“People go on about my style of play. But I tell you what I do – I go into football clubs, I try to find out what systems suit the players and I try to get the damnedest out of those players.” – Tony Pulis
Tony Pulis offered up the above statement in defence of his oft criticised Pulis-ball style of play. Long balls, long throws and back four of centre backs were what we were told to expect when he was presented as Boro manager.
So the above statement must have been comforting to those Boro players who don’t fit the Pulis mould and were expecting the cold shoulder.
Well we didn’t quite get four centre backs for Pulis’ first full game in charge against Villa. No, we only got the three. Why we could interpret this as progression from Pulis? You could counter that with the fact that Tony took his four tallest experienced defenders from his newly inherited squad.
One man who will rightly be aggrieved at this decision is Cyrus Christie. Ask any Boro fan who would be their first pick for a back four slot based on form this season and it would likely be Cyrus.
He has been a vital attacking outlet and has barely put a foot wrong defensively, which is especially impressive given how error prone the Boro backline has been this season. Boro haven’t looked the same team when he hasn’t played. Unfortunately for Pulis and the Boro fans, that statement also applied to today’s game.
In a game were Boro managed a paltry one shot on target, Christie’s forward runs were sorely missed.
His ability to create space for others further up the field or put in a cross on the overlap could well have contributed to increasing that paltry shot count. Playing with a centre back at full back (Shotton may have played full back in the past, but he’s primarily a centre back), particularly in a home game where Boro would need to attack, was puzzling.
What was even more puzzling was that Pulis elected to break up a backline that kept a clean sheet in the previous game.
Yes, Tony has elected to utilise the Shotton long throw, but why not try and retain the Gibson-Shotton centre back partnership that was starting to show promise.
That way you could retain Christie on the right and in Gibson and Friend you have enough height to send up from the back for those coveted Pulis set pieces.
Fabio will also feel hard done by, particularly as errors by Gibson and Friend resulted in the only goal of today’s game. Statistics aren’t everything, but the whoscored.com rankings showing Fabio and Christie as two of Boro’s best players are pretty much on the money.
Cyrus Christie, Matin Braithwaite and Britt Assombalonga make the WhiScored team of the week.
Cyrus Christie still holds the RB slot in team of the season. pic.twitter.com/oPjHy4KaVA
— 📊 ʙᴏʀᴏꜱᴛᴀᴛꜱ™ WC2018 (@boroform) December 27, 2017
Overlapping full backs have been an enjoyable part of Boro’s play over recent years, going as far back as Mowbray with even George’s cavalier runs retained by Karanka.
Perhaps today will cause Pulis to have a rethink but I fear that the centre back as full back era is upon us. If this results in the loss of fine full backs such as Fabio and Christie, we will all, Pulis included, be poorer for it.