Championship Gameweek 30: Tight First Half At The Hawthorns?6 min read
With at least one of Leeds and Norwich guaranteed to drop points when they meet on Saturday teatime, West Bromwich Albion have an opportunity to gain ground on the automatic promotion race.
They will, however, have to get past clean sheet specialists Middlesbrough, as Tony Pulis returns to The Hawthorns for the first time since leaving the Baggies in 2017.
Tony Pulis can be a divisive figure: there are some fans of teams he has managed who believe his methods to be out of sync with the direction of modern football – and not without some justification.
To dub him a dinosaur though would be to overlook his ability to organize a team with uniquely meticulous precision.
While his side’s use of the ball can leave room for improvement, their work without it is by far the best in the division.
When Middlesbrough went to Birmingham in January, Pulis picked five central midfielders, with Jonny Howson and George Saville occupying wide roles.
That is not exactly common practice, but his decision helped nullify the home side’s normally influential inverted wide men in a 2-1 victory; the Teessiders created the better chances in that match, even if they were not dominant in terms of general play.
When opposing attacks get ahead of steam, midfielder Adam Clayton can diligently position himself between the ball and the most advanced opposing player that centre-backs are not marking, so that he is frequently in Position A to clear the danger.
Plus, John Obi Mikel has recently joined to offer physicality and composure in midfield.
Middlesbrough have kept 13 clean sheets this season – three more than any other side – Pulis’ leadership is a big part of that.
Midlanders’ main men missing
West Bromwich Albion’s squad has been imbalanced.
In many of their games this season, they have been second-best in the middle-third for considerable spells but, when they have got into the final third, they have been sufficiently productive and clinical to make it count.
The quartet of Matt Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Harvey Barnes and Dwight Gayle had been crucial.
The drive of Phillips on the right of the midfield three and the movement of Rodriguez in a false nine type role had created openings for Albion, while Barnes, a magician on the left of the attacking trio and Gayle, a poacher on the right, provided the finishing touches to those moves.
The problem manager Darren Moore now has though is that Phillips has been out injured while loanee Barnes has been recalled by parent club Leicester.
Their performance in their last league game, a 2-0 victory at 23rd-placed Bolton, was not the most convincing.
Although Gayle can be a good finisher at this level, he is unlikely to be particularly influential in the build-up play, taking just 21 touches in 90 minutes in the last league games.
Phillips, meanwhile, is hoping to be back fit but he does have history of picking up injuries and not quite returning as sharp as he used to be, because his influence depends on his ability to drive forward with the ball without fear or inhibition.
In three of Middlesbrough’s five trips to top half opposition, the game has been goalless at the interval, which highlights their determination to keep things tight early on in these types of games.
West Brom, meanwhile, have been level at half-time in 14 of their 28 league encounters, with just 35