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For so long, Middlesbrough sat unmoved inside the top-six after becoming renowned as a byword for defensive discipline. Instead, Tony Pulis’ men embarked on a dreadful run of six straight defeats, and fell from grace after being in genuine contention for automatic promotion.
Though the Teessiders would then win three in succession, they arrived at the City Ground on Easter Monday with an air of quiet confidence. It seemed justified at first, with the promotion contenders keeping the opposition out in 289 minutes of Championship football prior to this trip to the East Midlands.
What followed was an utter shambles, with Middlesbrough going down 3-0 to Martin O’Neill’s band of battlers, while never once looking like coming back into the so-called contest after shipping the first goal. It was yet another example of how much a disciplined ‘Pulis-style’ game plan can turn ugly and frustrating to watch.
Inevitably, with Middlesbrough having relinquished such a golden opportunity to seal (at least) a playoff spot early, there are isolated calls for Pulis’ sacking that seem to have developed the potential for deadly growth in recent weeks.
The Jury’s Out
Pulis is well-known as a man who can get the most out of unassuming players, and even in the midst of Boro’s dire run, he alone remained optimistic. Yet, with Middlesbrough showing great ambition in the transfer market since the club’s relegation from the Premier League in 2017, ‘unassuming’ would be an inaccurate description of many Boro players.
This makes his conservative brand of football all the more perplexing, and prevents the Teessiders from turning the Riverside Stadium into the feared fortress it could be. It also stands as the sole reason that the Riverside Stadium falls way short of the league average for average total goals scored by both sides in matches there.
This was the case by some distance prior to Middlesbrough’s 1-0 Good Friday win over Stoke on Teesside, with the ground producing a league-low average total of 1.71 goals per match – the Championship average, meanwhile, stood at 2.67 goals per match at that time.
By the same point of the season, only the bottom two had scored fewer than Middlesbrough’s 20 home league goals, which equated just under one per match on average. However, an approach based on self-preservation has not lasted, especially in the key home games where Boro have dropped points.
Tellingly, nearly two-thirds of Middlesbrough’s conceded home league goals had fallen in the second half prior to their Easter clash with the Potters. And so, while it is certainly too early to call time on the Pulis regime, a failure to reach the playoffs with the tools at his disposal can only lead to one outcome.
Can Middlesbrough do it?
As reflected by sites which offer all the latest sports spread betting news, this is an unbelievably tight race to finish sixth.
The immediate future of Middlesbrough does not just rest on their own results. Above all, the clash between Bristol City and Derby County at a jam-packed Ashton Gate will be remembered well, as a pivotal game in terms of giving Middlesbrough the chance of sneaking back into the top six they occupied for so long.
Both teams also have a game in hand over Middlesbrough. Yet, by virtue of occupying sixth place by the slenderest of leads, Derby appear to have an edge like never before under manager Frank Lampard. Significantly, they went into the weekend knowing that the right combination of results could see the night of 1 May confirm their playoff berth.
With a mixture of youth and experience in the Derby ranks, defying all odds under inexperienced management, current momentum suggests no change in the makeup of the top-six.
If there was anybody you could rely on to enact a game-plan based on possession, closing down and hard tackling, Pulis would be the pick of many teams. Yet, such is the way the game has changed since Pulis’ breakout 2007/08 season with Stoke, a combative approach is no longer enough.
Ultimately, the way to intimidate teams in the present day is to enact a lethal counter-attacking strategy, and champion the sort of style that bravery rewards. After all, no team ever negotiated the playoffs simply by keeping the ball and inviting pressure.
With Middlesbrough’s ‘parachute payments’ (for their relegation from the Premier League) expiring at the end of next season, the coming days could start a ripple effect on the club’s entire future.