Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis deserves more credit - here's why

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 18 February 2019, 15:40

Now and again, Tony Pulis gets labelled as a footballing ‘dinosaur’: a man who employs overly defensive, long ball methods out of sync with the modern game.

That would seem, perhaps, slightly unfair.

Of course, the rise of bright coaches like David Wagner, Nuno Espirito Santo and now Daniel Farke means there is an influx of exciting, fresh ideas coming into the Championship and that diversity should be welcomed.

However, the success of one set of principles does not by definition make another outdated.

Here’s why Pulis deserves a little bit more credit than he sometimes gets.

1. Defensive efficiency

Middlesbrough boast by far the best defensive record in the Championship, helped further by Sunday’s 1-0 win at Blackburn.

They have conceded just 24 goals, six fewer than Bristol City, who have conceded the second-fewest; they have kept 14 clean sheets with two or more goals shipped on just five occasions in 32 games.

That is partly because Pulis favours players like Adam Clayton who, although not the most exciting player to watch in possession, does some outstanding work without the ball.

Whenever opponents are on the attack, Clayton always positions himself between the ball and the most advanced opposing player who is not picked up by the centre-backs, meaning he is so often in pole position to cut out deliveries into the box.

The arrival of John Obi Mikel, who not only has defensive awareness and physicality but also a touch of quality in possession, will only strengthen their cause.

 

2. Adaptability

The reason Middlesbrough have this excellent record is because Pulis and his coaching team recognize the strengths of the opposition and adapt accordingly.

Last March for example, Boro beat former boss Garry Monk 1-0 in his first game in charge of Birmingham, then went back to St Andrews 10 months later and inflicted on him the third home defeat of his reign.

January’s 2-1 victory in B9 represented another clear example of Pulis’ tactical nous.

He recognized that Birmingham’s attacking threat stemmed from Jota, a left-footer on the right and Jacques Maghoma, vice-versa and that stopping them would be key to quelling the hosts.

He therefore named a team comprising of five central midfielders, with Jonny Howson on the right and George Saville on the left, meaning there was no space for Jota or Maghoma to attack on the inside, thus they would have to go on the outside, something they were far less comfortable doing.

At that point, very few teams had been able to nullify the wide duo and the fact Boro did it speaks volumes.

3. Clear chances

Because the style of football, early balls down the channel, is relatively simplistic, the common assumption is that they have been getting lucky in their games – this is not the case.

Although the Teessiders have not been creating a high volume of chances, because their anti-possession play does not lend itself to that, the opportunities have been high-quality.

Boro spot very quickly when their opponents are having difficulty playing the ball out from the back, or when there is a glitch in their defensive structure, and they expose those vulnerabilities ruthlessly.

For example, Britt Assombalonga’s winner at Ewood Park came from an opportunistic ball down the line, Ashley Fletcher’s graft down the right channel which ultimately meant the hit man could nod home from point-blank range.

4. Hugs for Hugill

Pulis loves centre-forwards who graft for the team.

Some question why Jordan Hugill has made 18 league starts in comparison with 16 for Assombalonga, despite having a minutes-per-goal ratio of 260 in comparison with 152 for his competitor.

What Hugill offers, in comparison with the former Forest front-man, is an incredible work ethic.

Even when the ex-Preston man plays from the start, one can be confident that in the latter stages of games, he will still have the energy to vigorously close down opposing defenders.

Because of the selflessness shown by the local lad, Boro born and bred, pressure is relieved on the Boro rear-guard.

Although Assombalonga is not exactly averse to pressing in basic terms, he does not do the job with the same tenacity and vigour of his positional rival, who is also slightly keener to engage in aerial duels despite being only 6’0”.

Defending is not a job that only defenders do – it is important that every player is aware of their responsibilities without the ball.

5. Wing taking off

One of the criticisms that sometimes gets levelled at Pulis is his reluctance to trust young, unproven performers, but he has certainly got the best out of Lewis Wing.

 

The midfielder impressed on loan at Yeovil in the second half of last season, showing infectious enthusiasm, boundless energy and plenty of talent to boot.

After making a fine impact from the bench in the opening day 2-2 draw with Millwall, he was unlucky that a fine individual start to the campaign was curtailed slightly by the arrival of Mohamed Besic and George Saville, meaning stiffer midfield competition.

To the 23-year-old’s credit though, he has forced his way back into the first-team fold and produced a star performance at Birmingham.

He showed excellent movement to tap home (his first goal for the club), then produced an inch-perfect ball for Assombalonga’s winner and also showed a willingness to do the ugly, defensive side of the game.

Although Wing is happy to track back – he wouldn’t be in Pulis’ plans if he wasn’t – he is also equally comfortable if not more operating in an advanced role.

When Boro set up with a 4-5-1 or a 3-5-2 with Wing operating centrally in the five, he has the flexibility to push further up to aid a switch to 4-4-1-1 or 3-4-3 respectively.

That adaptability means that, when Boro need to press their opponents, they can do so intelligently, but they can also assume a deeper shame when the moment calls for that too.

Pulis might not be everyone’s cup of tea – but his record in management shows he gets results.

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