Nov 8, 2017
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West Brom supporters lose patience with Tony Pulis and his pragmatic style of play

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There are few certainties in the topsy-turvy world of modern football. Except, perhaps, that a team managed by Tony Pulis in the Premier League will always be guaranteed safety when each season concludes.

The Welshman is the proverbial perennial survivor having never experienced relegation during a managerial career that has seen him operate at clubs throughout the English football pyramid and across the width and breadth of the country.

Pulis has developed an uncanny knack of being able to drastically alter the fortunes of clubs that appear certain to suffer relegation with both Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion appointing him when the danger of dropping into The Championship became a genuine possibility.

He is a Premier League insurance policy – a virtual guarantee of a safe mid-table finish.

However, the 57-year-old appears to be facing one of the biggest challenges of his managerial career at West Brom with a poor start to the new campaign leaving The Baggies just two points clear of the drop zone.

The team suffered a third consecutive defeat against Huddersfield Town on Saturday, despite their opponents playing a large swathe of the second half with just ten men, and have won just two of their previous 20 league fixtures. That is undoubtedly relegation form.

Saturday’s defeat resulted in a negative backlash from supporters and there is an expanding portion of the West Brom fanbase that have simply lost patience with the poor results and, more importantly, the team’s current style of play. There is a mutinous atmosphere around the Hawthorns and there have been calls for Pulis to be dismissed.

Is it effective? Yes. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Absolutely not!

To the vast majority of external onlookers, the suggestion that Tony Pulis should be relieved of his duties appears inexplicable.

The Welshman almost certainly guarantees Premier League safety in an era when the financial rewards for dining at the top table of English football continue to increase to inconceivable levels – in many ways he is West Bromwich Albion’s insurance policy.

Why would West Brom supporters fans want to risk their Premier League position? They should be grateful for playing in the top flight of English football! What more do they want?

In reality, behind the façade of mid-table finishes and short clips on Match of the Day, watching a team managed by Pulis on a weekly basis can be an extremely trying and frustrating thing for supporters endure.

It must be acknowledged that Pulis is a fantastic football manger with an exemplary record of helping so-called ‘smaller’ clubs to survive, establish and stabilise their position in the Premier League.

His accomplishments at Stoke City, including promotion, an FA Cup Final and European football, were remarkable, as was his ability to turn around the immediate fortunes of both Crystal Palace and West Brom when relegation appeared to be a certainty.

Yet, despite this, Pulis remains an extremely divisive figure amongst the supporters of all of his previous football clubs and the same is certainly true for those currently following West Brom.

This issues centre on two key aspects; playing style and mentality.

Pulis implements a very definitive style of play that is almost identical regardless of which club he is at. The team will be rigidly structured, sit extremely deep defensively, and look to play direct, long balls into the forward players.

Creativity is stifled, players with imagination and flare are few and far between, and the biggest offensive threat that the team will often offer will come via well-worked set piece routines. In short, the whole team is set up with the sole purpose of nullifying the opposition and limiting goal scoring opportunities.

Keep it tight – nick a goal on the break or via a set play.

You will very rarely witness a team managed by Pulis be positive, get on the front foot and look to attack an opposing side. He is extremely pragmatic in his approach with a focus on defensive solidarity and preventing opponents from scoring rather than creating chances and asking questions of the opposition backline.

At times, the 59-year-old appears to spend more time worrying about the opposition than concentrating on the ability of his own players what challenges they can present.

Is it effective? Yes. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Absolutely not, and herein lies the issue.

Pulis is a means to an end. His playing style will grind out results and by the end of the season his team will be sitting comfortably in mid-table, well clear of the relegation zone.

He is perfect if your club is desperate for points, as both Crystal Palace and West Brom were when he was appointed, but survival is his limit and the Welshman will never facilitate long-term progression.

Tolerate rather than enjoy

Supporters are often willing to tolerate Tony Pulis’ brand of football and style of play as long as the team in winning or is in a needs-must situation when points are desperately required.

However, in reality his pragmatism and approach leaves little to the imagination and, especially for fans that pay to watch their team on a weekly basis, matches are often uneventful, predictable and, at times, just downright boring.

West Brom fans tolerated a direct approach when it became clear that they were slipping towards relegation two years ago and when the team produced experienced a good run of results last season.

However, now the team are utilising a pragmatic style of play and the supporters do not even have the comfort of knowing that it is grinding out results.

Few would have predicted prior to the season starting that West Brom would be slipping towards the relegation zone or that Pulis would be fighting to save his job just three months after signing a new contract.

However, modern football moves quickly and The Baggies supporters appear to have lost patience with the Welshman’s approach and methodology.

Those outside The Hawthorns will struggle to understand the frustration of the supporters, but those that watch the team on a weekly basis will be fully aware of the paucity of football on show under Pulis’ reign.

There are few certainties in the topsy-turvy world of modern football – maybe Tony Pulis is about to discover that for himself.

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Martyn Cooke

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

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