Two games after the international break and four points on the board. You’d have taken that before the games, wouldn’t you?
Points away from home are a precious commodity no matter what league you are playing in. So after returning to winning ways before the international break, we picked up where we left off against Brentford last Saturday evening.
Tuesday night we came up against a Preston side who, whilst in the bottom half of the table, are the Championship’s form team. So leaving Deepdale with a point is by no means a disgrace.
Grinding out results away from home is a hallmark of a promotion-chasing side and long may it continue if it gets us where we want to be.
Whatever you may say of Tony Pulis’ style, we are an adaptable team and that is largely due to his ability to get players to buy in to his tactical plans.
4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 5-3-2, 4-3-3, whatever formation we have, the players take to the pitch and apply themselves with minimum of fuss.
We changed from our usual formation/s and went with two up front, and it’s safe to say it wasn’t working. Preston dominated the opening exchanges before we got a foothold.
Partly down to Gestede having to go off injured to be replaced by Marcus Tavernier and partly down to his realisation that he himself had got it wrong, Pulis changed the shape and we looked much better.
The aforementioned Tavernier, feeling (rightly) aggrieved to be out of the side after scoring against Brentford, answered in the best way possible by netting the equaliser.
Lewis Wing showed his defensive credentials in the first half with some excellent tracking back and a brilliant tackle, appearing to take on board what Pulis has said previously about his positioning. He also went off with in the 2nd half due to sickness.
After remaining patient for a while coupled with clamour from the fans (including myself) the young duo are beginning to force their way into Pulis’ plans.
Another positive is the terrific recent form of Dael Fry. Asked to play in a position that isn’t his favourite, he has grown in to the role of full back/wing back. This was evidenced by a magnificent cross for Tavernier’s header for Boro’s second goal against Brentford.
Whilst we lamented the absence of Ryan Shotton (never thought I’d type that) Fry took the reins and has excelled in recent games. Fry is a very impressive, uncomplicated player that is attracting Premier League attention currently.
Let’s talk about Rudy Gestede.
A lot of opprobrium has been hurled about when it comes to Gestede and I think it now maybe a time for both parties to cut their losses.
If he could stay fit and has a run in a side, I believe he can be effective. But the injuries he has had during his spell with us seem to have taken a toll on the mental side of his game.
He has lost his aerial presence and cannot impose himself like he has done for other clubs in the past. Pastures new may ignite a spark in him and we should look elsewhere.
Jordan Hugill seems to be up to speed and is now contributing with goals. The role he has played ploughing a lone furrow with little reward can be soul-destroying, but he has stuck to task and coupled with his fully-restored match sharpness, has bagged himself 3 goals in recent games.
It will soon be Christmas and going in to the busiest time of the year for fixtures, Tony Pulis has started to manage his players for the slog ahead.
Resting Mo Besic after playing for Bosnia during the international break and also resting Stewart Downing who has been magnificent this season shows Pulis is playing the squad game. Downing looks like to be earmarked for the visit of Aston Villa on Saturday.
Pulis has already held discussions with the higher-ups regarding his wish list for January but that could be tweaked as this period, coupled with injuries that are slowly piling up, will show the strengths and the weaknesses of this squad.
Looking at the squad as it is I’d say we are well stocked for centre midfielders. It’s the wings that we will be looking at hopefully.
We’re very light at full back and/or wing back with Sam McQueen being ruled out for the rest of the season and Fry being pulled from his familiar centre back role due to Shotton being sidelined.
Should Pulis wish to change and use his wingers they are also thin on the ground.
Downing has been excellent this season when asked to play at wing back or on the wing. But with his advancing years, someone to lighten the workload would not go a miss especially in the long slog that is the Championship.
Martin Braithwaite has also played on the wing but he has not been very effective from there, playing his best football more centrally.
And last but by no means least…. whisper it… a number 10. A Tomlin/Ramirez style lock-picker to turn some of these 0-0s into 1-0s and help us establish ourselves as No. 1, where four or five teams (including ourselves) seem to be letting top spot slip to one another each week.
So Pulis has shown us that he isn’t afraid to admit it when he is wrong and change things when doing so.
His core group of trusted players is growing a little and the squad game is becoming more apparent. And the team are showing true mettle away from home going into the busiest period of the year where a challenge for the top can be established or can fritter away.
I’d go with the former, with Pulis’ obstinance being reflected in the team, meeting all challenges head on.
The visit of free scoring (and conceding) Aston Villa will be an interesting one.
A thumping 4-2 derby win against Birmingham and an incredulous 5-5 draw with Aitor Karanka’s Nottingham Forest (he must have been losing his mind) gives them every hope of breaking down our granite-like defence.
But I fancy us to stem the flood of goals and expose their leaky defence in the process. A fresh Downing to bag an assist or a goal against his old club to keep the momentum up going in to the Christmas period. UTB!