MIDDLESBROUGH may not have kicked a competitive ball in anger so far this season, but it is safe to say they have already got one thing right.
After chairman Steve Gibson’s now infamous declaration that the Riverside Stadium outfit intended to “smash” the Championship last summer – with Teesside hopes subsequently fortified by a £40m spending spree – Boro have, rather sensibly, kept their powder drier this time around.
Last year, the money that Steve (owner Gibson) spent is still there. You are looking at it, and it is about working for the football club and trying to get it sorted out so we do not get in a very bad position.Tony Pulis
Given an ultimately unsuccessful 2017-18 campaign it is just as well. Once bitten, twice shy.
A relatively low-key close-season has seen Boro keep their predictions in-house. No loose tongues; just how manager Tony Pulis no doubt likes it. An old-school manager who knows that talk can be cheap and dangerous in the brutal Championship.
Words have been swapped for deeds and hard graft. Lots of it judging by a pre-season schedule that has included not one, but two training camps – to Austria and Germany respectively.
Having constructed successful sides in the past at Stoke City and West Brom, who were high on organisation, fitness and character and defensively robust, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that Pulis should be following that same template at Boro.
For all Boro’s millions spent last summer the team lacked identity and tactical cohesiveness in the first half of last season, which resembled a total mish-mash.
It is a charge that is unlikely to be thrown at them this time around when players are sure to be made aware in no uncertain terms about their roles and responsibilities.
The signing of a defensive enforcer in Aden Flint – all 6ft 5ins of him – from Bristol City and a tall, imposing central midfielder in Paddy McNair has added ballast to the ranks of Boro, again in keeping with Pulis’s maxim of building teams who are physically strong and hard to break down.
For those who know their Boro history those obdurate qualities have served the Teessiders infinitely well in several promotion campaigns of yore, too.
Boro’s promotion class of 2015-16 under Aitor Karanka was built upon a bedrock of defensive resistance with the side boasting the best goals against record in the division.
It was a feat also achieved by the side promoted under Lennie Lawrence in 1991-92.
In both instances Boro finished as runners-up in the second tier following play-off elimination in the previous campaigns (2014-15 and 1990-91) – and a re-run would certainly not go amiss on Teesside.
Not that Pulis, a known history buff who counts Napoleon as the historic statesman from whom he draws the most inspiration, will be delving too much into his latest club’s record books as he leads his own troops into battle. It is all about the here and now.
A side in the Pulis image may be taking shape in a defensive sense, but issues still pervade in the final third of the pitch.
The future of star man Adama Traore, who perhaps more than anyone propelled Boro into promotion contention last term, is uncertain and Boro also look short of another forward and wing option.
Ashley Fletcher has yet to convince during his time at the Riverside – he ended last season on loan at relegated Sunderland – while Martin Braithwaite left the club for a temporary stint at Bordeaux – around a month after the arrival of Pulis.
Last summer’s £15m marquee recruit in Britt Assombalonga was also used sparingly by Pulis before a late-season mini-revival. It remains to be seen if the Welshman trusts him enough to lead the line in the forthcoming campaign – with speculation about his future being rife earlier this summer.
Boro do have active targets. Yet Pulis, mindful of the excesses spent during the ill-fated Garry Monk era, has pledged to tread carefully in the market and not jeopardise the club’s future financial health.
“I really think we need an injection of a couple of players, just to give everything a bit of a boost,” said Pulis.
“But it is difficult. It is a difficult market out there because the money that people are paying is just phenomenal.
“There are big risks. Last year, the money that Steve (owner Gibson) spent is still there. You are looking at it, and it is about working for the football club and trying to get it sorted out so we do not get in a very bad position.”
With the summer transfer window closing for permanent signings on August 9 at 5pm, it is the sight of Traore remaining a Boro player by the time that the deadline elapses, as opposed to the additions of newcomers, which would be greeted with the most relief.
With few genuine game-breakers in their ranks that is the fervent hope. But with the former Barcelona speedster having an £18m release clause, and several clubs keen on him, his future is in the lap of the footballing gods.
On Traore, sidelined for a few weeks with a shoulder injury sustained in last Friday’s abandoned friendly with Sunderland, Pulis observed: “I think everybody, especially me, wants him to be here.
“But I think everybody knows he has a clause in his contract and if that money is reached it is almost taken out of the club’s hands.
“But I have got great respect for the boy and everybody here is hoping and praying he stays.”