Going into this season, Tony Pulis had questions to answer.
Middlesbrough’s final encounter of the 2017-18 campaign was a 1-0 aggregate defeat to Aston Villa in the play-off semi-final; throughout a goalless second leg at Villa Park, Pulis’ side failed to register a shot on target, despite knowing they had to score to have a chance of reaching Wembley.
That defeat was with Adama Traore, whose unparalleled pace and power down the right channel, as well as improved end product, had made him Boro’s main – and arguably only – creative outlet in open play. With Traore moving to Wolves this summer, the question was whether Pulis would have the tactical acumen to freshen up his side and introduce alternative sources of creativity.
The answer, so far, has been an emphatic yes. For a start, the Teessiders have got even stronger from set pieces, thanks to the arrival from Bristol City of centre-back Aden Flint, who is renowned for his goal threat from set pieces; interestingly, the 28-year-old has scored a hat-trick in his career including a rabona.
Ryan Shotton’s long throws were key to the late comeback in a 2-2 draw at Millwall while Stewart Downing’s corners inspired the 3-0 home win over Sheffield United.
When opposing back-lines look vulnerable, Middlesbrough are not afraid to get the ball into dangerous areas quickly; Bristol City, for example, were playing an inexperienced left-back at centre-back and a right-back at left-back, so it was no surprise that Darren Randolph’s long balls upfield caused problems, allowing Britt Assombalonga and Martin Braithwaite to combine.
The former, a serial goalscorer at this level, was always going to be vital for Boro with Patrick Bamford moving to Leeds, but the bigger surprise is Braithwaite’s impressive early season form.
The Dane, who joined for a hefty fee last summer, was shipped out on loan to Bordeaux little more than a month after Pulis took charge, then allegedly made comments about not wanting to be “more of a defender than the offensive type of attacker” under the Welshman’s regime.
It is a credit to the former Gillingham boss, therefore, that he has been able to retrieve the situation by recognizing Braithwaite’s strengths and playing to them; whether the 27-year-old is genuinely happy or merely content to play for a move, Boro are getting the best out of one of the most gifted players in the division.
Middlesbrough, who are 15/8 with Betway for promotion as of 21st August, also look stronger in central areas. Last season, they used three midfielders in Jonny Howson, Adam Clayton and Muhamed Besic who all offered relatively similar qualities; plenty of endeavour and positional discipline, but not many attacking qualities to take the creative burden off Traore.
Pound for pound, one might prefer to have Besic – who may yet return – in the squad than academy graduate Lewis Wing but, crucially, the latter offers something different to Howson and Clayton. Wing, who enjoyed an excellent loan spell at League Two Yeovil, has made a seamless transition to the second-tier since his impressive opening day cameo.
Contributing with a couple of assists, Wing’s range of passing, class in possession and set-piece delivery has not only won the hearts of fans, but also helped him keep more experienced campaigners out of the side. Should Besic and Yannick Bolasie arrive on loan from Everton, then Middlesbrough will have plenty of depth in midfield and in wide areas.
There’s a long way to go, of course, but Pulis is thus far defying his doubters.