could and probably should’ve probably been 17 after a last minute penalty denied them at least a point at home to Fulham. The team are undefeated in their last three matches at home after losing the first two at the Riverside under Pulis’ tutelage and will need to continue that sort of form if they are to sneak a top-six finish.
They will however also need to continue to pick up as many points on the road as possible and finding the back of the net on a regular basis will be of central importance. So far this season they’ve managed 22 points away from the North East in 17 matches. Another three points away at Leeds would be very welcome as the matches continue to come thick and fast. Following his £1 million move from Nottingham Forest in the summer, forward Britt Assombalonga has hit 12 goals to date in his first season on Teeside. However, he has failed to find the net since Pulis took over, his last goal coming in the Boxing Day win over Bolton Wanderers. Despite Ayala, Adama and latterly Bamford all finding the net on a semi-regular basis, Pulis will need his forwards to start hitting the target with increased regularity if Boro are to achieve their goal of a play-off place.
Boro are currently 8/1 outsiders to gain promotion to the Premier League this season. Hmmm tempting! And you can find all of the best Championship markets if you click here.