He’s back. In typical fashion, scouring the touchline like an agitated terrier in his baseball cap, Tony Pulis looks set to implement his famous rugged approach upon West Brom.
Since the heights of Steve Clarke’s first season, where the Baggies were comfortably in the top half, there’s been a very apparent decline. Pepe Mel, Clarke’s successor, had a system and style that was not conducive to ‘the counter attacking’ principles that were embedded within the team, and he departed on neutral terms when he kept them up.
Alan Irvine, handpicked to be a head coach of the highest calibre, was deemed inept at progressing the West Brom project last month (perhaps unfairly), and Pulis has been granted a greater authority to insert his philosophies on this West Brom squad.
Pulis’ teams play in a very distinctive manner. It’s become a cliche to talk of how Lionel Messi would fair on wet, cold, Tuesday evening at the Britannia purely because of the way Pulis set up his Stoke side. Dogged, physical, organised, hardworking and aggressive. Anti-football.
They press relentlessly without the ball while maintaining a very compact and organised midfield shape. Their front men lead that press on the front foot, working themselves to the limit to give the side a ferocious edge. Due to the lack of creative freedom that he affords of his hardworking players, set pieces become an integral method of scoring, as shown by Saido Berahino’s winner at the weekend.
Expect a return to a 4-4-2-ish shape, with Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans, their usual attacking wingers, pulled back alongside a midfield pair. Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, loyal servants in the West Brom machine, will prosper in the middle with their rugged styles.
The midfield will be the key. How they screen their defence, which will become narrow and compact, will define how difficult to break down they are. Be it Mulumbu and Yacob or the preferred Craig Gardner and James Morrision, that midfield four will slide across the pitch laterally in unison, preventing any form of penetration into danger areas.
That commitment will owe much to Pulis’ training ground warm up exercise, which he outlined in an issue of the Elite Soccer coaching magazine last year. In a relatively simple drill that takes place in 20x15m area, there’s essentially (in no uncertain terms) a glorified game of ‘piggy in the middle.’ Imagine a tri-colour flag with a quartet of players operating each colour. The outside quartets have to get the ball to the other side, penetrating the middle four, who are drilled relentlessly, covering gaps, screening space.
If the defensive team carries out the drill successfully, Pulis explains, then opposition attackers only have one way through, and that’s to play the ball out wide and attack the flanks. Pulis clearly wants that to translate on the pitch, to channel attacking streams out wide, and then rely on his centre backs to deal with any crosses into the box. In this case the reliable Craig Dawson and Joleon Lescott will be expected to form a solid relationship, although Gareth McAuley was preferred at the weekend.
Many coaches probably use similar approaches, but Pulis’ skill as a manager relays in his ability to make his players adhere to it religiously. Mile Jedinak had an outstanding season conforming to that formula at Palace last season.
The only variations that you’ll really expect to see is up front, that’s where there’s some room for variations. At Stoke and Palace, Cameron Jerome (now at Norwich) has led from the front, an indefatigable unit who’s off the ball work rate and hold up player has been perfect for Pulis’ ideals.
The interesting facet at Palace was the use of Marouane Chamakh in a supporting role. He would sit on opposition midfield playmakers, and act as a target man for long balls. How Berahino and Stephane Sessegnon will cope with those changes is difficult to know.
On the surface, neither are really Pulis players. Whether they could be ostracised in favour of a more physical and dynamic type remains to be seen. But with continuous rumours that Berahino could depart for around £24m, there could be a convenient out option for Pulis to trade pace for power.
“I think we need to add in that position (up front),” Pulis stated after the Hull game.
Overall, expect a profound strategic change in defence and midfield along with a change of personnel up front. They’re the parameters relevant for Pulis to make the changes that he so zealously believes in.