Why Middlesbrough shouldn’t be pushing for promotion
Tony Pulis seems to have put the brakes on Middlesbrough’s ambitions of promotion, building for a push next season after a disappointing 18 months
When Middlesbrough won promotion at the end of the 2015/16 season, it seemed that their best laid plans had, for once, stayed totally on track.
Aitor Karanka had delivered on his expected timeline – survival one year, a play-off push the next, and promotion the year after – and the club looked in excellent shape to make a fist of survival.
Things did not go to script. Middlesbrough played out one of the most turgid Premier League seasons in recent memory despite the pulse-raising acquisitions of Alvaro Negredo and Victor Valdes, Karanka was gone by the end of March and a proper replacement was never found, with assistant Steve Agnew remaining at the helm as Boro sank back down to the second tier.
Upon their return, Steve Gibson vowed to ‘smash the league’, handing exciting young manager Garry Monk a blank chequebook with which to build his expansive, attacking dream team.
It didn’t work. Boro, after three seasons of iron-clad defending under Karanka, forgot how to defend and never nailed down a starting eleven or formation. In Ashley Fletcher and Martin Braithwaite, £16 million worth of striker was sent straight back out on loan in the January transfer window.
Fresh hope with Pulis hasn’t been fulfilled
The hope was that Tony Pulis, brought in in December, would be able to give Boro’s expensively assembled squad a kick up the collective backside and restart the promotion push.
Some players have responded. Adama Traoré has been enjoying the form of his life, Jonny Howson is rediscovering his Norwich form and the defence, at last, looks ship-shape once again. But results have remained similar, and optimism is being sapped with each passing week.
It would be foolish to be overly defeatist. Boro are only six points off the play-off positions, though they are closer in points to the relegation zone than the leaders, Jorge Mendes’ pet project in Wolverhampton.
A good run of results could easily change things, especially with local sort-of-derbies against Leeds, Sunderland, and Hull on the horizon. But for now, the Teesiders seem a club content to stand still and take stock for the next couple of months while others get their hands dirty scrapping for the chance of a make-or-break afternoon at Wembley.
Middlesbrough have been in flux for two years
It may well be sensible. A squad built by Aitor Karanka and contorted into something new but not entirely convincing by Garry Monk was never likely to bed in immediately to life under Pulis. It will take time, and more transfer activity is likely over the summer.
Middlesbrough have been many things in the last two years. An effective, determined promotion-winning team. A promising but unconvincing Premier League newcomer. A self-destructing piece of top-flight cannon-fodder beset by infighting and unable to score goals. Big-spending Championship title favourites. Underwhelming Championship play-off hopefuls.
What are they now?
The answer isn’t at all obvious, so perhaps a half-season for Pulis to unpack his bags, set out his stall, and piece together his eventual promotion plan.
We’re often told that if you aren’t moving forward, you must be moving back. That isn’t true in football. Time to consolidate is rare but Middlesbrough’s finances should be in reasonable enough order to allow them another serious crack at promotion in six months’ time.
Week-by-week, it may not be the most exciting half-season but the club needs to reestablish an identity. The slide is being arrested – only then can Pulis and Gibson start to think about making their way back up.