Long read: One year on Middlesbrough still haven't replaced the attacking prowess of Adama Traore and Patrick Bamford
When former manager Tony Pulis arrived at Middlesbrough on Boxing Day 2017, he came with a damaging reputation.
Throughout his career, the experienced Welshman has made a name for himself by keeping teams up and ‘getting the job done’ following spells in the Premier League with Stoke, Crystal Palace and West Brom.
But, in an age where many fans arrive at football matches expecting to be entertained, Pulis’ tactics have often been criticised in recent years, especially when expectations are high and his team stop winning.
Only four teams in the Championship scored less goals than Boro last season (Ipswich, Bolton, Millwall and Stoke), as the Riverside crowd grew increasingly frustrated with the manager’s lack of ambition.
But if you cast your mind back to the start of Pulis’ Teesside tenure, there were signs that things just might work.
In his first Boro away game on New Year’s Day in 2018, Boro came from behind to beat play-off rivals Preston 3-2 in a topsy-turvy affair.
Two games later the Teessiders netted three goals on the road again, this time without reply as they swept past QPR with ease.
More impressively Pulis began to get a tune out of the enigmatic Adama Traore, who was finally able to demonstrate his obvious talent.
After failing to score and providing just two assists in the first half of the campaign under Garry Monk, Traore, who was previously criticised for his lack of end product, finished the season with five goals and 10 assists.
Traore was the sort of player who would get fans on the edge of their seats. When he took on a defender one-on-one, he could glide past them with ease. You just didn’t know what the winger was going to do next. That was the exciting part.
Another player who helped Pulis’ side barge their way into the play-offs in 2018 was the technically-gifted Patrick Bamford, who scored nine goals in a seven-game period under Pulis.
That included a hat-trick against Leeds in March, when Bamford and Traore combined emphatically to guide Boro to a 3-0 win.
Prior to that, Bamford netted twice in a gripping 3-3 draw against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, flourishing in a central role after Rudy Gestede was ruled out through injury.
But, after spending heavily in the summer of 2017, it appeared Boro needed to balance the books last summer, with chairman Steve Gibson wary of the EFL’s Financial Fair Play rules.
With that in mind, Ben Gibson (Burnley), Traore (Wolves) and Bamford (Leeds) all left for sizable fees.
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Those transfers may have been difficult to prevent, especially when Gibson and Traore had aspirations of playing in the Premier League.
Yet the crux of the matter is, Boro still haven’t found a way to replace Traore, or indeed Bamford, which has significantly depleted their attacking force.
Pulis made it clear last January that his side were short of pace and power in wide areas, yet the club weren’t able to sign the winger he craved.
The manager’s response was to revert to what he knows best – get men behind the ball, sure up the defence, try to make his side difficult to beat.
The Riverside crowd quickly grew tired, and the atmosphere became toxic once Boro slipped out of the play-off spots at the end of March.
Supporters want to see goals, someone who can beat a man and attacking football – within reason.
New head coach Jonathan Woodgate appears to recognise that - but does he have the players who can get fans excited again?
Whether it was down to tactics or the individuals, too many of Boro’s players appeared to take the conservative approach last season - the side’s most likely route to goal coming via a long-range Lewis Wing strike or piece of Britt Assombalonga brilliance.
And crucially, after 46 games, Boro’s safety first approach was unsuccessful, with Pulis’ side missing out on the play-offs and finishing 16 points adrift of the automatic promotion places.
As Woodgate has pointed out, in the last few years teams have won promotion with their attacking qualities - champions Norwich netted 93 goals last season, while previous winners Wolves and Bournemouth adopted a similar approach.
One year on, Boro still haven’t replaced the likes of Bamford and Traore, and the attacking prowess they brought to the table.
In the first clips of Boro’s first training sessions under Woodgate, we saw glimpses of slick, one-touch passing drills which certainly look appealing at first glance.
The club’s new head coach has also spoke about bringing fans back to the Riverside next season, stopping the gradual attendance decline which was apparent last term.
To do that Boro will have to find a style of football their supporters can engage with, as well as a way to get them excited again.