Tony Pulis teams aren’t known for being a haven for goal-scorers. When people are selecting their Fantasy Teams few would be picking strikers under Tony Pulis’s management.
The last time a striker under Pulis scored more than 20 was Carl Asaba for Gillingham in 1998-99 season in the old 2nd Division. Ricardo Fuller scored 15 in Stoke’s promotion season in 2007-08, and scored 11 in the Premier League the following season, but since then only Peter Crouch and Salomon Rondon have made it to 10 goals.
As we saw against QPR, Pulis makes his team a goal-scoring threat from multiple areas. This is a stark contrast to Garry Monk where there was a heavy reliance on Britt Assombalonga’s goals. While the change looks great for Boro as whole, it has been said that this could be troubling times for Britt, who is yet to score under Pulis.
On the contrary I actually think Pulis could have a very positive impact on Britt, and I think the change in style could present an opportunity for him to develop more areas of his game and step up a level as a player. It’s up to him to embrace the change.
The 15 million pound man seemed to fully justify his record-breaking fee with a superb first half of the season with 12 goals. He has, however, developed a reputation for being a “flat-track bully”. It sounds ridiculously obvious to point out but the reason why Assombalonga scores against lower-table teams is because their defences are inferior.
Britt is a poacher and loves to makes runs behind the defence and collect the ball one-on-one. But against better organised, well-drilled defences Boro were stifled and simply unable to create chances for the former Nottingham Forest man, who was denied service and left isolated. With their only threat nullified, Boro constantly struggled against top half opposition.
If Assombalonga was to play the same way in the Premier League he would be starved even more. He has shown he can score goals for fun at this level, but it does seem he has a way to go before making the step up to the top tier of English football.
The role of the striker in the Premier League has evolved tactically, particularly for lower-table teams. The man furthest up the field is almost viewed as the first line of defence as much as a goal-scorer. The lone striker has become a sacrificial figure. Hold-up play is key, as well as an ability to make runs off the ball to open up space for teammates.
To be fair, Assombalonga has already shown he can put in a shift and do dirty work, and can make intelligent runs off the ball to the flank to create space through the middle.
He can be a handful for defenders, the match against Reading calls to mind where he gave the Reading defenders a torrid afternoon. He will need to impose himself on the stronger defences in this league – and Pulis should help Britt develop these areas of his game even further.
Despite his goals some have criticised Britt’s conversion rate, and say that he misses too many good chances. As he’ll be getting fewer chances Britt probably does need to improve his strike-rate, but luckily he does appear to possess a key component that he shares with many great goal-scorers. And that is an almost irrational belief in his own ability.
At Blackburn in the mid-90’s, Chris Sutton was envious of Alan Shearer’s ability to never let a miss bother him. Sutton would mull over a missed chance and let it affect his confidence and maybe second-guess the way he approached his next opportunity. Shearer wouldn’t give a missed chance a second thought. Sutton called it a “delusion” within Shearer that he never considered the possibility that he might miss his next opportunity to score.
In my observation, Assombalonga appears to have that “delusion.” This is an innate gift that not all strikers are born with. Alvaro Morata at Chelsea certainly doesn’t seem to have it. To a lesser extent Romelu Lukaku can have confidence-hit dry spells.
After the 2-1 defeat to Forest where Assombalonga missed three bread-and-butter one-on-one’s, he followed it up two games later with a brace against Bolton. Against Norwich at home Christie crossed to give Britt an open header 6-yards out to equalise, but he headed straight at Gunn and Boro lost. He responded with 6 goals in his next 8 games.
When players have that “deluded” belief in themselves I don’t worry too much about missed chances. In Leicester’s 2015-16 Premier League winning season, Jamie Vardy topped the league in “big chances missed.” Second on the list was Golden Boot winner Harry Kane. Third on the list was Lukaku.
Players who score lots tend to miss a lot (If you look at the list of the NBA’s top 5 list of most shots missed in a career, you’re also looking at a list of the top 5 players of all-time). It’s all about how you respond after a miss that defines truly great goal-scorers. If the goals don’t come readily for Britt under Pulis at least I don’t think it will affect his belief in himself when he does get the chance. And that could be vital down the stretch of a promotion push.
Hopefully Boro will build on the win at QPR and go on a run. But if results go against us fans will undoubtedly look for a whipping-boy, and if Assombalonga isn’t hitting the net regularly he will be a likely target.
But it is important to look past his goal stats. Some fans said Britt was ineffective and isolated at Loftus Road, but his hold-up play was much improved from his starts at Preston and home to Villa, and he also created a great chance for Downing.
In my mind this shows that Assombalonga is being proactive in adapting his game to suit the new manager’s style. If he continues improves his hold-up play he will be effective in bringing others into play and also, crucially for any team managed by Pulis, win free-kicks in dangerous areas.
It’s true that Assombalonga is a few inches shorter than the type of forward Pulis usually goes for. But it’s also somewhat of a myth that Pulis only uses target men. He has said that Fuller was his favorite ever signing, and he was not a traditional target man. Neither is Salomon Rondo.
Yet under Pulis both earned great reputations for being hardworking, unselfish players with great hold-up play, who could be clinical in front of goal when given the chance. Assombalonga should be looking to follow in their footsteps.
After his super start it looked like Assombalongamight be the first player since Bernie Slaven to score 20 league goals in a season. With the arrival of Pulis that might not happen. But hopefully over the time he will start to be recognised for much more than the player who only bangs them in against weak opposition.
And even if he does scores less we should see him evolve as a player and improve his all-round contribution, which will be great for Boro and also for his career as he looks to make it up to the next level.