At the turn of the year, Middlesbrough fans seemed to hold a great deal of animosity against Tony Pulis. The team was under performing, and a Boxing Day defeat to Sheffield Wednesday after being knocked out of the Carabao Cup by League One Burton Albion, only compounded fans’ misery.
Since then, however, Boro have seen an upturn in form. One loss in the 11 games since December 26th has eased pressure on the Welshman, and Boro sit comfortably in the play-off places.
This upturn in form can be attributed to different factors. The reinstatement of Lewis Wing to the side after he fell out of favor following the summer signings on Mo Besic and George Saville in his position.
Whenever the cameras arrive on Teesside for a game, the commentator will always bring up Wing’s past – playing for non-league Shildon, or working part-time in a ‘shower factory’ – but the Newton Aycliffe born midfielder has an eye for a pass and the ability to pull of a thunderbolt. One could easily give him player of the season up to this stage.
One surprising factor about Middlesbrough’s form, is that it has continued through a stage where Pulis found his defensive numbers depleted. Firstly, Danny Batth – who made 10 appearances for Boro – swapped the Tees for the Trent and joined Stoke City. The hierarchy at the Riverside chose not to replace the former Wolverhampton Wanderers captain.
This decision looked like a risky one as Danny Ayala and Aden Flint picked up a suspension and injury respectively in a 1-0 defeat at Brammal Lane. A make shift back line of Jonny Howson, Dael Fry, Ryan Shotton, George Freind and George Saville travelled to face Blackburn at Ewood Park.
Middlesbrough dominated proceedings as Rovers’ head coach and former Boro centre back watched on from the touchline. Pulis would have been all too happy to keep this back line for a home fixture against QPR the following week. But an injury to Friend kept him out of the match.
Ayala’s timely return meant he took Friend’s place in the starting XI and again Boro kept a clean sheet. Not only this, but the attack looked to be clicking with Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher teaming up as a duo for the first time in their tenure on Teesside.
The side faltered against Wigan, drawing 0-0, but Assombalonga and Fletcher both had chances to steal three points for the Reds – whose fans traveled in great number to the DW stadium – but neither could provide the finishing touch.
This gives Pulis a headache for the upcoming weeks and months, when he will see Flint and Friend return from injury, as well as Marcus Tavernier who has impressed Pulis in recent training sessions, and Jordan Hugill having to be content with a spot on the bench.
As the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Although teams like Norwich and Bristol City may be able to attack Middlesbrough’s make-shift wing back tandem more effectively than Blackburn and Wigan did, both players have played well. Howson, especially, has given Boro a different threat with his work rate and willingness to attack the opposite fullback.
Assombalonga has looked better when alongside a strike partner this season, and Fletcher looks to be more mobile and able to create for the team than Hugill recently. Lewis Wing is very close to being the first name on Pulis’ teamsheet at the moment, and if it is not Wing then it is John Obi Mikel
So what should Pulis do?
Randolph; Howson, Fry, Shotton, Friend, Saville; Mikel, Wing; Tavernier, Fletcher, Assombalonga.
The five-at-the-back formation is working for Boro’s Welsh manager, and changing now would impact the team’s morale. John Obi Mikel has brought a different level of ability to the midfield. Adding composure and the ability to start an attack to the skill set of Adam Clayton.
Playing Lewis Wing in a deeper role could take away from his style of play, but against Wigan, BBC Tees expert summariser Neil Maddison pointed out that Besic was too much on the toes of Mikel and was inhibiting his impact on the game. Allowing Wing to get forward and support the attack, along side Tavernier and Fletcher’s speed and Assombalonga’s movement is surely a recipe for success.