Joe Nicholson's verdict: Middlesbrough are the Championship's in-form side - and 2020 looks an exciting prospect
New year, fresh start. That was certainly the case for Rudy Gestede at Deepdale on Wednesday afternoon.
The towering frontman didn’t make a single start in the whole of 2019 but came in from the cold to produce a man of the match performance in a 2-0 win over Preston.
At times the Benin international was unplayable and he could have added to his 40th-minute opener which catapulted Boro to a fourth straight victory - aided by a second-half own goal from defender Ben Davies.
What a difference a couple of weeks can make, and, remarkably, Jonathan Woodgate’s side are now just seven points off the play-offs.
Over an excellent festive period, Boro have evolved into the Championship’s in-form side.
Opposition bosses must be wondering how exactly they prepare to face the Teessiders, who seamlessly switched from a 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2 against the Lillywhites.
After an outstanding result against West Brom three days ago, it would have been easy for Woodgate to stick with the same side and formation here.
Instead, the Boro boss went with his gut and it paid off big time.
Boro have learnt to play to their strengths under Woodgate and they certainly utilised the physicality and aerial ability of Gestede.
The Teessiders have been at their best this season when pressing teams high up the pitch, and Preston continuously struggled to breach the visitors forward line.
When they were forced to defend, Boro’s backline stood firm, even when captain Daniel Ayala was forced off with an ankle injury on 37 minutes.
Paddy McNair took the Spaniard’s place and was rock solid alongside Dael Fry and Jonny Howson. As Woodgate pointed out, two of those players are naturally attacking midfielders.
Boro also had an outlet on the break, particularly through the lively Marcus Tavernier who operated in an advanced role behind Fletcher and Gestede.
Time and time again, the playmaker broke through the middle to carve the hosts open. Boro could have scored more against a side with the best home record in the Championship.
And if the last few weeks are anything to go by, 2020 could be an exciting year for this improving side.