Our man inside the game knows why players eventually tire of the Tony Pulis way.
Danny Higginbotham put it quite succinctly when I spoke to him on the phone, “I think it’s a given that players are going to work hard, it’s a pre-requisite of the game and it’s easier than ever to see if players aren’t trying their hardest. But if working hard is all they are ever asked to do, well, that isn’t why most of them wanted to become footballers, is it?” Very true.
When Tony Pulis was sacked by West Brom on Monday morning there would have been a few tears shed in the home changing room. Tears of joy. It is said that during the Welshman’s last match in charge, a 4-0 defeat against Chelsea, a number of players not in the matchday squad whom were watching on from an executive box joined in with the fans that were signing, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing!’
The mantra in football changing rooms up and down the country is that it’s always funny when it’s happening to someone else.
The interesting part of his downfall is that Pulis did know what he was doing, or at least he knew what he wanted his players to do, it is just that the players didn’t want to do it anymore. Players will tolerate most of what a manager asks them to do until he stables the ship. Until the team hauls itself away from danger. But eventually they are going to want more. They are going to want the freedom to express themselves as footballers. They want the watching world to see how good they are, not just how fit they are.
A run of 11 Premier League games without a victory thrust the West Brom board into an easy decision. Indeed, the last time West Brom’s fans had seen their team record a victory was in the Carabao Cup, a stunning 3-1 victory against Accrington Stanley no less.
The owners’ decision to lift the cloud over the club seemed as if it might reap instant rewards yesterday as the Baggies took on Spurs at Wembley.
Salomon Rondon, who prior to Saturday’s game had scored just twice in 12 games, took only three minutes to put his side one up as caretaker manager Gary Megson allowed nearly two of his players to cross the halfway line.
I cannot tell you how draining I found it to watch West Brom under Pulis. Nobody can doubt the fitness of the players and their desire. But it is a desire born of Pulis’ obsession to not get beat first and win second.
Which begs a question: What could Pulis achieve if he wasn’t so anti-football, if he allowed his players a little more freedom on the football pitch, particularly in the final third where so often the West Brom attacks take on the form of the world’s most mind-numbing choreography?
But the 59-year-old will not change. He has carved out a niche as an organiser that can stave off the threat of relegation with unspectacular displays from well-drilled footballers.
Pulis breaks the pitch into three areas but there is only one area that matters. He calls it ‘the working zone’. It is the zone on the pitch that Pulis considers the most important to the turnover of the ball.
Imagine looking at the pitch from a bird’s eye view perspective and throwing a blanket over the area that you are defending from the halfway line to the edge of the penalty area before folding it ten feet in from each touchline. That’s the working zone.
When defending, the entire team will narrow in and even the striker will drop onto the halfway line to act as a first line of defence. Eleven men behind the ball. Upon turnover of the ball, three players are allowed to break, the striker, the number ten and the closest winger.
But Pulis’ real desire is to score from set-pieces. He believes that set-pieces are the most important components of a football match. Scoring and defending.
If he could win each game 1-0 with his centre-half scoring a header from a corner then Pulis would consider that to be the ultimate success. Set-pieces are incredibly important over the course of a season, they are a vital source of goals. But rarely have I seen a manager prioritise set-pieces as the primary source of goals.
It is this strategy that made West Brom’s matches under Pulis so easy to ignore on Match of The Day.
After Rondon scored yesterday, West Brom were forced to revert to type, well aware that they may have angered Spurs. They lapsed only once when Harry Kane stole in to score in the 77th minute with the otherwise brilliant Jonny Evans epitomising the team spirit that remains despite of the departure of Pulis. Or maybe it is relief.
Whichever, the togetherness will certainly be of comfort to Alan Pardew who seems almost certain to be the lucky recipient of yet another job for the boys given his close relationship with West Brom’s technical director of football, Nick Hammond, who worked with Pardew at Reading.
And Pulis may get the same treatment from Swansea who seem set to replace current manager Paul Clement. Alas, any turnaround in the fortunes of the Swans will be down to another organisational masterclass from the former Stoke manager as he attempts to prevent the Welsh side bringing his first relegation. Until the players reject him of course.
In the meantime, do let me know if he pulls it off. I’ll be asleep under this rock.
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