Bianca Westwood Tony Pulis is producing some magic at West Brom (Photo: Getty Images)
It’s not pretty. It’s certainly not sexy. But it is effective. Tony Pulis’ brand of football has rarely left fans feeling dazed and bedazzled by its breath-taking beauty, but what it does do is exactly what it says on the tin, and he is unashamedly unapologetic about that.
You know what you’re going to get from a Pulis side, a no-nonsense, defensively robust outfit that works hard and doesn’t shirk a challenge…a bit like the man himself.
The problem with this approach is that, even if you drag a club up from the doldrums, lead them to safety and promotion to the top flight, help establish it in the Premier League, bring European football for the first time in almost 40 years and take them to a first-ever FA cup final – Pulis did all this in two spells at Stoke – you won’t last if it’s not entertaining the fans.
Unfancied Baggies are sitting in seventh with a combination of speed and experience (Photo: PA)
After all he achieved there, many Potters fans choose to remember only the final throes of his reign and often decry his accomplishments at what was The Britannia. I guess they pays the money they makes the choice.
Luckily for them, Mark Hughes has come in and introduced a new ‘entertaining’ philosophy, but it was Pulis who laid the foundations.
Pulis has nothing to prove to his peers, winning the League Managers Association Manager of the Year award in 2014 for his miraculous ‘Great Escape’ exploits at Crystal Palace.
Granted, that relationship has since soured to the tune of a poisonous court case and £3.7m but his achievements there in taking the Eagles from a troubling 19th to a then Premier League club record of 11th in his first season shouldn’t be underestimated.
That’s what happens when you don’t play ‘in the right way’ or the ‘West Ham way’ in Big Sam’s case. You get called a ‘dinosaur’, don’t you Dychey? Some Hammers fans are now calling for the return of Sam Allardyce and if that doesn’t demonstrate the fickle nature of the football supporter I don’t know what does.
Mark Hughes has Pulis to thank for laying the foundations at Stoke before he was moved on
Now this is not a Tony Pulis love-in but come on let’s give the guy a break. As a man he is one of the most amicable and welcoming in the game. He treats as he finds.
As a manager, credit where it’s due – wherever he goes he gets results and, like Sam, he doesn’t get you relegated.
Initially that was enough for West Brom’s disciples. When Pulis took over from Alan Irvine they were a point above the relegation zone in 17th place, and looked like they were going nowhere but down.
He became the sixth permanent manager in four years at the Hawthorns, and for a club that had yo-yoed in and out of the top flight for seasons you’d think that stability would be enough – for a moment it was.
Video thumbnail, West Brom fans sing hilarious self-deprecating chant against Manchester City
They finished a comfortable 13th in his first season and 14th in the second, but then came rumblings of unrest in the stands. Last season the Albion were ranked seventh for defence but were failing miserably at the other end of the pitch. Only Aston Villa scored fewer goals.
After an average start to the campaign those rumblings became impossible to ignore, and following a 1-0 defeat at home to Bournemouth in September the boo boys made their feelings quite clear to the club’s new owners. Suddenly safety was irrelevant.
There was too much bite and not enough boing-boing. For them, his ‘anti-football’ was unacceptable and perhaps understandably the fans yearned for a rip-roaring show at least occasionally. They wanted goals and they wanted him gone but if they thought they could get to the gaffer they thought wrong.
Video thumbnail, West Brom fan comes up with Tony Pulis song that will make your ears bleed
Teflon Tony remained defiant. I’ve interviewed him many, many times and he deflects criticism, judgement and tricky questioning with vigour, honesty and a sprinkle of good humour.
He is bullish and feisty, sometimes prickly. Nothing phases the man and he will carry on regardless. You don’t get to become only the 25th manager in English football to take charge of 1000 senior games if you’re faint-hearted or you don’t know what you’re doing.
Pulis remains bullish and defiant when under fire – he’s done it all before and come through on top
For him, without the massive spending power of the big boys, you can’t truly compete when it comes to quality and technical ability, so you play to your strengths, and you use your physicality to your advantage. That’s what a Pulis team does with aplomb.
And yet, having said all that, something has started to shift in the Black Country and Pulis is attempting to formulate a new plan… an approach that will surprise and confound all his detractors, that the best form of defence is attack!
He’s recently adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation which seems to be bringing the best out of his team.
Chris Brunt and James Morrison are enjoying new leases of life and Salomon Rondon, who last season was left isolated up top on his own, has finally discovered his Premier League shooting boots.
The introduction of Matt Phillips brings extra pace and width, and now he’s adding goals to his game. I spoke to Phillips last week for Soccer Saturday and asked him if there had been a deliberate shift towards a more expansive, attacking game.
He told me that after a slow start to the season, the players old and new were beginning to flourish: “When you have four or five new players it takes a while for everybody to bed in and for the manager to get his ideas across. Every day in training we’re playing one touch, two touch, phases of play, it is a more attacking side, we’ve all come in and done well and now we’re seeing the benefits of that.”
Pulis left Stoke after 10 years with supporters wanting a more entertaining style of play (Photo: Getty)
But let’s not get carried away here, this is still a Tony Pulis team. They are still defensively minded and strong at set pieces, and Phillips admits that won’t change but there is more of a focus on getting up the pitch with purpose: “I don’t think the manager will come away from that, he’s done it throughout his career. First and foremost we are tight defensively and play from a plan but in the final third the manager is allowing us to go and express ourselves and create things and make things happen.”
The goals are certainly flowing more freely now. The fans have even started singing the manager’s name for the right reasons.
Pulis has always maintained that with quality players in his side you will eventually get quality football. He’d argue his successful Stoke City team, with the likes of Matt Etherington and Jermaine Pennant bombing up and down the flanks, played with a similar finesse but with the addition of the likes of Phillips and Nacer Chadli to the experience of players such as Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley, he feels more comfortable in liberating his flair players from their defensive shackles.
Matt Phillips says new players and the manager have found their feet and it’s showing on the pitch (Photo: Getty Images)
You could see this was the case when at 2-1 up against Watford, instead of protecting the lead and sitting back, he could be seen waving furiously from the touchline, urging his players to get forward and attack, attack, attack! Phillips did just that and put a beautifully finished cherry on the cake to make it three.
Whether he’ll be able to continue this new-found philosophy in the next game against an all-conquering Chelsea remains unlikely. Add to that a December fixture list containing the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Southampton you’d imagine he’ll revert to type and you couldn’t really blame him. Survival is, and will always be, target number one.
Pulis will probably never truly rid himself of the reputation he has for defensive football. I’m not sure he even cares. Yet if the Baggies continue in this rich vein of form and delight the crowds at the Hawthorns, he might prove the adage that an old dog can learn new tricks.
See the interview with Matt Phillips on Gillette Soccer Saturday, Sky Sports News HQ this weekend