Birmingham City 1-2 Middlesbrough Six Things: bullish Boro blunt Blues

Britt Assombalonga – bbc.co.uk

A sturdy defensive display and a late goal from Britt Assombalonga’s gave Championship promotion contenders Middlesbrough a 2-1 victory at Birmingham City on Saturday. Here’s our Six Things from the game

Jota and Maghoma nullified

Tony Pulis’ will never deliver exciting football, but there is something to be respected, if not admired or loved, about the way he sets his team up without the ball. Birmingham’s main creative outlets are their wide men, Jota, a left-footer on the right and Jacques Maghoma, vice versa. Pulis therefore fielded five central midfielders, in order to deny space for them to cut inside; Jonny Howson and George Saville fulfilled selfless roles to protect Dael Fry and George Friend from Maghoma and Jota respectively. Even when Birmingham have not won, the wide duo have almost always been very influential, so the fact that Pulis devised a system that nullified their influence for large spells, including the entirety of the first half, is a sign of his organizational nous.

Middlesbrough’s clear cut chances

The build-up play from the Teessiders was at times slow and turgid, which was why they did not create a high quantity of openings. However, the first half chances they did create were of the clear cut variety. Firstly, goal-line heroics from a combination of Gary Gardner and Kristian Pedersen denied Jordan Hugill and then Dael Fry in quick succession. Fry then set up the opening goal; after some nice inter-play between Howson and the tireless Hugill, he got to the byline and crossed low, as Saville’s dart to the near-post to deceive Birmingham’s rear-guard, giving the vibrant Lewis Wing the initiative to tap home at the back-post unchartered.

Kieftenbeld partner needed

Maikel Kieftenbeld is one of the best ball-winners in the Championship; his energy and tenacity was a key factor behind Birmingham’s improved second half display. However, one cannot help but feel that Blues are crying out for a more cultured midfielder to sit alongside him and pull the strings in a technical and tactical way; neither Gardner brother quite filled that role in 45 minutes apiece. Blues rely very heavily on their front four for quality; in a high-intensity second half, they had two penalty appeals turned down, Lukasz Jutkiewicz’s low free-kick was saved by Darren Randolph before Che Adams levelled with a superbly taken strike from outside the box. Against defensive opposition however, a little more quality from deep would make a huge difference.

Substitutions the key

Garry Monk might have planned to replace Kieftenbeld with striker Isaac Vassell, back in the squad after 15 months on the treatment table, while his side were a goal down. His decision to sanction the substitution after Adams’ leveller seemed appealing in the emotion of the moment, when Boro looked there for the taking, but it did disrupt the balance and leave Blues wide open in central areas. Another substitute, Britt Assombalonga, exploited that vulnerability; the former Forest front-man latched onto a delightful through ball from the impressive Wing before dinking the ball over the onrushing Lee Camp with immaculate ease.

Blues still on track

Given that Birmingham have gone into the final day facing the possibility of relegation in three of the last five seasons, the target should be to rubber-stamp survival as quickly as possible. Of course, attaining the remaining 11 points from the final 19 games to reach the 50-point mark will be a formality, but it could be that 62 or 65 points are required considering the possibility of a deduction for off-field reasons. That should be achieved because while Blues weren’t at their best on Saturday, they threw bodies in the way of shots in the first half, then pressed aggressively in the second; every week, those players give everything they have to produce the best possible version of themselves.

Does Pulis deserve more respect?

“The worst football I’ve seen for 25 years” was one Boro fan’s pre-match assessment of the Pulis regime – the subsequent display at St Andrews is unlikely to have changed his mind. And yet, perversely, it is almost impressive that the wily Welshman’s side could pass as badly as they did in B9 for long spells yet still, quite comfortably, have the pick of the game’s major chances. That, plus a defensive record of 19 goals in 27 league matches, tells us that this Boro side is incredibly well-drilled. Like Pulis or loathe him, his ability to respond to the opposition’s strengths and organize his team accordingly cannot be questioned.