Is Tony Pulis the right man to get Boro back in the Premier League
Middlesbrough's season came to a disappointing end when they fell to playoff semi-final defeat against Aston Villa. Having lost 1-0 at the Riverside, a goalless draw at Villa Park sent the Birmingham side to Wembley.
Following 2016/17's relegation, bouncing back at the earliest possible time was the club's aim. Boro fell just short, finishing fifth before a playoff exit.
They began the season as a title favourite but never threatened the automatic promotion places. Tony Pulis came in for Garry Monk mid-term and sealed a top-six spot. Nevertheless, most fans at the Riverside remained unconvinced.
Pulis has twice managed squads to promotion. In 1996, he took Gillingham up to the third tier. In 2008, he famously guided Stoke City to the Premier League.
Ultimately his own success at the Potters would see him leave the club after the 2012/13 season. After promotion, he turned the side into Premier League stalwarts as well as taking them into Europe and an FA Cup final. Eventually, the club decided it wanted to play more positive football and relieved him of his position.
A short spell at Palace followed. He posted a 42% win percentage to keep them in the top flight.
After a short hiatus, he went to West Bromwich Albion. Again, he helped stabilise a club before being released after a poor start to this season. The Baggies never recovered. Along with his other former club, Stoke, they were relegated. Pass out the tinfoil hats.
Still ready to work, he took over Teesside with the team ninth in the table, a long way from their targeted destination. The side was sliding under Monk. Pulis was seen as the man to turn the season around. He didn't quite deliver but came close enough to warrant consideration for a permanent position.
His record as a manager reads more like an auto-repair manual than an epic adventure. Still, while he had nearly a decade in the top flight, the Welshman has demonstrated he can lead teams to promotion.
Solid. Defensive. Direct. Those are the words that come to mind when you try to apply the term to Tony Pulis. It's how he sets his teams up, but despite results, it has also been his downfall. Pulis football is always effective, never pretty. Fans are happy when his team is winning, but ready to take up arms when they are not.
For those who watched Boro’s two playoff games with Villa, there wasn't much to be excited over. They were undoubtedly second best, but Villa were far from good and had to grind it out themselves. It was the lack of ambition that concerned fans in both legs.
Having lost the first leg, they continued to sit back for most of the second, just hanging in the tie before going for it at the end. The game was in the final quarter-hour before Boro threatened the goal. By then it was too late.
It's not like Pulis was holding players back. The roster is itself solid but not the most entertaining. It's largely the same defensive-minded group that scored the least number of Premier League goals under Aitor Karanka to be sent down in 2016/17.
There is the hint of his pal Jose Mourinho in Pulis' matchday selections, though. In the semifinal at Villa Park, Patrick Bamford only came on for the end despite being among Boro's most dangerous players in the last few months.
The Smoggies' other potential matchwinner is Adama Traore. While raw, he could become a force under the right tutelage. He barely had an impact at all against the Villans. For the side to push on next season, he must.
If Pulis is to take the side up, it will be done his way. The squad will be difficult to beat, defensively sound, well drilled. He and others have proven that can be enough to be promoted from the Championship, but it won’t be pretty. Traore and Bamford are the two threats Middlesbrough have, but neither fits the Pulis mould.
Chairman Steve Gibson is not a man to make rash decisions. Pulis’ position is safe. However, he will need results to start the season or fans will be on his back.
Boro have the team to contend in the Championship, but the fans expect them back in the top flight sooner rather than later. They'll be there or thereabouts next season. Even so, Pulis will be under huge pressure from the Riverside faithful.