In defence of the Premier League's most hated manager

Tony Pulis isn't known for producing the most entertaining football, but he deserves more respect.

Tony Pulis and Arsene Wenger

Tony Pulis and Arsene Wenger Source: Getty Images

Sometimes you have to consider ideas that will be about as popular as heavy policing during a Mexican wave. But occasionally it’s the right thing to do. 

To talk about Tony Pulis (in any context) is a fast-track to draw scorn from pretty much anyone who has followed the Premier League in the past decade. 

London’s Daily Telegraph ran a full-length feature this week describing Saturday’s clash between Pulis’s West Bromich Albion and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal (11pm, LIVE on SBS) as “the ultimate philosophical rivalry”. 

Pulis was described as “unflinchingly unconventional” and Wenger portrayed as the “arch-aesthete and philosopher”. You’d think he’d committed some sort of crime (and the critics would argue his style constitutes exactly that). 

Yet Pulis couldn’t care one bit. He’s never shied away from going toe-to-toe with the Frenchman – evidenced by his famous quote: "I've got nothing against foreign managers, they are very nice people. Apart from Arsene Wenger." 

To many, the combination of his Allardyce-like tactics and Mourinho-like mouth are intolerable. And his decision to walk out on Crystal Palace didn’t enhance his popularity. 

But it’s those tactics, in particular, that are hard to miss. Long balls. Second balls. Headers, corners, free-kicks. Defending without mercy. Physicality without compromise. It’s been dubbed “Pulisball” - with 16 goals (more than anyone else) coming from dead balls this season. No doubt it can be gruesome but it's also making an real impact.

"The manager's set pieces are notorious, and we make sure we nail them down – for and against," Baggies’ winger Matt Phillips recently told the Daily Mail. "We have our own routines, they're almost like American Football plays." 

Imagine the disdain filling in Wenger’s head if he read those comments. But as the two sides come together at the Hawthorns on Saturday, there’s no doubt who will be riding high. 

Wenger appears all but certain to be in the final two months of his 20-year reign at Arsenal, one of the most important managerial stints in the history of English football. 

But repeat under-performance in the league and in Europe has come home to roost. The fans have had enough and are demanding change. He is almost certain to be gone at the end of the year, with Champions League qualification seemingly unlikely, and the catastrophic manner of this year’s exit against Bayern Munich the killer blow. 

Pulis is not in the running for Europe – last weekend’s 3-0 defeat to Everton put paid to the Baggies’ hopes of a foreign adventure next season – but he’s already a huge winner. They are currently eighth and had been, until last week, hot on the Toffees’ tails all season. 

This is the ninth consecutive year that the ex-Stoke and Palace manager has been able to avoid relegation from the Premiership. That’s a hell of a record considering the small-time teams he’s been in charge of.

Critically, he has almost universal support in the dressing room (at least since Saido Berahino left) and the terraces. He’s making his players play better, which is always a key measure of a top manager. Nacer Chadli is back in the Belgium team and Phillips, too, is back in Scotland’s setup. 

Even the relatively unheralded Jake Livermore has been called into the England squad. No prizes for guessing who he puts it down to. 

“He [Pulis] gave me the news and I was just delighted. Hopefully I can do the club and him proud,” Livermore said. “Ultimately I do owe a large fraction of it to my manager and the players I’m playing with. They have been fantastic.” 

Yes, there is a question about why Pulis-led sides perform so badly once they’ve secured safety (just five wins in 36 matches over those nine years), but he’ll be eager to turn that around this time. He's rarely secured safety this early, too. 

Recently linked with the Leicester job, it would be a shame if Pulis left the Baggies in the lurch. But then again, he doesn’t always make the most popular calls. 

He does, however, tend to make the right ones. For that alone, perhaps it’s time the football fraternity offered a little more respect, however grudging that may be.

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4 min read
Published 18 March 2017 at 12:46pm
By Sebastian Hassett