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Pulis's mean men raising the standards.

Byline: ANTHONY VICKERS anthony.vickers@reachplc.com @Untypicalboro

A DICKENSIAN defence with a stingey Scroogelike approach to gifting goals in the present is raising the spectre of promotions past. And future.

Boro have not conceded a goal from open play since the first half of the opening day at Millwall. And it's now October.

Since that curtain-raising chaos, in 10 games the imposing fortifications of the Red Wall have only been penetrated by a craftily concocted penalty at Hull and a goal at Norwich that took a deflection. Boro have clocked up eight clean sheets in the first 11 games and conceded just FOUR goals. Four. That's ridiculous.

And a machine engineered to almost impregnable perfection by Tony Pulis hasn't leaked at all at the Riverside in five games.

They have played the other three teams in the top four - Leeds, West Brom and Sheffield United - and have not only not conceded a goal but have barely given up a sight of goal.

That is incredible. But how does it measure against Boro's other great steely defensive units forged by Jack Charlton and Aitor Karanka? How does that miserly start compare to other promotion sides? And with other team promoted in recent years? And what are the underlying trends. Let's have a look.

Tighter than Aitor Karanka's team? The Basque-to-basics attritional approach of Aitor Karanka has become a cypher for defensive, deep and patient possession and lowscoring games.

They got promoted by strangling games and denying the opposition a sniff of goal and turned defending then nicking a winner into an artform. It became a joy to watch once you bought into 'the methodology and philosophy.' That team was unapologetically defensive: the back four were guarded by a two man human shields in Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter while wideman Albert Adomah and Stewart Downing often dropped deep to operate as auxiliary full-backs.

The cagey Karankistadors squeezed out a staggering 22 clean sheets over the season. They conceded just 31 goals and only eight in 23 home games. That is the modern Boro benchmark for solidity.

At this stage - 11 games in - they had leaked just seven goals and kept five clean sheets. That's not bad. It's good. But alongside the Pulis side they look positively leaky.

Karanka was zealous in his tactical approach and the team bought into it. The high-water mark was a relentlessly rigid run on nine clean sheets on the bounce through the winter of 2015 that welded together the promotion platform.

It was actually a shock when Boro finally conceded in stoppage time at Bristol: an Aden Flint flick on from a corner for Burns to nod home.

What about Charlton's Champions? Big Jack's side set a high bar for organisation, work-rate and security at the back.

Once promoted he was to turn that up a notch and they became branded 'boring, boring Boro' but in the promotion campaign they played an assertive counter-attacking style with Alan Foggon breaking from deep, the full-backs bombing on with silk and steel Graeme Souness and Bobby Murdoch pulling the strings.

Boro battered some teams. They dismantled Sheffield Wednesday 8-0 and won 4-0 three times in the run in.

But it started from the back: classy ball player Willie Maddren and robust Stuart Boam were rock solid in the centre with John Craggs and Frank Spraggon as the full-backs, a unit that rarely changed.

That side actually lost two of the first three and leaked five goals in those before Charlton gave them a rocket and rapidly imposed exacting new standards imported from Leeds.

They went on to keep a hefty 25 clean sheets and leaked just 30 goals in all.

And, even after that rocky start, by this stage had clocked up eight clean sheets - the same as this Pulis team - and had leaked just six goals. To be ahead of that takes some doing.

How about other promoted Boro teams? Bruce Rioch's team shrugged off the liquidation crisis to win promotion on the back of 27 clean sheets and leaked just 30 goals.

Those are remarkable figures, although it was in the third tier. That said, they followed up the following season with 22 clean sheets and just 36 goals against in the higher division.

Both Bryan Robson's promotion sides kept 18 clean sheets and were within a fraction of leaking the same number of goals, 40 and 41, which shows consistency.

And Lennie Lawrence's were quite close to that mark with 16 clean sheets and 41 conceded.

They were all solid enough sides but not really in the Pulis ball park.

What about recently-promoted sides? There is a perception that Wolves' sweep to promotion last year blew teams away.

In fact they scored 82 goals. It was the best in the division but well short of all the top three in Boro's play-off season when champions Bournemouth bagged 98.

Wolves were the best side in the league by far and finished on 99 points building their promotion charge on the back of 17 1-0 wins and a goals against column of just 39.

That figure was matched by Cardiff, promoted in second spot with the rest of the top eight bunched around the mid-40s.

The season before that the top two Newcastle and Brighton - both leaked 40 and again, far and away the best.

Third placed Reading leaked 24 more goals than that pair and only one more team in the top six was even within single figures adrift.

Boro got promoted having leaked just 31 goals - the lowest figure in a decade - while Champions Burnley leaked just 35, the same as Hull who went up through the play-offs.

Karanka's side actually went up on goal-difference after their last day draw with rivals Brighton, ironically a situation that swung on Boro's 3-0 down at the Seagulls place, a superb display right in the middle of their most miserly run.

Underlying trends Of course, while clean sheets mean you don't lose a game, you need to score to win.

Up to now Boro have struggled with that part of the equation. They have scored just 14 goals from 11 games - only one team in the top half has bagged fewer, Swansea with 10.

Of the top six, Norwich have begged just 15 - ironically they are one of just two teams to score past Boro in open play - while three others have broken the 20 goal barrier. Goal difference though trumps goal scored and in that column Boro are well placed with +10, third behind leaders Leeds (+13) and West Brom (+11).

It is too early to read too much into that though; at this stage Karanka's side also had a +10 figure and that put them joint top with Reading.

One thing worth noting is that Boro's incredible tally of just four goals conceded comes after a tough opening flurry of fixtures in which Boro have played six of the current top 10.

And they are creating chances, not always the situation under Aitor.

Pulis last week insisted they had gone through the stats and Boro were among the most active sides in the final third but were a whisker away from making more count.

We are in "a little bit of luck" and "rub of the green" territory. But it is not a case of "not getting the breaks" and losing.

Boro are tactically secure for long spells, defensively sound and are still have spells of domination and create good opportunities.

If they can nudge those stats up a fraction and maintain defensive solidity this season can very productive.

Boro are on the two points a game golden trajectory for promotion and if they stay on track they would get 92 points.

And if they can keep the current defensive record up they could end up leaking below 18 goals. Surely not? How the top Boro defences have compared over the promotion years 1973-74 Big Jack Charlton's side leaked four goals in the first three matches. After that there was a ruthless battening down of the hatches and five clean sheets on the spin.

The tightest spell came in an impregnable sequence of six spring games during the title procession that included three 4-0 wins.

Promoted as champions P42 F77A30 Usual defence: Platt, Craggs, Boam, Maddren, Spraggon Clean sheets: 25 1-0 wins: 8 0-0 draws:6 Best sequence: 6 games (March-April) Goals leaked after 11 games: 6 Clean sheets after 11 games: 8 1986-87 Bruce Rioch's side got off to a flying start after a turbulent summer with a nine-game unbeaten start - although it took the back-line a while to click.

Bruce's side have a reputation as an attacking outfit but promotion was built on a mean defence including five clean sheets in the last six games.

Promoted in 2nd place P46 F67A30 Usual defence: Pears, Parkinson, Pallister, Mowbray, Cooper Clean sheets: 27 1-0 wins: 12 0-0 draws: 5 Best sequence: 4 games (November) Goals leaked after 11 games: 11 Clean sheets after 11 games: 4 1987-88 Momentum carried Brucie's boys to a fairytale second successive promotion with almost identical ingredients and while they were playing at a higher level they clocked up similar stats.

Promoted via play-offs P44 F66A36 Usual defence: Pears, Parkinson, Pallister, Mowbray, Cooper Clean sheets: 22* 1-0 wins: 5 0-0 draws: 7 Best sequence: 7 games (November-December) Goals leaked after 11 games: 10 Clean sheets after 11 games: 6 **plus 2 more clean sheets in the play-offs 1991-92 Lennie Lawrence's debut season was expected to be a 'transitional' one but an excellent autumn put them at the top and raised expectations - although they wobbled down the final straight with just one clean sheet in the final 11 games.

Tony Mowbray left midway through the season forcing a reshuffle that led to an increased leak-rate.

Promoted in 2nd place P46 F58 A 41 Usual defence: Pears, Parkinson/Fleming, Kernaghan, Mowbray Mohan, Phillips.

Clean sheets: 16 1-0 wins: 7 0-0 draws: 4 Best sequence: 4 games (March) Goals leaked after 11 games: 8 Clean sheets after 11 games: 5 1994-95 The Bryan Robson revolution started with four clean sheets and four wins on the spin to put down a marker.

Robbo had spent big to rebuild at the back and that underpinned what felt like an inevitable promotion - although it wasn't always plain sailing and he had to bring in extra fire-power late on.

Promoted as champions P46 F67A40 Usual defence: Miller, Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming Clean sheets: 18 1-0 wins: 6 0-0 draws: 2 Best sequence: 5 games (February-March) Goals leaked after 11 games: 7 Clean sheets after 11 games: 6 1997-98 Boro bounced back from relegation at the first attempt with a reshaped team. There was a sticky start but once up to speed Mark Schwarzer and Luca Festa - who had arrived at the height of the survival scrap the season before - and were a cut above in the lower division and leaked just five goals in the last 11 games.

Promoted in 2nd place P46 F77 A 41 Usual defence: Schwarzer, Fleming, Festa, Vickers, Pearson, Kinder Clean sheets: 18 1-0 wins: 8 0-0 draws: 2 Best sequence: 4 games (April) Goals leaked after 11 games: 12 Clean sheets after 11 games: 1 2015-16 Aitor Karanka built a formidable frame work and a clean sheet machine. A rigid defence defended by a two-man human shield of Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter with the wingers dropping deep to help out too made Boro almost impossible to break down - although a lack of bit up top meant promotion came down to goal difference.

Promoted in 2nd place P46 F 63 A 31 Usual defence: Konstantopoulos, Kalas/Nsue, Ayala, Gibson, Friend Clean sheets: 22 1-0 wins: 7 0-0 draws: 5 Best sequence: 9 games (November-January) Goals leaked after 11 games: 7 Clean sheets after 11 games: 5

CAPTION(S):

Tony Mowbray was a key defensive figure in the 1987-88 season and his absence was felt when he left midway through 1991-92

Even Aitor Karanka's Boro had conceded more goals by this stage

Tony Pulis's side have only conceded four goals in 11 games TONY MARSHALL
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 5, 2018
Words:2021
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