2nd in the league, only goal difference keeping us off top spot and still unbeaten, it’s been a positive opening month of the season for Middlesbrough Football Club.
Despite losing three key players in Ben Gibson, Adama Traore and Patrick Bamford, Boro look a more balanced side than in the previous campaign using their new 5-3-2 formation.
Last year, it was clear that there was an overreliance on Traore and it’s no coincidence that Boro’s Play-Off push was significantly enhanced when the Spaniard went through an upturn in form. But, losing their prized asset meant that Pulis had to find another way to make Boro competitive and results this season would suggest that he has certainly succeeded.
Let’s rewind to the 4th August in Boro’s opening day fixture away at The Den, a place where Millwall had only be beaten once in 2018. After a 2-1 defeat last December, Boro found history repeating itself as they were 2-0 down again after 37 minutes. Aiden O’Brien had put the hosts ahead following Boro giving the ball away from a throw-in and a defensive mishap from debutant Aden Flint sent Lee Gregory through on goal, who nutmegged Darren Randolph before slotting the ball into an empty net.
Ten minutes into the second half, and with Boro still 2-0 down, Pulis introduced Lewis Wing and Marcus Tavernier off the bench with the latter setting up Martin Braithwaite to get Boro’s first goal of the season. With time almost seemingly up, Boro were given a throw-in on the right-hand side in the 96th minute. After the first phase of play came to nothing, a Lewis Wing shot ricochet off a number of bodies in the Millwall area and fell at the feet of George Friend, who levelled the score at 2-2. Boro had their first point of the season and Pulis’ substitutions had changed the game.
Next up, was Boro’s first home game of the season against Sheffield United and this was the first time we saw Pulis utilise this new formation that has since been so effective for Boro this season.
Lining up with a back five of Shotton, Flint, Fry, Friend and Downing, Boro used their height advantage to score from two in-swinging corners to open up a 2-0 lead before the 18th minute mark. They then added a third seven-minutes later, with both wing-backs combining, as Downing fumbled the ball into the net following Shotton’s wicked cross into the area. With four points from two games, Boro sat at the top of the table.
The Riverside then hosted another Championship game four days later, as Garry Monk returned to Middlesbrough for the first time since he was sacked as manager two days before Christmas.
With Martin Braithwaite having scored in the opening two fixtures, his strike-partner Assombalonga needed a goal to open his account for the season. It wasn’t long before he was off the mark, as he opened his body up and curled the ball into the top corner in the 12th minute. Boro could, and probably should, have won more convincingly with Downing’s free-kick hitting the post, Assombalonga’s one-on-one chance hitting the same post and Shotton’s long throw-in hitting the bar. Yet, Boro had another three points on the board and were still top of the Championship, having played an extra game.
A trip to Ashton Gate followed, with Boro keeping another clean sheet thanks to summer signing Aden Flint’s controlling display against his former club. Again, Boro’s first-half goals were enough to see off their opponents with Braithwaite scoring his third goal in four games and Assombalonga netting in successive matches. A 2-0 win in the South-West was followed by Boro’s first televised fixture of the season: a Friday night match at home to recently relegated West Bromwich Albion.
It was a match in which neither side dominated but Boro did have the more clear-cut chances. Braithwaite fired over the bar from eight yards out after a knock-down from Flint and Assombalonga beat his man for pace before crossing the ball to Shotton who’s header sailed over the bar. The deadlock was finally broken in the 91st minute when new loan-signing Mo Besic floated a free-kick into the area and Dani Ayala fired the ball home into the bottom left-hand corner after it had appeared to bounce off his arm.
After four wins on the bounce, the final match before the upcoming international break saw Boro travel away to Elland Road in a top of the table clash. In a match with few chances, Boro were able to stifle Leeds’ attack, while trying to threaten at the other end through set-pieces. With the match ending 0-0, Boro have currently not conceded a league goal in eight hours and 23 minutes of football.
When Boro were promoted to the Premier League two years ago, they conceded 31 goals in the entirety of the season. If this season’s defence can keep up their current rate, they’ll only let in half of that tally. Although the likelihood of this happening is very slim, it does emphasise just how good a job Pulis has done of shoring up this Boro defence.
There’s still a long way to go till the end of the season and there’ll be plenty more twists and turns in the promotion race but Boro have made a positive start.
The international break now gives Pulis more time on the training field to get in some more fitness work and also bed in the deadline day signings of Danny Batth and George Saville. With Boro also through to the third round of the Carabao Cup, they are unbeaten in all domestic competitions so far this season – it’s been a great start, let’s carry it on.