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The Undistinguished Grey Of Tony Pulis

Eric McCoy has a look at what Tony Pulis brings to the table as a manager and why the colour grey seems to define him best.

If one had to choose a colour to define Tony Pulis (a strange task, but bear with me) it would probably be grey.

His hair (what’s left of it anyways) is grey.  The brand of football associated with his name is perceived to bland, and devoid of any stylistic glow.  Basically, whatever team he’s at is thought to be the boring, old grey t-shirt of the Premier League.

Now, close your eyes for a second and picture a match involving a Pulis team playing a top club.  Pulis’ team is the home team.  What color are you envisioning the sky to be?  Probably grey.  And you’re likely throwing some rain and wind in there for good measure, too.

Pulis seems to possess some sort of diabolical wizardry that allows him to transport a dreary, grey sky overhead of whatever well-bankrolled team that’s decided to stroll onto his team’s pitch.  Ask Arsene Wenger.  The 3-1 battering his Arsenal side took against Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion this past March took place under a sky as grey as the area in the rule book where Pulis’ center backs usually like to operate.

That match was not the first time an Arsene Wenger side has struggled away to a Pulis-managed team.  The suave Frenchman has won only one away match in his career against the track-suited Welshman.  In addition to operating at opposite ends of the fashion spectrum, the two managers’ footballing philosophies could not be more diametrically opposed, and their contrasting ideologies have led to a rather tempestuous relationship.  It’s cosmopolitan slickness versus British brutishness.  In Wenger, Pulis has found perhaps the harshest critic of his unrefined approach to the sport.

“You cannot say it is football any more.  It is more rugby on the goalkeepers than football,” Wenger, ever the arbiter of Premier League style, once said of a match involving Pulis’ Stoke City team and Tottenham.  Those comments came not long after Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey was on the receiving end of a horror challenge from Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross (perhaps the hulking poster boy for a stereotypical Pulis center back) that left the midfielder with a broken leg.  Pulis’ teams play with a punishing physicality that can sometimes veer into recklessness.  It’s not just the weather that frightens the opposition.

And it’s not just Arsene Wenger who has fired critiques at Pulis.  After his Liverpool side were held to a 2-2 draw with Pulis’ West Brom in December 2015, Jurgen Klopp accused the Baggies of “only playing long balls.”  Directness, along with physicality, is at the core of any Pulis team.  Per WhoScored, West Brom played fewer short passes (admittedly an imperfect metric, but it does seem revealing in this instance) per match than any other Premier League team this past season.  They were also last in that stat category in 2015-16 under Pulis.  Why play 20 short and pretty passes to set up a goal when one big, long pass can do the trick?

Of course, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Pulis’ teams don’t score many goals.  In 2015-16, only utterly dire, relegation-bound Aston Villa contrived to score fewer league goals than the meager 34 goals Pulis’ Baggies netted.  This past season saw an uptick in the team’s scoring (West Brom’s 43 goals ranked 13th in the league), but that was largely down to an otherworldly ability to score off set pieces.  A staggering 47% of West Brom’s goals came from set plays.  To attribute this to simple dumb luck, however, would be doing the man with a strong proclivity towards organization and war generals a disservice.

“Churchill was a great leader but he was part of the establishment.  I like to read about people who weren’t, like Napoleon, who was born on a small island and became one of the great conquerors of Europe,” Pulis once said of the famous French general.   Pulis, and the clubs that employ him, are hardly a part of any kind of establishment, either.  Stoke City, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion are not fashionable clubs, and under Pulis’ stewardship, they’ve been as allergic to the relegation zone as they’ve been to possession (i.e. extremely allergic).  Pulis’ style hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t been effective.

In regards to set pieces, it makes sense that Pulis would view them as a reliable weapon to wield against the Premier League’s elite.  “It’s something we can take advantage of, very much so,” Pulis said before a recent match against Liverpool.  The tight confines of a crowded penalty area suit his lumbering players far better than the more spacious middle third of the pitch.  As the Dutch so eloquently taught us in the 1970s, and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona more recently, space is the greatest ally a supremely gifted player can have.  Supremely gifted players cost money, though, and money is something that West Brom (or any of the clubs Pulis has managed) doesn’t have.  Pulis sees a meticulous commitment to set plays as a necessity for his club’s survival.

In a great piece examining the contrasting metaphors of art and war for football, Twenty-Minute Reads’ Thore Haugstad referenced a Sky Sports broadcast where Gary Neville gushed over the clockwork execution of a Stoke City corner that resulted in a Jonathan Walters goal while Pulis was managing the club.  Neville said: “For every little bit of that to go perfectly well, you need four or five people to do absolutely perfect things.  The brilliance of that goal is the timing, to get everything spot on…that’s a perfect set piece.”

A former player and tactics-aficionado like Neville can appreciate the finer intricacies of a well-run Pulis set play, but it’s debatable how much entertainment everyone else is gleaning from the Welshman’s teams.  Even West Brom’s own supporters have had qualms about the tepidness of their team’s performances.  “I just don’t like the style of football.  Other people are prepared to put up with it, but I and a growing number of others are not,” chairman of the Shareholders for Albion supporters group, Neil Reynolds, said recently.

By most standards, West Brom had a respectable campaign last season, finishing tenth while never flirting with the relegation zone.  For a club once viewed as the epitome of a ‘yo-yo’ club, that is no small feat.  The Baggies did sputter down the stretch, losing seven of their last eight matches, but it is important to note that Reynolds’ complaint lied not with that uninspiring run of results.  Style, not substance, was where his ire was directed.

It’s an odd situation.  West Brom are not a club where Premier League status should be taken for granted, and in Pulis, the club has a manager who has never been relegated.  At a quick glance, it seems like a perfect fit.  But as Reynolds also added, “there are many fans who would be overjoyed if he left today…they would just prefer anybody instead of Pulis.”  War metaphors and goals from set plays can only sell so many tickets.

In a strange twist, an unlikely source did have some recent praise for Pulis.  Former critic Jurgen Klopp said Pulis would make a worthy candidate for manager of the year.  The Liverpool boss said, “You always respect the things like Tony Pulis is doing at West Brom a lot.”  Respecting something and enjoying it will always be two different things, however.  Fairly or not, a persistent, grey haze will likely forever obscure the virtues of Pulis.

Eric McCoy

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