Middlesbrough 1-0 West Brom Six Things: Boro the new leaders

 

Tony Pulis – skysports.co.uk

Middlesbrough are the Championship’s new leaders after Daniel Ayala’s injury-time winner gave them a 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion. Here’s our Six Things on the match.

Middlesbrough’s intelligent pressing

In the first half, Boro strikers Britt Assombalonga and Martin Braithwaite closed down shrewdly from the front, ably backed up by Adam Clayton and Jonny Howson. While the hosts played high up the pitch to sustain pressure, hardworking wing-backs Ryan Shotton and George Friend tucked into the unit tightly so that the team was never left vulnerable in wide areas or in transition. West Brom tried to play through this press but couldn’t for two reasons: firstly, Tosin Adarabioyo was their only centre-back with any ball-playing inclinations and secondly, their deep shape and use of five defenders was not conducive to finding spaces on the turnover of possession, especially in their defensive third.

Baggies box battered

Middlesbrough enjoyed a succession of set pieces in the first half, due to the visitors’ inability to clear their lines effectively. The hosts should have had a penalty for a shirt tug from the otherwise impressive Kyle Bartley, Stewart Downing was denied from distance by Sam Johnstone, who also kept out a tight-angled Assombalonga effort, before the lively Braithwaite fired over from close range.

West Brom’s spell of prominence

Middlesbrough tired slightly at the beginning of the second half and weren’t able to impose themselves with the same intensity, thus a more positive Baggies outfit enjoyed a spell of prominence. Harvey Barnes, one of the stars of the Championship thus far, found more space between the lines but the big chance came to Dwight Gayle. The ex-Newcastle poacher was played through on goal but the midfielder, surprisingly Boro’s last line of defence, did some excellent work to delay Gayle’s shot and ultimately put him off. That moment from Clayton epitomized his and Boro’s committed, selfless performance.

Ayala’s dramatic winner

Although Boro had been marginally the more productive side, their winner ironically came when they weren’t on top: if anything, West Brom had been getting a foothold, having made the more positive substitutions. Darren Moore put on attacking midfielder James Morrison and striker Hal Robson-Kanu, while Pulis introduced ball-winner Muhamed Besic and defensive utility man Paddy McNair, with Jordan Hugill replacing rather than assisting Assombalonga up top; Pulis might have been happy to take the point which would have seen his side temporarily go top. He would have therefore been delighted when, in injury-time, Craig Dawson was unable to defend Muhamed Besic’s deep free-kick, which was controlled, possibly with a hand, by Ayala, who turned the ball home to win it.

Albion better with a back-four?

Although West Brom conceded after moving to a back-four, it was that system which made them look the most balanced. The qualities Phillips and Gibbs possess appear to make them better suited to right-wing and left-back positions respectively than wing-back roles, while having more players in advanced areas offered more space for the likes of Brunt and Livermore. Darren Moore will be disappointed by the result, but his side’s improved second half might tempt him to maintain that system for next week’s hosting of Stoke.

Boro go top

Apart from one Albion counter-attack, plus perhaps a comical, crossbar-clipping clearance from Flint, Middlesbrough never looked like conceding due to the tight gaps between units. While the timing and circumstances of their goal might seem fortuitous, they in some ways earned that fortune, partly due to their first half dominance and partly the defensive work they got through, even during the more testing spells. Bigger challenges are to come for the Championship’s new leaders to prove their promotion credentials – namely the visit of Leeds in seven days – but it’s not hard to see why the Teessiders have now chalked up four consecutive league wins to nil.