By Philip Tallentire
You can’t keep good men down and Middlesbrough pulled off a remarkable victory at West Brom thanks to Tony Pulis’s tactical acumen and Britt Assombalonga’s brilliant finishing. Super Eagles Skipper John Mikel Obi, was also outstanding in his debut in the championship.
Boro took the lead before West Brom hit back after the break with goals either side of the half-time break.
But supersub Assombalonga scored two outstanding goals to turn defeat into victory and give his side’s promotion campaign a massive shot in the arm.
The three to miss out at the Hawthorns were Ashley Fletcher, Assombalonga and Stewart Downing.
On the face of it, the omission of Downing, who was named on the bench, had little to do with form, however, and a lot to do with a contract wrangle with the club.
However, it’s also true to say Pulis has tended not to use the experienced midfielder on the road since resting him for the trip to Reading before Christmas.
Coming back into the side were Dael Fry, Mo Besic and Jordan Hugill.
John Obi Mikel, who started against Newport, made his league debut for Boro against the Baggies.
Pulis reverted to a five man defence at the Hawthorns, naming Ryan Shotton and George Friend as wing-backs either side of Dael Fry, Dani Ayala and Aden Flint.
The midfield, meanwhile, featured Lewis Wing, Mikel, Besic and George Saville while Hugill led the line up front.
It was Pulis’s first return to West Brom in a managerial capacity since he left the Baggies in November 2017.
In his pre-match press conference, the Boro boss joked that he would be wearing his “tin hat” during the game to deal with the criticism he would get from the home supporters.
And the first critical chant could be heard as the teams emerged from the tunnel.
The game kicked off in freezing conditions and bright winter sunshine while a decent crowd made for a big match atmosphere.
Boro’s intent to stifle free-scoring Albion was evident from the opening exchanges as rigid five-man defence lined up as soon as the hosts won possession.
Adding an extra line of defence was Mikel, who patrolled the zone between the back five and the three advanced midfielders.
But it was Darren Randolph who made the telling contribution when the hosts created the first chance of the match in the third minute.
Veteran Gareth Barry had the shot, side-footing the ball towards goal from Shotton’s attempted clearance but the Boro keeper showed excellent reactions to dive to his right and palm the effort around the post.
The second part of Pulis’s gameplan was to hit the Baggies on the break and Boro managed to do that in the 11th minute but the attack ended with Besic firing a wild shot wide.
It was a similar story just after the quarter hour mark when Wing lofted an ambitious shot over the bar from the edge of the box with passing options either side of him.
Those two attacks were evidence that Boro were settling into the game.
West Brom certainly fount it hard to play through the tall, resolute defence and they unwisely chose to play high balls into the box when they had the opportunity to cross from wide areas. Teams have prospered against Boro when they get behind the defence and hit low balls towards the six-yard box.
Albion were certainly the architects of their own downfall when they fell behind, though the credit partially goes to Pulis, who made sure he left a couple of midfielders high up the pitch with Hugill when the home keeper had the ball in hand.
As a result, Saville was on hand to catch Barry in possession inside the West Brom half and he then charged towards goal before firing wide of keeper Sam Johnstone in the 17th minute.
It was exactly the start Pulis will have been hoping and planning for and it also had the effect of turning the home supporters against their own players.
Howls of frustration could be heard from the stands when a West Brom pass went astray.
Boro’s growing confidence was on show in the 18th minute when Ayala, of all people, cut in from the left and hit a shot that Johnstone gathered comfortably.
West Brom were rattled but they did manage to create a half-chance midway through the half when Kieran Gibbs floated in a cross from the left but Hal Robson-Kanu’s looping header sailed harmlessly over the bar.
Then, in the 32nd minute, Robson-Kanu attempted a spectacular volley which never looked like hitting the target.
Boro looked odds-on to get to half-time 1-0 up but Albion hit back in the 42nd minute after taking advantage of a rare lapse in concentration from the visitor’s defence.
The move started with yet another West Brom high cross from the left and Flint headed it clear with relative ease but, for once, there were no covering players on the edge of the box to claim possession and the ball dropped for Rakeem Harper who drilled a low cross/shot to the far post where Jay Rodriguez turned it home from close range.
Pulis will have been furious that his team conceded a sloppy goal after carrying out his gameplan so effectively for most of the half.
Boro pressed forward from the re-start and Flint headed wide in stoppage time before the half-time whistle blew.
West Brom dominated the opening 10 minutes of the second half, forcing Boro back into their own half and it took a good save to keep out Harper’s 49th minute effort.
Randolph was again involved two minutes later when he kept out another Harper attempt, this time a stinging low drive from the far post following two blocked shots as the ball ping-ponged back and forth in the penalty area.
Besic had been guilty of some loose passing and he was replaced in the 53rd minute by Jonny Howson, who slotted into the midfield vacancy left by the Bosnian.
On the hour mark Ahmed Hegazi found himself in space an hit a long-range shot that Randolph saved easily.
Two minutes later Friend won the ball deep in his own half near the left touchline then charged forward before passing to Howson who played a lovely ball to Hugill in the inside right channel but the striker’s shot lacked power and Johnstone saved.
It felt like a goal was imminent and so it proved when Dwight Gayle put Albion ahead in the 63rd minute with a deflected drive.
Pulis immediately made a change, taking off Fry and sending on Assombalonga, who joined Hugill up front in a re-shuffled 4-1-3-2 formation.
The Boro boss made a further change in the 75 minute, taking off Mikel and sending on Rajiv van La Parra.
Trailing by a goal after leading 1-0, the chances of Boro fightback looked slim as the home side tried to increase their lead.
But Assombalonga was at his lethal best in the closing stages and his two goals were ruthlessly dispatched.
His first, a powerful shot, came in the 75 minute and it silenced the home fans and led to an explosion of joy from the travelling supporters behind that goal.
Then came Assombalonga’s second. The striker pounced on a mistake by ex-Boro winger Chris Brunt inside the Baggies box, pinching the ball then shooting on the turn to put his side ahead.
The hosts tried to force a late equaliser and Randolph made a fine stoppage time save to keep out Craig Dawson’s half-volley. But Boro held on for a priceless win.