MIDDLESBROUGH may still have the best defensive record in the Championship but that does not mean Tony Pulis is immune to defensive conundrums.

In front of goalkeeper Darren Randolph, Pulis has had to mix things up of late. Whether it is personnel or in terms of shape, it is not easy to predict the defence he will name.

This Saturday’s visit of Wigan to the Riverside will leave Pulis with another dilemma.

Should he bring Daniel Ayala – who he admires greatly and feels should be at a higher level – back into the team following suspension? And for who?

Last weekend’s goalless draw with Stoke City was achieved despite a couple of changes to the back four, so Pulis can’t mix that up can he?

Middlesbrough have only conceded eight and kept ten clean sheets from 16 games this season, even though the longest run with the same defensive line-up stands at just four matches.

That extended run at the start of the season was before Ayala was fit and Batth arrived from Wolves, so things have changed since then and Pulis has shown he is not afraid to tinker.

So what will he do this Saturday?


The chances are, Ayala will return. But given Danny Batth was man of the match at Stoke, it would be harsh on him to lose his place alongside Aden Flint at the heart of the defence.

Having seen the backline play well at the Bet365 Stadium, the easiest thing would be to keep with the flat back four that delivered there. That would mean Dael Fry playing right-back, and Ayala missing out.

Likelihood: Strongest


Regardless of how well Batth played last week, the argument is that Ayala deserves to be thrown straight back in because of how consistent he has been under Pulis and in recent years.

The Ayala-Flint combination has certainly proven it has the quality to cause problems for Championship attackers, and they are capable of delivering in both boxes together. Very few, if any, could dispute that.

Likelihood: Strong


For Batth, Ayala and Flint to all face Wigan, then Pulis will have to revert to playing with three centre-backs – and even then that would mean the talented Fry misses out.

The wing-back system is certainly one Pulis has shown he quite likes to play, and as a three that triumvirate looks a very experienced and robust backline that is more than capable of being composed.

The problem is that, with Ryan Shotton sidelined through injury, he doesn’t have players that have convinced him so far that they can play right wing-back. Fry wouldn’t be suited there, so Paddy McNair would have to get another opportunity to impress.

Likelihood: Weaker

* Middlesbrough’s Carabao Cup quarter-final match at Burton, meanwhile, will take place on Tuesday, December 18, at 7.45pm. The match will slot in between Boro’s away trips to QPR and Reading.