Boring. Negative. Dour. Three words that are fast becoming synonymous with West Bromwich Albion under Tony Pulis.
Tony Pulis arrived at The Hawthorns in January 2015 under somewhat of a wave of optimism. Arguably, after the failed experiment of Alan Irvine any reputable name would have been cause for celebration, but Pulis brought with him a reputation and a record of never being relegated. This is a record he maintains, after successfully securing another season of Premier League football for West Brom.
The basis for that success was simple. Pulis made West Brom tough to beat, shored up the defence, bringing in Darren Fletcher to bring a touch more solidity to the team. He re-introduced Claudio Yacob as a main stay in the team, opting to put the more attacking Stephane Sessegnon on the bench, if in the team at all. And it worked. Albion kept clean sheets, and worked their way to safety, in the end, with relative ease.
Tony Pulis was what West Brom needed at that time. But what about now?
The arguments for Pulis are plain to see. With four clean sheets in eight games, West Brom have the joint second best record in the league behind only Manchester City for clean sheets. They’ve secured a few good results including an impressive performance and win against rivals Aston Villa. Pulis has been able to entice the impressive Jonny Evans and Salomon Rondon to West Brom, something arguably they’d have struggled to do before.
And the biggest argument of them all; after he succeeded to keep West Brom in the league. Doesn’t he deserve the chance of one full season at the very least?
The simple answer to that question is no. If results and performance demonstrate that things aren’t working under Pulis then how long should West Brom give him? West Brom chairman Jeremy Peace is known for his ruthlessness, and former successes shouldn’t keep Pulis safe forever; he need only ask Steve Clarke or Roberto Di Matteo for their opinion.
The game against Crystal Palace on Saturday highlighted several of the issues at West Brom this season. The performance was nowhere near good enough for a Premier League team. Granted, as they also did on the Monday against Everton, West Brom found themselves having to change things early because of injury but either way this should not have impacted the game as much as it actually did.
It was clear from the start that Pulis had set West Brom up not to lose at Crystal Palace, as he has done against several other teams. West Brom sit back and invite pressure on to them but, ultimately, they do get found out. Against pace, West Brom struggle immensely, as was demonstrated against Palace. Watching Zaha against Brunt was like watching a heavyweight boxer fight against a drunk man; Zaha pummelled him, raced past him and it was no surprise when he managed to get a penalty from a late challenge. Brunt was found out, completely out of his depth.
But it’s hard to criticise Chris Brunt. He is not a full back but he is being asked to play the full back role. Ditto the right hand side of defence. Craig Dawson, again not a full back, is being asked to play the full back role. It is of extremely little surprise that when facing teams with talented wingers West Brom come unstuck. In the first game of the season against Manchester City, David Silva and Raheem Sterling exploited both wings and it worked. On Saturday, Crystal Palace did the same and it worked. Pulis hasn’t learned his lesson.
Playing defensively can work, but as with every tactic there should be a plan B and at the moment, West Brom do not have that plan B. Every performance plays out as if West Brom just want a clean sheet and anything else is a bonus. It simply isn’t enough for the fans that pay to watch, and it is that style of play that has resulted in West Brom having the worst goalscoring record in the league.
It’s impossible not to feel for Salomon Rondon, who signed for a reported club record £12m, yet cuts an isolated figure at the front of the West Brom team. Rondon has so far only scored one goal for the team, against Stoke, and has already started to feel the pressure of fans who are demanding more from the record signing. But what can he possibly do? The style of play currently leaves Rondon up front alone, trying to chase on to balls that are hoofed forward in the hope he might be able to hold it up and pass to another player who, actually, isn’t there. The midfield play so deep that when he does hold the ball up, he has it all to do. There is no support. The result is he gives the ball away and the threat is gone.
How can Rondon feel any confidence in the shape of the team and the way the team play? Pulis sets out the team in a way that West Brom will never play to Rondon’s strengths, and eventually that will affect Rondon’s confidence as he goes on longer spells with no goals. And spare a penny for Rickie Lambert’s thoughts, brought in from Liverpool in the hope he’d spend less time on the bench, only to find himself sat on the bench even more.
Saido Berahino is also suffering at the hands of Pulis tactics. As with Chris Brunt and Craig Dawson, Berahino is often finding himself playing out of position, more as a left sided midfielder than a striker. The result in this is that he is struggling to make any impact at all. Berahino has been West Brom’s star for the past two seasons, he clearly wants to leave the club and the style of play will be doing nothing more than increasing that desire.
It also speaks volumes that a tweet from BT Sport, with Ian Wright stating he can understand why Berahino wants to go, is actually favourited by the player himself. It starts to pose the question that, if Berahino agrees with Wright, how many of the other players also agree? Do they actually enjoy working with Pulis or do they also feel they’re not being allowed to play?
Perhaps the most frustrating side to how West Brom play is that, actually, they can play attractive and attacking football. They do have the players that are capable of posing most teams in the league a threat. And, in reality, there is no reason why they can’t play in a more attacking style whilst still holding defensive shape at the back, which is exactly how they operated under Roy Hodgson in several games.
Callum McManaman will happily run at players on either wing, as will James McLean. James Morrison will push forward and is not scared to have a go from long range; Stephane Sessegnon would not hesitate to try. Berahino and Rondon both have the talent and ability to score 15 goals each at least if they’re given the service.
But that’s where the problem lies. They don’t get the service because West Brom don’t play that way. The players with pace, such as McManaman, don’t get utilised in a way that allows them to be a threat. They play defensively, with nine or ten men behind the ball, stifling not only the oppositions attack but their own as well, so, yes, they are hard to beat but it’s also hard to see them beating anyone.
Ultimately, Tony Pulis will keep West Brom up, but only just, and it will be from drawing more than winning; but if West Brom want to do more than just survive, they need to move away from the football they are playing now and call it a day with Tony Pulis.