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Britt should take flak as a positive - it shows he is rated by the boss.

Byline: JONATHON TAYLOR jonathon.taylor@trinitymirror.com @JonathonTaylor1

WHY is Britt Assombalonga getting so much flak? It seems baffling to me.

By taking Boro's late penalty against Reading on Saturday, the 25-year-old seems to have opened Pandora's Box.

We all know what happened. The search is ongoing halfway down the A66 to try to find the ball, which sailed harmlessly over Vito Mannone's crossbar.

It was strange that captain Grant Leadbitter did not take the spot-kick, but it happens. You can bet your bottom dollar that such a spot-kick squabble won't happen again under Tony Pulis' watch.

Assombalonga wanted to take the penalty. Of course he did - he's a striker. We should all be worried if he didn't want it.

Former Boro striker Jordan Rhodes received a barrage of abuse after opting against taking a penalty in Sheffield Wednesday's crunch playoff shootout with Huddersfield at the end of last season.

Fans want to see their No 9 demanding the ball. They want to see their No 9 taking the lead, grabbing the bull by the horns. Assombalonga did that.

Managers so often play down the importance when their striker endures a barren run. 'So long as the team is winning, it doesn't matter who scores the goals.'.

But Assombalonga will be irked by his eight-game streak without a goal. It'll be on his mind, niggling away.

Putting the ball in the net is his bread and butter. He's been gasping of late. That opportunity from 12 yards was his oxygen bottle.

Alas, he missed and now faces another difficult week waiting for another chance for redemption. He might not start at Cardiff on Saturday. He might have to wait in the wings for a little longer.

But any football fan knows what Assombalonga is. He's a goalscorer who has always averaged a goal every other game throughout his career.

He might have only scored once since Boxing Day, and only one of his 12 goals this season may have come against a top-half Championship side.

But he is still not far shy from that golden 'one in two' strike-rate on Teesside. He has shown that he can score goals at this level. He has shown exactly why Boro made him their PS15m club record signing last summer.

So what are the reasons why he has gone off the boil in recent weeks.

Is it down to work-rate? Is it down to a lack of clarity of what the new manager wants from him? Is it down to insecurity? It's possibly a combination of all three. The fact is that his guaranteed starting role under Garry Monk has now disappeared.

Every time he has started, he has been substituted in the second half. Cynics will claim that is because he failed to make an impact on the game, but the pro-Assombalonga brigade will argue the player has been withdrawn at a time when opposition defenders have just started to tire and players' concentration levels dip.

When coming off the bench, like at Norwich last weekend, he was given precious little time to make his mark. His runout at Carrow Road lasted just eight minutes.

The player will be worried. Every time a game hits the hour mark, Assombalonga must be looking over at the touchline waiting for his number to go up. When he comes off the bench, he knows he must affect a game almost instantly.

It is something brought up by Patrick Bamford shortly after resigning for Boro in January 2017. He had spent the best part of 18 months in and out at Crystal Palace, Norwich and then Burnley. "The annoying thing is that as a player you know you need two or three games in a row to get your rhythm and confidence," Bamford told The Gazette . "But when you're playing for five minutes here, then not playing for two games, then another five minutes - it doesn't help.

"That's part of my frustration, I've always believed in myself and my ability but when you don't have a chance to show it... I know if I was given a chance I could have changed a few opinions.

"Part of me was gutted when I was put on for two minutes because it's killed my goal ratio! But if you look at my ratio over 90 minutes, it's not too bad."

Assombalonga played the full 90 minutes under Monk on 18 separate occasions and scored 11 goals. Under Pulis, he has not completed a single 90 minutes - and has yet to find the net.

Ultimately, Assombalonga doesn't warrant special attention. Pulis will pick the striker who impresses him most on the training ground. He'll say it is down to the players themselves to convince him - and that's how it should be.

Having said that, there is an increasing perception on Teesside that Pulis is perhaps giving Assombalonga a cold shoulder, that the manager's criticism towards him is more cutting than perhaps towards Gestede or Bamford.

But ask yourself why. Is it because Boro's new boss doesn't fancy Assombalonga? Has he closed the door on him already? Of course not. Pulis is giving his star striker 'the treatment' because he recognises just what he can offer. He knows there's more to come from him. And he wants to squeeze every last drop out of him.

If Pulis feels the only way to get that extra 5% from Assombalonga is by using the 'stick' approach in public to spark the player into life, and if it works, then frankly that's good management.

But if it is not working, and if the player's confidence is dipping, then perhaps a different approach is needed.

Assombalonga might be frustrated by his personal drought, but his confidence hasn't disappeared. If it had, he wouldn't have grabbed the ball on Saturday.

There's no doubt that Boro's profligacy in front of goal has proven costly in recent weeks and Pulis knows his side is playing catch-up in the promotion race. They are further away from their objective now than they were on the night Monk was sacked.

But it's clear to see that the foundations are in place for a sustained tilt. If Pulis's Boro played against Monk's Boro tomorrow, there would only be one winner.

So Assombalonga should take Pulis's criticism as a compliment - because the Boro boss wouldn't bother if he didn't see something worth coaxing out of him.

CAPTION(S):

Tony Pulis would not bother with Assombalonga if he did not rate him

Assombalonga will want to get back to his scoring ways

The penalty miss will have done nothing for the player's confidence
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Feb 14, 2018
Words:1100
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