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Saturday, 4th August 2018 Kick-off 15:00
I’m Really Glad Our Season Isn’t Ending This Weekend - Notes for Middlesbrough
Friday, 4th May 2018 11:00 by HarryFromBath
HarryFromBath assesses the mood in the opposition camp ahead of Sunday’s final Championship game of the season at Portman Road by delving into their forums.
“Full-time. We have beaten Millwall and our play-off place is secured. We just need one point away to Ipswich to guarantee fifth place”, “Villa in the play-offs it is then, barring a big cock-up at Ipswich next week”, “I doubted we would make them but I’m glad I was wrong”, “Villa Park here we come.”
Boro head into their final game of the campaign fifth in the table, three points and three goals ahead of a Derby side who have not guaranteed a play-off place and who entertain a Barnsley side fighting for their lives. The wide expectation is that a fifth-place finish will see them face Villa in the play-offs.
“Here we are, sat in fifth place. People say how poor we have been and how we don’t deserve to be in the play-offs, not realising that the teams below us are just as, if not more terrible that we are”, “A team worthy of promotion we are not. We are here because we are the best of a bad bunch.”
“We’re hitting form at the right time.” Fans recognise they are a work-in-progress and that getting to the play-offs has been a bonus, but they are timing a run of good forum perfectly, recording “very effective” wins over top-half opponents in Bristol City, Derby and most recently Millwall on Saturday.
“We’re building momentum at the business end of the season and are now capable of beating good teams”, “We won’t be favourites in the play-offs but it will be nice to have a crack at them. We can be positive about our chances no matter who we play”, “Get to Wembley and it’s anyone’s game.”
“Pulis deserves credit for steadying a sinking ship. I’m just not sure I see an exciting future with him”, “I hated the football we started playing under him and thought we were worse than under Monk. I have to say I have warmed to him lately. Our football is better and a feel-good factor has returned.”
The 60-year-old took over as manager of his ninth different club on Boxing Day, replacing the sacked Garry Monk. Teessiders were initially wary of his reputation for down-to-earth football but many have now taken to him as results have improved and the team has played to its potential.
“Let’s not pretend Pulis is going to become something different at this point in his career”, “He’s a hard-working honest man who knows how to get his teams organised”, “I’m beginning to warm to him because his influence and experience are starting to show as he has guided us to the play-offs.”
“Pulis pays too much respect to the opposition and doesn’t believe in his own team. A key part of his strategy is to play the percentages. He makes us hard to break down and we are very dangerous from set-plays. I would rather we were scoring more from open play, but I can’t complain if it is working.”
“He will keep us up if we are promoted”, “There has to be a means to an end. His football won’t get a great deal of praise unless it is effective and the only way it will be effective is if we’re promoted”, “People will eventually get bored with Pulis even if he is successful. It’s just how it usually ends up.”
Squad Restructuring in January
“Pulis didn’t spend money for the sake of it in the January transfer window.” The former West Brom boss acted swiftly and soon after arriving cut the squad to just 22 players, with midfielder Muhamed Besic (on loan from Everton) the only new face to have featured regularly in first-team selections.
“Pulis just got rid of players he wouldn’t use.” Defender Cyrus Christie (to Fulham), midfielder Adam Forshaw (to Leeds) and Adlene Guedioura (to Forest after being released by Boro) left permanently. Strikers Ashley Fletcher (to Sunderland) and Martin Braithwaite (to Bordeaux) exited on loan deals.
“Pulis doesn’t play the long ball game, however he refuses to keep passing sideways for meaningless possession.” Fans have noted that they now playing a mix of passing and more direct football in their recent evolution. “The football isn’t great and we do play longer-ball football than most teams.”
“It drives me around the bend when I see the back four punting a long ball upfield when there are three central midfielders on the park”, “We mess around with the ball at the back and keep booting it into the opposition half with nobody near it. Why does Pulis do this? It makes games nervy again.”
“How much better are we at our attacking set pieces? How much better is it that we now take long throws instead of short throws? I actually start expecting goals to come from set pieces now. We might roar every time we win a corner but now there’s a much greater air of expectancy than ever.”
Pulis has kept faith with the same starting XI (above) in their two most recent wins over Millwall and Derby, and most expect this side to start their play-off games. Keeper Darren Randolph is praised for his shot-stopping while centre-halves Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala “have looked very solid lately”.
“The whole defence was a mess under Monk”, “Our centre-backs definitely like to go long, aimlessly punting in the broad direction of the strikers. They aren’t great passers and we don’t have technical full-backs either. They have a safety-first approach under Pulis when there isn’t an obvious pass on.”
“Pulis prefers to play converted centre-backs over attacking full-backs in wide defensive positions.” Right-back Ryan Shotton is a solid defensive anchor behind the threatening Adama Traore, whereas George Friend on the left has been given greater licence to overlap the slower Stewart Downing.
“Muhamed Besic has been a brilliant signing”, “We are unbeaten and have won 80 per cent of games with a midfield of Jonny Howson, Besic and Adam Clayton”, “It’s great watching Besic and Howson having shots in and around the area. It’s something we have lacked in central midfielders for years.”
Clayton is the most withdrawn of the midfield trio, while Howson and Besic in particular are seen as a real threat attacking the opposition box. Former Town man Grant Leadbitter has been criticised for his lack of pace and he has missed the last three games after being sent off at Bramall Lane.
“When our central midfielders sit too deep, it leaves our striker isolated and marked out of the game too easily. It also makes it easier for opponents to double and treble up on Traore without taking a risk”, “We are so one-dimensional in attack and Pulis’s attacking plan is pretty much using Traore.”
Boro have one very obvious danger man. “We lack creativity from open play. Our only really creative player is Traore and we find it harder to break better teams down”, “The worrying thing is that apart from Traore we are so toothless. We need to restructure our attack next season whatever happens.”
Up front, Rudy Gestede’s aerial ability makes him is the team’s most natural target man. He is hoping to return in the play-offs after picking up an ankle injury. Britt Assombalonga and Patrick Bamford offer athleticism and movement respectively but they are more of a threat with the ball on the deck.
“We take it easy and hand opponents the initiative”, “I would like Pulis to make like-for-like swaps instead of bringing on defenders for attackers.” Pulis’s reflexive defensive habit of regularly bringing on full-back Fabio for winger Stewart Downing in the final 10 minutes of games annoys supporters.
Middlesbrough 2 – 0 Millwall
“A controlled performance. We might not have been fantastic today but we were very effective”, “It was a very comfortable victory in the end. We seemed to take our foot off the gas when we took the lead but it didn’t matter in the end”, “An excellent result and fully deserved, are we good now?”
“We were very well organised.” Britt Assombalonga fired Boro in front after 11 minutes, and Jonny Howson capitalised on a defensive mix-up on 66 to fire home and double their advantage. “Millwall threatened to get on top on a couple of occasions but they never really threatened to score.”
“That game can be described in two words, total control. We didn’t let Millwall get anywhere near our goal barring a few corner kicks”, “It was a complete team performance”, “Overall it was a very professional display. Hopefully we can win at Ipswich and take this good form into the play-offs.”
Derby 1 – 2 Middlesbrough
“Phew. That was closer than it should have been but that was a great result and a great performance all round”, “We bossed the game in a manner which we all hoped for but didn’t expect”, “Boro fans are singing ‘It’s happened again, it’s happened again. Derby County, it’s happened again…’.”
“Four assists in two games for Traore now.” Muhamed Besic put Boro ahead with a shot on 20 minutes and Britt Assombalonga added a second on 70 after being set up by Adama Traore. David Nugent pulled a consolation goal back for the Rams from the penalty spot in second-half stoppage time.
“We were really good until we scored but we went back 20 yards or so afterwards. We were very deep and inviting Derby on”, “We were soaking it up and trying to hit Derby on the counter. They weren’t particularly threatening outside of Tom Lawrence who was easily their biggest danger.”
Middlesbrough 2 - 1 Bristol City
“That’s it, we’re up to fifth”, “A brilliant result, I’m chuffed with that. The work-rate and application were there today and it made such a difference”, “Bristol were poor. They didn’t come and give their all and lacked confidence in themselves. Their scrappy goal came more from our poor defending.”
Milan Djuric put the Robins ahead on 13 but George Friend headed Boro’s equaliser from Traore’s corner five minutes later. Patrick Bamford was stretchered off after a collision with City’s Aden Flint before Daniel Ayala looped around to the back post to nod in the winner on 68 from another corner.
“A big result”, “Our equaliser seemed to get everyone going and we played well after that”, “Our self-belief rocketed when we scored. We were suddenly the ones pressing and putting Bristol under pressure. That’s what I want us to do from the start but for whatever reason we don’t often do it.”
“We all knew Pulis had to change something.” Grant Leadbitter was suspended and replaced by Adam Clayton after picking up two yellow cards in their previous game, a 2-1 defeat at Bramall Lane. Boro fans felt this midfield trio played more on the front foot with their striker less isolated.
Goalkeepers and Defenders
“Darren Randolph has been our most consistent player this season.” The 30-year-old ex-West Ham and Birmingham keeper “has had one or two slip-ups and he can sometimes seem more chilled than he should be, but he has been outstanding”, “He’s incredibly brave and he’s a terrific shot stopper.”
“A chance to break and Randolph holds on to the ball for 10 seconds”, “It’s no secret that his kicking is his worst attribute as well as his lack of urgency in some situations”, “He lacks the nous at times to start counter-attacks and keeps the ball too long, but I am more than happy to keep him around.”
“Ryan Shotton is a safe option at right-back.” The 29-year-old August acquisition from Birmingham “is schooled to cover for Traore in front of him. Anyone could play behind Traore if the rule is ‘don’t go past him’. It’s not rocket science”, “He supports the right side well and is very good positionally.”
“You have to admit Shotton’s method of using long throws to move play further up the pitch works. They give us a better aerial option up the pitch”, “He doesn’t offer a great deal going forward and is sloppy in possession at times but he is solid enough”, “A few dodgy passes but confident in the air.”
“George Friend gets up and down the pitch quite well. He generally seems to be more confident and fitter lately.” The 30-year-old former Doncaster Rovers right-back “is more effective than Shotton at the top edge of the pitch, although he commits rash fouls which we have become accustomed to.”
“Friend makes excellent runs forward and he overlaps well with Stewart Downing, but he struggled against Burton’s wing-backs last month and hardly ventured forward”, “He had fewer options when charging forward earlier this season as strikers would be static, marked or making the wrong runs.”
“We know how versatile Fabio is. He has speed and can pass, cross and win tackles.” The 27-year-old former Cardiff and Manchester United full-back has made late cameo appearances in each of the last four games. “He does a lot of running but threatens to get himself sent off when he acts like a child.”
“It’s clear that Fabio is not a Pulis-type full-back”, “He has bags of energy, he runs everywhere and makes some decent tackles. Fans like his effort and attacking displays but his defensive work can be diabolical. He gets caught out in behind every time and we look so unbalanced with him in the side.”
“Martin Crainie is far more a Pulis-type player.” The 31-year-old arrived on a six-month contract at the end of January, but he struggled in his one recent start at Burton. “He did nothing to close down Lloyd Dyer and allowed him to cross the ball with ease”, “He’s a go-to option to help protect leads.”
“I would imagine that the defensive drilling Dael Fry will get from Pulis can only benefit him.” The 20-year-old youth product “is behind the other centre-backs in the pecking order but he’s good cover if either are injured or suspended”, “An assured defender has done nothing daft when he has played.”
“Daniel Ayala loves a goal.” The 27-year-old centre-half and former Canary “is a defensive rock who hardly puts a foot wrong and is a mean scoring machine who wins every ball in the air”, “He is solid enough defensively but he pumps the ball aimlessly, wasting passages of nice play with long balls.”
“Ayala is a better defender in this division. He’s more suited to dealing with big lumps, bullying more static forwards and winning his headers”, “He’s back to his best and scoring goals for fun, “He looked a shadow of himself earlier this season but has improved under Pulis and works well with Gibson.”
“Gibson has been consistently solid all season.” The 25-year-old youth product “is a typical English no-nonsense centre-half”, “He wins plenty of headers his decision-making with the ball on the floor can be erratic”, “He’s better using his athleticism to deal with smaller and more technical forwards.”
“Gibson hasn’t brought last season’s Premier League form with him, although I’m convinced it’s due to the demands of this division being very different. He is able to raise his game depending on who he is playing. He has been cruising this season and he has stepped up a gear since Pulis has arrived.”
“To say that Grant Leadbitter is off the pace is a real understatement.” The 32-year-old former Town and Sunderland man “only passes sideways and when he pushes forward he delays to a point where his only options are safe passes. He slows moves right down and we become incredibly predictable.”
“Leadbitter is clearly the type of player that Pulis trusts”, “I do not for the life of me understand how he is still in the side. All he does is foul and take poor set pieces”, “He has looked a step off the pace all season and it’s not fatigue”, “Can we rest him for a few games please?” The next four will do.”
“Lewis Baker is a good substitute to slide in if we want to keep our shape.” The 23-year-old Chelsea loanee “doesn’t cope with the physical side of the game but he is creative”, “I once saw Pulis say ‘it depends if he wants to put it in’ when talking about him. He hasn’t been on the bench since then.”
“Adam Clayton is really good at defending and breaking things up.” The 29-year-old ex-Huddersfield man “is a decent footballer with a good long ball. He used to get forward and score more goals when at previous clubs but he has been given a different role at Boro”, “He looks like the player of old.”
“I rate Clayton’s ability and football brain. It’s just that he can’t run. He always looks to pass forward but often there isn’t an option for him”, “He closes down well and isn’t afraid to foul. He takes a lot of pressure off players around him and his positioning is very good. He also refuses to get beaten.”
“Jonny Howson has blossomed since being given a freer role in front of Clayton.” The 29-year-old July purchase from Norwich “drives us forward and gets very much involved in the midfield battle”, “He is better when he’s involved further forward. His finishing from the edge of the box is superb.”
“Howson’s strongest position is in the centre of the pitch. He tries to break out of midfield but his passing and dribbling aren’t good enough to break a defence in the way you would expect from a playmaker”, “He’s a solid reliable energetic player who needs to be lurking on the edge of the area.”
“Besic has become an important player since he arrived in January.” The 25-year-old Everton loanee “has given us something we were crying out for, a midfielder who carries the ball through the centre of the pitch. His ball retention is great and he runs the show with his dynamism from back to front.”
Patrick Bamford celebrates with Mo Besic after scoring 3 against Leeds
“Besic can be a bit ball-greedy at times”, “He’s good but needs to pass the ball a tad earlier instead of dribbling into trouble. His movement is excellent, his tackling and fight are determined and he can pick clever accurate forward passes”, “He provides that missing link between midfield and attack.”
Wide Midfielders and Wingers
“The only natural left winger we have is Marvin Johnson.” The 27-year-old August buy from Oxford “was a totally pointless summer signing by Monk”, “The most disappointing thing was that we saw what he could do at this level for one game and then he went into his shell and simply disappeared.”
“I can’t see Jack Harrison staying here next season.” The 21-year-old Manchester City loanee arrived in January having just switched from MLS side New York City. “A prospect who has just started pre-season when he arrived, his touch and passing have been off in U23 games and he’s not match fit.”
“Stewart Downing doesn’t have the pace to be an orthodox winger any more.” The 33-year-old ex-Villa, Liverpool and West Ham man began his career at the Riverside. “He isn’t the winger he once was but he has been abysmal on the left. He gives George Friend licence to do what he does best.”
Stuart Downing v Toumani Diagouraga
“Playing Downing means we lack a serious goal threat on our left”, “He’s tidy in possession and he crosses well sometimes, but he’s an absolute waste of a wide attacking spot and is far too cautious to play the Number 10 role”, “We should give Downing a rest at Ipswich as he’s getting on a bit.”
“Traore can leave the best defenders standing.” The 22-year-old Spanish former Villa man “has the potential to tear apart any defence in seconds. His input has been the difference between us making the play offs and not doing so”, “Few teams have defenders who are quick enough to stop him.”
Bailey Wright (Bristol City) v Adama Traore
“Adama merges devastating pace and dribbling ability with a wayward end product at times, but he is a constant threat and teams are petrified of him. It’s great to watch”, “He is sheer entertainment value and has turned a drab and pointless season into brimming with hope”, “The game changer.”
“Patrick Bamford’s movement and touch are great strengths and he produces moments of magic.” The 24-year-old had a successful season on loan from Chelsea at the Riverside in 2014/15 before arriving permanently in January 2017. “His touch to take the ball away from opponents is unreal.”
“Bamford is better attacking balls down the byline but poorer attacking crosses”, “He makes clever late runs”, “He is isolated when we are too cautious but his first touch is so good that the ball sticks to him and he always is planning what to do with it next”, “He is one of our most important players.”
“It makes sense starting Britt.” The 25-year-old July arrival from Nottingham Forest “is more suited to difficult games away from home where he bullies defenders”, “He works hard even in periods when he gets little service”, “His presence also changes games when he comes on from the bench.”
Britt Assombalonga congratulated after scoring for Boro
“The big man is back to his best. He comes short and holds the ball. He gets intelligent touches to help us break forward”, “He breaks down the sides and waits for the ball beyond the last defender”, “He seems to have his head in games again”, “He’s hopefully hitting a run of goals when it matters.”
Resting Players on Sunday
“Ipswich will be a nice day out and a chance to rest a few players”, “Our squad is so small after the January departures that it will be hard not to include first-team regulars in the Ipswich squad”, “Pulis is more likely to give the likes of Fabio, Martin Crainie, Grant Leadbitter and Jack Harrison starts.”
Pulis has hinted that he might rest a number of key players on Sunday. Given their small squad, it is however likely that many first team regulars will feature even if from the bench. One fan posted this possible starting XI (above) to highlight some of the alternatives at Pulis’s disposal on Sunday.
Teessiders’ Views on ITFC and the Game
“Now on to an injury and suspension-free finish at Ipswich please”, “Let’s relax on the final day and play some decent football against an unmotivated Ipswich side”, “It’s not like they are having a say at either end of the table. Hell, they don’t even have a manager”, “They're already on the beach.”
“We need to finish fifth so a point at Ipswich is vital.” Although confident of victory, most Teessiders will be happy with a point and an incident-free game. The word ‘momentum’ has regularly cropped up, with fans keen to maintain their strong form and hit the play-offs on a four-game winning run.
“The last thing we want is a disjointed confidence-sapping display against Ipswich”, “We don’t want to go into a play-off semi-final on the back of a lacklustre defeat at Ipswich”, “It would be great to win and carry the momentum on. Ipswich got all of their goals out of their system at Reading.”
“I’m expecting a bore draw”, “I want the best team to start and us treat it as any other game”, “If we can’t beat Ipswich on the last day then we have no business being in the play-offs. Their players will be on holiday with no manager to play for. A few hard tackles early on and they should roll over.”
Many Boro fans view Portman Road as a difficult away fixture. “I was very negative about us even making the top six given how tight it was and with the teams we had to face in our run-in. Christ, if it came down to Ipswich, that's never a kind place for us to go so I’m glad we got the job done.”
“Ipswich will finish lower next season without him.” The news of Mick’s departure was discussed on the evening he left the club. “For football fans he is probably one of the most popular managers out there, unless he's managing your team”, “It will add a bit more interest to the final game of season.”
“It’s bad news actually. There has been a rather toxic atmosphere at Portman Road under McCarthy recently. He was never going to have a fond farewell”, “Another manager leaving on the back of a win. It was no secret that Mick McCarthy liked their fans every bit as much as they liked him.”
“A good bloke but a limited manager the further up the tree he gets”, “On a shoestring he has done really well, similar to Tony Mowbray when he came to us, balancing the books and stabilising the team”, “He couldn’t get performances out of the squad. A very decent if unspectacular manager.”
I found one last comment for anyone interested in conspiracy theories. Boro dropped to fourth and were overtaken by Norwich after picking up a scoreless draw at home to Brighton in their final game of our most recent play-off season.
“Aitor Karanka [Boro’s manager] purposely didn’t get us to push for the winner against Brighton at the end of the 2014/15 season. He seemed to prefer the fourth spot, which would get us Brentford instead of an Ipswich side who we would have played had we got a winner.”
The busiest Middlesbrough forum is the friendly and knowledgeable OneBoro.
All Good Wishes for the Summer
With this being the last opposition preview of the season, I just want to say a heartfelt thank you to Phil for all his patient editing and proof-reading and to Gav for all his terrific work weaving brilliant and often highly entertaining pictures in to support the text.
Above all I want to thank you for taking the time to read the Notes and chipping in with your kind and valuable comments over the course of the campaign.
Our safe mid-table finish doesn’t remotely tell the story of an eventful campaign which has included some highly memorable games. We are never certain how the narrative of a season will play out, but we can be certain that the roller-coaster will start all over again in a few months’ time. Have a great summer!
And many thanks from Phil and Gav to Harry for the Notes, which have become an integral part of TWTD’s pre-match coverage over the last few seasons. Enjoy the summer and a couple of months’ rest from opposition forums!
Photo: Action Images
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