Middlesbrough Season Preview: reliance on Traore

With the 2018-19 Championship season coming soon, The Football Lab spoke to Middlesbrough fan Rob Fletcher (@thewayweplay11).

Despite outspending every club in Championship history last summer, you missed out on promotion after a play-off semi-final defeat to Aston Villa. Would you describe 2017-18 as an underwhelming campaign?

After the initial excitement of having a new manager, who even made Leeds look half decent, and the raft of new signings we pretty much thought we would walk the league. As much as you can at this level anyway. Things with Garry Monk didn’t work out, and the arrival of Tony Pulis certainly filled a large portion of the crowd with trepidation. A decent run towards the end of the season certainly got fans more excited, and we felt we had a real chance going into the playoffs. Overall, I think Boro fans expected a lot more, but we were never in a position to challenge for automatic promotion, so I would certainly say the previous campaign was underwhelming.

The one thing Tony Pulis seemed to do after taking over in December was get the best out of Adama Traore. Just how pleased were you with his performances?

Traore was phenomenal. A lot of fans on social media, and a couple of Boro bloggers (me included) thought Traore would be first out of the door. Thankfully, he became Pulis’ go to player, and pretty much was our attacking focus from a few weeks into his reign. His performances grew and grew to the point where other teams just could not cope with his pace, power or skill. As a fan, the excitement every time he got the ball was incredible. The fact he gives the ball away, and often makes bad decisions is the reason why he plays for Boro. As soon as he works that out, he won’t be at the club or at this level.

You looked strong from set pieces last season; Daniel Ayala was your third top scorer with seven goals. Will the signing of fellow centre-back Aden Flint – who has scored a hat-trick in his career – add to that threat?

Talk about typical Pulis signing! Having been amongst the chasing pack for much of the season, it was clear that Flint is extremely valuable at this level. Our focus on long throws and set pieces will only be helped by the big defender’s arrival. Dani Ayala has yet to feature this pre season, but it will be interesting to see how the pair fares together. I would be much happier with someone who is more comfortable on the ball alongside one of them. But throw that ball into the box and how they play with their feet won’t matter.

Equally, it felt in some games that despite having Traore’s individuality and that set piece proficiency, you didn’t have a clear playing identity. Is that a concern?

In the crudest sense, our identity was to defend and break on the right! Pulis has always built his sides on strong defence and pace out wide, even back in his Stoke days. For me, I think we could be a bit more refined in our approach, even if it is defensive and set piece driven. Hopefully we will be a bit more mobile in the middle with the addition of Paddy McNair and the possibility of adding another forward player.

There are suggestions that Ben Gibson could be off, potentially to Southampton. Would you be sad to see one of your own depart?

Gibson is another excellent academy product, but I don’t think we can contribute any more to his development. He needs to play in the Premier League to improve, which he does need to do, and a team like Southampton would certainly fit that profile. Personally, if we can raise more than £20m for Gibson I’d snap your hand off.

Your full-backs in the play-off semi-final against Aston Villa were Ryan Shotton and George Friend; neither look the best going forward. Does Pulis have problems trusting more adventurous full-backs like the now-departed Fabio Da Silva?

Pulis does what Pulis wants. And Pulis wants defence first full backs! To be fair, especially playing alongside Downing, Friend was able to get forward a lot, and although not always at his best, is decent at this level. Shotton is purely there to back up Traore and make sure that we don’t get caught out on that side. Defensive full backs are not a problem if you have a dynamic midfield and incisive forward play, which I think is more of an issue.

There were a few games last season when you had a slow left-winger in Stewart Downing and two or three midfielders – including Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter – who seemed to do more without the ball than with it. Is a shake-up required to reduce the creative burden on Traore?

100%. If Traore was stifled, like in the Villa games, then we have very little going forward. Our midfield is not a real threat and as I’ve mentioned, a lack of dynamism has been an ongoing theme for a number of years. Clayton and Leadbitter have been mainstays since the Karanka era, but they had a more varied attack in front of them. McNair’s arrival should signal a move towards midfield being more involved in the play, but another addition would be welcome in this area. A creative player to play off the striker would be the real holy grail.

Pulis admitted at one point last season that the team looked better with Britt Assombalonga up top, after Patrick Bamford got injured. Do you think Assombalonga might start at Millwall?

Who knows! I don’t actually think we are blessed in the forward areas despite the amount of money we have spent. Rudy Gestede, Bamford, Ashley Fletcher and to a lesser extent Assombalonga all strike me as more support strikers rather than the main man. I would love to see Assombalonga and Bamford in the side together. I think their skill set would compliment each other. Traore out wide right, with a new left sided player, and Howson and McNair in the middle. It’s not going to happen, and the jury’s out on whether Assombalonga will even be at Boro when we play Millwall!

Boro aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

It will be another hard slog in the league, and there will definitely be a few teams who surprise in the first few months of the season. Aitor Karanka will certainly be looking to challenge at the top of the table, but I’m not sure you can really be a dark horse when you’re spending over £10m on a single player. I also think another ex-Boro boss Tony Mowbray will keep Blackburn up and possibly even get a top half finish.

Where will you finish?

Heart – promoted
Head – top 6

Thanks to Rob for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Boro can be found on We Love Betting from late July.