I remember about 5 years ago I’d be watching Match Of The Day with my Dad, on what you would clearly describe as a wild Saturday evening, and I’d wonder several things: I’d wonder how Gary Lineker’s face could possibly be that orange; I’d wonder who in their right mind came up with the puns in the analysis (“plenty Zamora where that came from”, etc); and I’d also wonder why I disliked the Stoke boss, Tony Pulis.
It’s safe to say that I’ve had a tortuous relationship with Pulis over the years. It was only last week that the superbly average Danny Higginbotham announced as a pundit on a Stoke Super Sunday that Pulis used to conduct training sessions on the match day pitch, as to cut up the turf in such a way that it prohibited a passing game of football being played on the weekend. Now that’s a level of competitive engineering that even the likes of Lord Sugar would consider unsavoury.
The dread you’d feel when you knew you had Stoke at the weekend, the physicality, the gamesmanship, the lack of goalmouth action, and indeed the lack of action in and of itself. It all added up to make Pulis one of my most hated men in football – a sentiment that I’m sure many Baggies fans agreed with at the time.
But now Mr. Pulis has become “Our Tone”, has anything changed? Sure, The Hawthorns deck is like a snooker table cloth, but I don’t think anyone can deny that our level of “game management” (a horrendous term for “time wasting”) has increased in the last year, as has our amount of long balls, goals from set pieces, and time without the ball. Is this what we deserve Baggies fans? After all, I don’t believe any of you if you deny that at some stage you haven’t said something along the lines of “we’ve always played attacking, open football, it’s what we’re known for”. I was guilty of it too. Only a matter of months ago I guarantee I was reminiscing of the Mowbray years and his ‘score one more than them’ philosophy, Koren bursting through the middle, Gera popping up on the wing, Dorrans smashing them in from all parts. But football has changed, both at West Bromwich Albion, and indeed nationally. For starters, the price of a Premier League position is proving more, and more mandatory, with ever increasing TV bucks funding the likes of Lewis Grabbans’ abhorrent £7million transfer fee to Bournemouth, the need to stay up is greater than ever. With the Baggies enduring their longest ever spell in the league after some turbulent yo-yo’ing, it was looking in serious danger than the Irvine experiment was to plunge us into the penniless debts of The Championship and beyond, never to return (remember Portsmouth? Blackpool? Dare I say it, Wolves?)
Now, despite the rose-tinted nostalgia of our goal scoring past, after Irvine’s departure, it seemed like Our Tone was the ideal fit for us. After all here is a man who is famed for never being relegated, at a time where it was looking like a very real possibility for us. Sure enough, he still keeps that impressive record a year later, and we’re currently bobbing around the lower mid-table just as you’d expect a Tony Pulis team to do. A year on, let’s reflect on what he’s done for the club, and indeed what he plans to do with the club over the coming year.
Darren Fletcher. Do I need to say anything more than that? No. Although I probably will considering this is an article, so words are kind of necessary. Besides, I could sit and wax lyrical about the Scotsman all day long. His importance to our solidity as an apparent Premier League mainstay cannot be overestimated, and it was pretty much Pulis’ first involvement as West Brom boss. I was chatting to a close friend of mine the other day who’s a Chelsea fan, about their shocking demise this season, and he said “it’s because we haven’t got a Darren Fletcher”. Upon further interrogation, what he meant was that they didn’t have a player at the heart of the team who turns up every week. A consistent 7-out-of-10-er. A dependable, heart on the sleeve, motivator and organiser. That’s what Fletch brings to us. Sure Yacob is an absolute wall in front of that back four, but Fletcher’s organisation and direction alongside him has been second to none all year. What’s more, it appears that Fletcher was an instrumental figure in the luring of Jonny Evans to the club.
What a bit of business. I remember when it was rumoured that Lescott was to be leaving, it felt like we were selling arguably our best player from last season, to our local rivals!? It felt bad, really bad. 6 months later and his replacement, Jonny Evans, has become our most consistent performer, bringing all the class and experience that you’d expect from him. It’s clear that Our Tone likes his Premier League experience, and the evergreen Jon Walters rumours worry me still to this day. However in the signing of these two ex Man Utd aces, I believe that Pulis has shown a stroke of near genius, breathing life back into our stalwart old timers like Morrison, Brunt and McAuley, whilst also providing the on-pitch experience that loose cannons like James McClean really need. Recently, despite our potentially negative style, we’ve looked more balanced and controlled than we’ve looked in a very long time.
There are, however, some lingering concerns that will always be a part of a Pulis operation: Goals. I’ve found it very hard to accept our style over the past year, but now I finally appreciate just how well drilled our shape is; the discipline not to dive into challenges, the conservation of energy and fitness, what we do without the ball – it’s a masterclass in doing so. But, for all of the above to work, you still have to score goals. My only minor gripe with the way we play is what we sometimes tend to do with the ball.
I believe that it’s extremely unfair to have a go at strikers for missing chances, when they only touch the ball a handful of times in a match. They’re not going to be sharp or switched on. I’m not saying ‘viva la Arsenal’ let’s get all tiki-taka, but if your sole method of moving through the pitch is to try and pick out a lone centre-forward sandwiched between two centre backs, you’re going to struggle to get out of your half – particularly when you’re relying on pass-masters like Gareth McAuley to ping these diagonal balls. If you’re going to play this way, surely you have got to get bodies within 15 yards of Rondon/Lambert/Anichebe otherwise, it’s a waste of time. In my opinion, our best performance this season was at home to Newcastle, and the overall theme of the game was Big Vic knocking balls down to surrounding midfielders, giving us possession higher up the pitch and the chance to progress into goalscoring positions. Get our lone striker more involved in build up play, don’t frustrate them. Rondon’s wayward lash at the end of the Bournemouth game was clearly as a result of frustration, be it at the result of that game, or of a run of matches struggling to have any involvement?
Secondly, I cannot ignore the bubbling tension surrounding Callum McManaman. I completely understand that Our Tone requires players to contribute to all phases of play, attacking, defending, keeping their temperament, and Callum perhaps isn’t the most controlled of characters. But I haven’t seen a player in an Albion shirt for a very long time have such an ability to drive past players, create chances, and inject excitement into a potentially turgid affair. Sometimes you simply have to accommodate these players, as their deficiencies are more often than not made up for by their ability to change games and get you over the winning line. Every time he’s been involved this season, he’s made chances.
Speaking of bubbling tension, let’s talk about Saido Berahino. This season he’s largely been a passenger, appearing in bursts of small effectiveness at vital times (the Villa goal, the FA cup vs Bristol City, etc). It’s quite clear that Pulis nor the fans think he’s happy at the club, and despite trying to be polite about it on social media (for once) it doesn’t appear that Saido wants to be here either. I’m concerned that, just like the summer, this saga is going to go on and on, and on, and on and on and on, and on. This is hugely detrimental to us, as Peace’s official line is that we aren’t in a position to buy players until we’ve sold, and the potential £20million+ sum for an outgoing Berahino would be a huge boost for our ever-diminutive finances.
Presuming we have money to play with in time to recruit in January, it’s clear that we are in dire need of full backs. Brunt and Dawson have done an absolutely immense job in moulding their games to fit in, but at times, they’ve been found out by classy wingers. Another striker is a must too with Rondon’s form patchy, Berahino on the way out, Lambert often out of favour, and Anichebe fully fit only when Neptune and Saturn align. I’m of the belief that we should try to play with two men up top as often as possible, and with all of our current strikers being regular fitness worries (assuming Berahino’s departure will happen), then both more depth and a fresh injection of creativity are a must. Another creative midfielder wouldn’t hurt either, especially if the shock James Morrison news is to be believed.