As Jurgen Klopp refused to shake hands with Tony Pulis after a gritty draw at Anfield on Sunday, instead beating his chest at his chav-capped West Brom counterpart like a gorilla marking his touchline territory, it was clear that the Liverpool manager had somehow missed the point – despite gaining one courtesy of Divock Origi’s stoppage time equaliser.
Here’s a club who have spent less on players since the end of the 2010/11 season than Liverpool did during the last transfer window alone, holding them to a score draw in their own back yard. Who cares how they did it – this is what the Premier League is all about.
Don’t get me wrong, West Brom play bottom-line football and it’s not easy on the eye. The bottom line is that with the right training, the Baggies will score X amount of goals from set pieces per year, concede X amount less goals from set pieces than their rivals per year, keep X amount of clean sheets, claim X amount of points and resultantly preserve their Premier League status for another season.
It’s as formulaic as a profit and loss sheet, but with good reason. For a club that have a stadium capacity of under 27,000 and spent the majority of the Premier League era in the Championship, ensuring top flight football and the revenue accompanying it is all that matters. It’s the bottom line.
Sponsorship deals, financial backing, jobs, livelihoods, reputations and the futures of academy players are all at stake. So why would Pulis risk all that, just so Alan Shearer can pat him on the back during every episode of Match of the Day for playing good football? Eddie Howe can take the plaudits; the Baggies boss will take survival instead.
As you can tell, I have no qualms with Pulis’ approach to the modern game, even if Klopp does and Liverpool favourite John Aldridge dubs it ‘anti-football’.
After all, the only thing the Baggies can be accused of is mastering the basics of an eleven-versus-eleven game, with defensive organisation, teamwork, expertly executed set pieces and opportunism in the final third. Everything West Brom did on Sunday was within the parameters of the FIFA rulebook and it’s not up to Pulis to make sure opponents can match the Baggies in those departments. In fact, quite the opposite.
In some ways, I feel the Black Country club is an easy target for Klopp. Chelsea played in almost exactly the same way in the second half of last season to secure a fourth Premier League title. Atletico Madrid’s philosophy under Diego Simeone isn’t too dissimilar – and that got them to moments away from winning the Champions League in 2014. They played better football in technical terms, but so would West Brom if they had the same calibre of player.
I don’t remember Klopp trying to discredit their accomplishments and if anti-football doesn’t deserve a handshake after ninety hard-fought minutes, what does that actually say about our beautiful game? That even the best players in the world aren’t good enough to stop two banks of four, relentless long-balls and well-timed corner routines, so we should treat sides who play like that as parasites until they stop?
If that’s the case, then maybe the game’s not so beautiful after all. Maybe Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo aren’t as talented as we all think. And if West Brom’s way of getting points is so inferiorly simplistic that Klopp can’t even acknowledge it, why aren’t Liverpool incorporating it into their game already?
Furthermore, clubs like West Brom and managers like Pulis are the lifeblood of the Premier League – the cornerstone that makes it the most competitive and popular top flight in world football. They’re the litmus test for the biggest teams and the counterweight against the growing obsession with Barcelona-inspired philosophies. Sure, you may have just spent more than the net worth of Namibia on a new No.10, but do you know how to mark properly at corners? In Liverpool’s case, evidently not.
No doubt, a league with twenty Tony Puli (if that is the correct plural noun) in charge of twenty West Broms would be a disaster – it is certainly true that the English game thrives on exciting attacking play and football is certainly a spectator-oriented sport. There must be some sort of balance.
But a league without Tony Pulis whatsoever would be equally dystopian, moving further away from the English DNA and towards a brand of football where the basics are forgotten. Instead of boasting very complete sides compiled of very complete players, who are offensive, defensive, physical, technical and tactical in almost equal measure, the Premier League would become something else, something less unique, simply importing ideas from foreign leagues in the same way it imports many of their biggest stars.
Pulis is the anchor making sure it doesn’t drift off on the wave of whatever happens to be the latest trend. Pulis is a reminder that you must earn your right to play in the Premier League and can’t simply expect to beat those lower than you in the table. As much as anything else, it’s the psychological effect results like Sunday’s have on the rest of the division, proving that anybody can indeed take points from anybody, that keep the unique Premier League mentality alive.
Of course, there are other ways of doing it. Bournemouth play a more exciting game and they’ve now claimed back-to-back wins against Chelsea and Manchester United, yet all three of their goals were still from set pieces – so why spend the rest of the 90 minutes defensively open just for the sake of it? Even Roberto Martinez, one of the Premier League’s champions of aesthetic play, describes football as a ‘game of errors’. Why not eliminate them in the manner Pulis does, if that’s all your budget can afford?
If Klopp believes Pulis’ methods don’t warrant a handshake, despite him spending all week on the training ground drilling his players on Liverpool’s weaknesses and despite West Brom running themselves into the ground for a single point away from home, which in itself says much about Pulis’ abilities to motivate, that’s his prerogative.
But if the Liverpool manager’s ‘gegenpressing’ philosophy can’t even overcome the basics of English football on display during every Sunday League match up and down the country, then perhaps it’s not as great as he thinks it is. And perhaps the Premier League is a much tougher nut to crack than he gives it credit for.