NEW manager, new outlook, new start. If you were looking for proof of a changing of the guard at Middlesbrough, the opening two weeks of pre-season training underline just how different things have been since Jonathan Woodgate replaced Tony Pulis.

Under Pulis, the start of the pre-season programme was a case of survival of the fittest. Brutal long-distance runs, lung-bursting fitness sessions in the gym, challenging bike rides up the Austrian slopes. Half football, half Royal Marine commando training drills.

There has been plenty of fitness work under Woodgate, but it has been carried out with a ball at the players’ feet. Every session has been geared towards the new high-tempo, high-pressing style that Middlesbrough’s new head coach is determined to introduce this season. Challenging? Certainly. But a footballing challenge rather than a battle of endurance.

“Everything has been done with the ball,” explained Adam Clayton, who will head to Germany with the rest of the first-team squad at the end of this week ahead of Saturday’s friendly with FC Heidenheim. “Every day in training, you’re getting 300 or 400 touches of the ball. It’s a completely different training regime, and one which is very enjoyable to go in to work and do.

“It’s made pre-season enjoyable, although at the same time, it’s been very, very tough. Everything’s been with the ball, and the manager has made a point of trying to get us used to playing under stress and playing under tiredness. There’s been a real emphasis on dealing with the ball – it’s been really good so far.”

The effectiveness of the new approach will only really become apparent when Boro kick off the new Championship season at Luton Town in two-and-a-half weeks’ time, but the early evidence gleaned from last week’s friendlies against Gateshead and Hartlepool United suggests there will be a marked difference in style from the outset compared to last term.

Defensively, Woodgate will play a flat back four rather than the five-at-the-back formation favoured by Pulis, but the shift in emphasis goes much deeper than merely a tactical tinker.

On the ball, the new Boro boss wants his side to be adventurous in the final third and look to retain possession. Off it, he wants them to press high up the field rather than drop off and hope to hit teams on the break. It is a front-foot approach that will be well received by the Riverside faithful, who grew disillusioned with Pulis’ safety-first conservatism, and also one that has gone down well with the senior squad.

“The whole ethos of the manager is different,” said Clayton. “He wants to press high. Every manager has their own ways, and I think the previous manager was more about containment and looking to break.

“We want to get on the press this season, we want to ruffle teams and get after them, especially at the Riverside. If we do that, we’ll get the crowd onside, and it’s one hell of a place when it’s bouncing and everybody’s at it. That’s the atmosphere we want to generate, and getting after the ball will do that.

“We’ve got a young team that’s full of energy, but I don’t think any of the older lads lack the physical ability to do it either. It’ll be a very interesting season, one where I’m sure there’ll be highs and lows, there always is. But we’ve got a very excited group, and a group that wants to learn, as well as a manager that wants us to play the right way. We’ll give it a good go.”

Clayton forms part of an experienced core that will be crucial in helping Woodgate push through the changes he wants to enforce. The likes of Darren Randolph, George Friend, Dani Ayala, Aden Flint, Jonny Howson and Britt Assombalonga have been there and done it in the Championship, and will inevitably be some of Woodgate’s key lieutenants.

However, it is the emergence of a new crop of youngsters that has really got fans excited ahead of the new campaign, with Woodgate adamant that he will not be afraid to throw young players into the fray if they outperforming their more experienced team-mates in training.

Hayden Coulson, Paddy Reading, Stephen Wearne and Connor Malley have all played a prominent role in pre-season, and the new emphasis on youth has reenergised each and every member of the squad.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the dressing room, not only because it’s a completely new staff, but also because it’s such a young squad,” said Clayton. “There’s a lot of excitement with that as well.

“As more experienced players, if we can help the young lads and try to nurture them into top players, then it can only benefit us. To be fair, there’s a lot of quality in the young lads. They’re not just young lads, there’s some very good players and they’re only going to gain experience through playing. I think they’ve got a manager who believes in them, and if they’re playing well, they’ll play.

“I think it’s brilliant. For the older lads who think they’ve been there and seen it all, you see these young lads trying to start a career and make a way for themselves, and it eggs you on to go back to that. Not that any of us have lost it, but it gives you that energy again and that vibrancy that you need. I think you can see that from the last couple of performances and you can definitely feel it in the dressing room.”