Regular readers will know that I have found Tony Pulis’s tenure at the Hawthorns incredibly frustrating. I didn’t want the Welshman to take charge of the club in the first place having seen the style of football he oversaw at Stoke City and, while relegation has not been a real prospect in the run-in to either of the last two seasons, neither has a top ten finish.
The style of football has been widely criticised, and there is little doubt that it lacks entertainment but, if it gets results, should we fans complain? Did we complain when Gary Megson led the Baggies back to the top flight playing a similar brand of defensive and pragmatic football? No, we didn’t. But that was because we accepted that the squad was limited, and that brand of football was the only way to make the team better than the sum of its parts and, therefore, good enough to get promotion. But I’m sure we all preferred the entertainment of the promotion campaign under Tony Mowbray even though it resulted in fewer points, albeit with a league title.
My biggest frustration is that I believe that the current squad could achieve much more than just survival, which is all Tony Pulis seems to care about. The dreadful run that Albion have gone on since achieving 40 points is somewhat indicative of that approach, and it could well leave Albion finishing in a disappointing 16th place.
Furthermore, the number of games in which Albion have registered less than one or two shots on target is staggering. Megson’s teams may have been defensive, but scoring was always an aim – for Pulis’s Albion team, the idea of scoring a goal seemed to have been the last thing on their minds most of the time. To not register a shot on goal in all the matches against the current bottom four this calendar year is scandalous.
The dreadful shots on target statistics have been much discussed, but when the Guardian published its Premier League Ineptitude Index last week, it showed that it is not the only area in which Albion have fallen well short this season.
The Baggies were placed overall second in the Ineptitude Index, behind Aston Villa, thanks to their poor record not only in failing to score, but in missing penalties (even before Saturday’s miss by Gardner), yellow cards for dissent, blowing a two-goal lead, scoring own goals and giving away possession from throw-ins. Perhaps we should feel fortunate that Albion have survived this season! I felt embarrassed in reading that article but couldn’t argue with its findings.
Those findings have been backed up by other statistics that can be seen on the WhoScored.com website. Here is a sample of the statistics from that site showing where Albion rank against the other Premier League sides.
|Pass success rate
|Shots per game
|Shots on target per game
|Dribbles per game
|Unsuccessful touches per game
|Dispossessed per game
|Goals from open play
|Goals on counter attack
|Long balls per game
|Short passes per game
|Tackles per game
|Shots conceded per game
|Aerial duels won per game
|Interceptions per game
It makes depressing reading but will be no surprise to Albion fans who have attended games regularly this season. The Baggies have been a poor side, but through (mostly) good organisation and a strongly risk averse approach to the game, they have picked up (just) enough points to stay in the Premier League.
However, on occasion they have shown what the players are capable of if the shackles are released. The performances at Leicester, Tottenham and Chelsea, and the home wins over Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Man Utd are all examples where a positive approach has produced results, but so rarely has Tony Pulis allowed the players the freedom to attack in any numbers, that the overall impression that both Baggies and opposition fans have of Albion this season is of a turgid boring defensive team.
There will be many shouts of “be careful what you wish for”, but watching a Tony Pulis team for eighteen months has left me crying out for some entertainment and excitement at the Hawthorns. Yes, I accept that there has been the odd game, but that has made the usual drivel all the more frustrating.
I firmly believe that it is time for a change. I accept that Pulis was, perhaps, a necessary evil last season when he took over from a struggling Alan Irvine, but he has not moved the football club forward this season and it looks like we will finish this campaign with fewer points than the last. Had Albion hit 50 points or made the top ten, it might have been a different conversation, but it is difficult to see why next season would be any different to this should Pulis remain at the helm.
The appointment of Nick Hammond as Technical Director is a positive move, but will his impact be tempered by a manager who wants to retain a large degree of control? Tony Pulis’s transfer record is hardly filled with success. Under his tenure at Stoke City, the club’s NET spend was £19m in 2008, £17m in 2009, £11m in 2010, £20m in 2011 and £21m in 2012, and yet the Potters failed to secure a top ten place. That is something that has been achieved in both seasons since the Welshman’s departure with a net spend of less than £2m over the two summers of 2013 and 2014 and, while another £21m was spent last summer, Mark Hughes’ team look well placed for another top ten finish.
Furthermore, his record on signings since moving to the Hawthorns is less than encouraging. His first signing, Callum McManaman, was unexpected as he is not really a Pulis player. I suspect that it was a deal already in train when the Welshman was brought on board because Pulis has rarely used him. Record signing, Salomón Rondón, remains unproven, although I think he is worth persevering with, but he certainly looks expensive, while two of his loan signings, young attacking players in Serge Gnabry and Alex Pritchard, must have wondered why they bothered. But perhaps the most damning indictment of his failure in the transfer market is the £8m signing of James Chester. As a young promising centre back, he would have been expensive but understandable, but to sign him as a full back is staggering. Unsurprisingly, he has looked unconvincing in a position unfamiliar to him, although his later performances have been encouraging enough for him to make the initial cut for the Wales squad for Euro 2016. Moreover, Chester was the only “full back” that Pulis signed despite the fact that he obviously didn’t fancy either Gamboa or Pocognoli. As for Rickie Lambert, the less said about him, the better – Liverpool were laughing all the way to the bank to get back 75% of what they paid to Southampton.
Obviously, there have been some successes. The two signings from Manchester United, Jonny Evans (£6m) and Darren Flecther (free), have been very good and James McClean, while limited, has been good value for £1.5m. Also, the sale of Joleon Lescott was extra-ordinarily well-timed. However, Pulis has spent in the region of £35m in the transfer market in his time at Albion and, while you cannot expect every signing to be a success, it would be difficult to argue that Pulis has improved the squad sufficiently given the outlay.
Perhaps Peace feels that Hammond’s appointment might help to ensure value for money in the transfer market, but should that in turn mean that Pulis is prevented from buying the players he wants, that could lead to conflict. The last thing that the club needs is for Pulis to walk out shortly before the start of the season, as he did at Selhurst Park, and then having to find a new head coach after all the best candidates are likely to have found work.
That decision to walk out on Palace not only cost Pulis £2m, but it also must surely raise questions as to his integrity given that the case proved that he misrepresented his situation to Steve Parrish in order to be paid his bonus. Will that not have cast doubts in Jeremy Peace’s mind? I’m sure it must have been discussed.
Having said all that, Jeremy Peace is historically a conservative man and there must be some doubt as to whether he will see the team’s performance this season poor enough, or the doubts over Tony Pulis strong enough, to warrant a change, but a run of two months without a win must surely make him sit up an take note. Before the current spell, Albion’s last run of eight league games without a win was the early days of Pepe Mel’s short reign and the last time they went longer without a win saw Steve Clarke sacked six games into a run of nine games before the Spaniard was appointed. The early summer would seem an opportune moment to make a change if a change is on JP’s mind. Brendan Rodgers has been linked with the club, although I take all such links with a pinch of salt, and I’m sure that Peace will have his own ideas should he be considering a change.
Pulis can be considered a success in as much as he has kept West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League long enough to benefit from another massive uplift in TV money that kicks in next season, but I don’t believe that he has shown any sign that he can take the club to be anything other than a bottom half side with the faint prospect of relegation every season. Five years ago, that might have been a worthwhile ambition, although I’m sure most fans would have expected a little more entertainment with even those modest aims, but the performances of Leicester, West Ham, Watford and Southampton have shown what low- and mid-ranking clubs can achieve with the right man at the helm and the right infrastructure to support him.
Albion need to compete properly in the transfer market this summer and all Premier League sides will have a lot of money to spend, and with wages high throughout the top flight, the head coach can be a big factor in deciding where a player goes – how many players that Albion fans want to see at the Hawthorns will want to play for Tony Pulis?
Nick Hammond could well be the man to pick up from where Dan Ashworth left off in terms of the support infrastructure, but given what I have seen with my own eyes, and the support of the statistics on the team’s lack of effectiveness, I feel strongly that there needs to be a change. In my opinion, Tony Pulis is not the right man to be holding the wheel if West Bromwich Albion are to steer away from the choppy waters of the Premier League’s bottom third.