Joe Nicholson's verdict: Excellent West Brom display shows just how far Middlesbrough have come
It’s hard to believe that less than a month ago, Middlesbrough travelled to Leeds United before a 4-0 thrashing at Elland Road.
On that chastening day in West Yorkshire, Jonathan Woodgate’s side never looked like they stood a chance against a rampant Whites outfit fighting for promotion.
What a difference a couple of weeks makes.
Who would have thought that just 29 days later, Boro would inflict a first home defeat of the season on Championship leaders West Brom to finally register an away win this season.
It’s now three straight wins for the Teessiders who moved nine points clear of the Championship relegation zone with a 2-0 win at the Hawthorns.
The result was deserved too, and what a transformation we’ve seen over the Christmas period.
Earlier in the season, Boro were showing signs of progress operating with a back three and wing-backs, yet sometimes it doesn’t matter what system you play – it simply comes down to the players on the pitch.
In recent weeks, Woodgate has switched from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3, but the main difference has been personnel.
Young full-backs Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence have been revelations since returning from injury and stepping up to the senior side respectively.
Marcus Tavernier has also improved, as has Lewis Wing, while the experience of players such as Jonny Howson and Daniel Ayala have provided a constant backbone.
Ayala was immense against the Baggies and, after heading his side ahead in the 17th minute, the towering centre-back made several important blocks and interceptions alongside Dael Fry.
But while the visitors saw less of the ball and came under the cosh in the second half, West Brom keeper Sam Johnstone was the busier of the two stoppers.
Boro always posed a threat on the break through the pace of Spence, Coulson and Tavernier, while Fletcher continuously beavered away up top before his stunning strike in stoppage time.
Adam Clayton and George Saville also deserve a mention for their solid displays in midfield - West Brom’s playmaker Matheus Pereira was subsequently shackled.
Woodgate was keen not to get too carried away after such a fantastic result – yet this Boro side are quickly heading in the right direction.