Tony Pulis’ approach didn’t work this time

Manager Analysis
Michele Tossani

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Michele Tossani

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Tony Pulis has been sacked as West Bromwich Albion manager following their 4-0 defeat to Chelsea. Pulis, who won only two games in his last 21 Premier League matches with WBA, became the fifth Premier League manager sacked this campaign after Frank de Boer, Craig Shakespeare, Ronald Koeman and Slaven Bilic.

Pulis took the job back in January 2015 with West Brom that finished 13th, 14th and 10th under his regime.

This dismissal is a huge blow for a manager as Pulis, who has been considered for years the safety valve for many clubs and ownerships in Premier League. But the fact that West Bromwich Albion’s Chinese owners, led by Guochaun Lai, went tired of Pulis represents a considerable news.

Pulis’s boring football has been endured – when not highly praised – when it came to avoid teams with low expectations from being relegated. But, maybe, Pulis’ tactical approach became expendable when it comes to more ambitious sides looking for a more glamourous playing style. What is seems clear is that with ownerships looking to provide their fans both results and entertainment value, no one is buying what can come from Pulis.

Under Pulis, West Brom registered the lowest average ball possession of any Premier League side – 36.76% – and produced more shots on target than just Swansea.

Against Huddersfield, a side who played most of the game with a men down following Christopher Schindler’s red card, WBA still produced just three shots on target with barely 0.39 of xG, ending the game with a deserved 1-0 loss.

West Brom’s xG against Huddersfield were better than the opponent but still not enough to produce a goal.

More worrying then these stats is the fact West Brom defended so poorly to be a Pulis’ side. They allowed as many as 25 goals – worst Premeir League defence –  whilst their xGD (differential between for and against expected goals) in open play is -3.10 with their xGA being 10.14. Expected goals difference is a stat which can provide us an idea about West Brom’s defensive efficiency this campaign.

Generally speaking, West Brom under Pulis is the fourth worst Premier League team when it comes to xG at 10.12, better than just four other sides – Bournemouth, Brighton, Huddersfield and Burnely. That’s hardly a surprise for a team that scored just 9 goals out from 12 games. Pulis’ West Brom also scored three or more goals on just eight games out from the 107 Premier League matches they played under the 59-years old manager. Their main scoring threat during this season has been Jay Rodriguez, with the 19-years old that scored only two goals.

Pulis’s traditional weapon – scoring on set-pieces – also weren’t there with West Brom who scored barely three times out from these situations while their xG are just 0.70. Last season, West Brom achieved 16 assists from set-pieces – the most in the Premier League – and registered the highest percentage of goals scored from set – pieces – 37.21% – than other sides in the league.

Set-pieces, a traditional strength in any Pulis’ side, were a mess this season.

Sure, some arguments in Pulis’ defence can be raised: last campaign has been only the third time in club’s history West Brom finished 10th in the Premier League. It’s only the second time since 1967 this club has finished the top Midlands club. Furthermore, players brought on this summer as Nacer Chadli or James Morrison suffered through lack of form or injuries and, as the same manager pointed out, “if you don’t have your best players, especially at that end of the pitch, you’re going to struggle.”

But, that said, the question comes over players’ injuries or expectations that – according to Pulis – have considerably grown up. The big picture here comes to Pulis’s tactical approach in a Premier League even more suited to attracting football. As a recent stat pointed out [sorted out on The Guardian, I don’t know if I can quote them] Pulis managed 321 Premier League games in which his sides scored just 319 times, 157 out from set-pieces. In all but one of the ten seasons Pulis has been a Premier League’s manager – with Stoke City, Crystal Palace and West Brom – his teams registered the fewest number of passes in the league. This season, his West Brom registered only 252 short passes per game, the worst average of any Premier League’s side.

Pulis’s defensive approach drew criticism also because former Stoke’s manager worked with maybe the best roster West Brom put together in recent years. Guochaun Lai spent more than £40m this past summer to bring on players such as Kieran Gibbs, Oliver Burke, Rodriguez, Chadli, Morrison, Gareth Barry and Grzegorz Krychowiak, on loan from PSG.

Also barring the aforementioned injuries or lacks of shape, this core of players seemed to be enough to produce a more attractive brand of football than Pulis produced at The Hawthorn. The fact that Pulis strongly changed his team’s shape also didn’t help.

Pulish used various formations, mainly 3-5-2 (for 318 minutes), 4-1-4-1 (284 minutes) and 4-2-3-1 (273 minutes). But results have not been there. West Brom scored four goals out from 4-2-3-1, three from 4-1-4-1 and just one from 3-5-2 posting xG of respectively 3.99, 2.70 and 2.28. The xGD were negative for the 3-5-2 formation (- 4.07) or low for 4-2-3-1 (0.72) and 4-1-4-1 (0.55).

Every formation raised criticism toward Pulis : the 3-5-2 formation with Allan Nyom and Gibbs as wing backs reduced the spaces for Scottish winger Matt Phillips whilst the 4-1-4-1 already looked to have contributed to Salomon Rondon’s struggles.

Pulis’ 3-5-2 lined up against Chelsea still didn’t work.

Conclusion

Although he was highly praised as an escaper from relegation – as he has never been relegated during his coaching career – Pulis went from hero to zero in a while at The Hawthorn.

Both results and performances didn’t live to the hype coming from a £40m recruitment campaign so West Brom pushed the panic button and Pulis became the fifth manager to be fired in Premier League this season.

But Pulis’s firing could also go over a simple sack of an underperforming manager. With Slaven Bilic and Franck De Boer already sacked by West Ham and Crystal Palace and with criticism amounting on José Mourinho at Manchester United or Mark Hughes with Stoke City for their playing display, Premier League’s owners, fans and media seem to be suited for a more attractive – still effective – play style who leaves no room for managers teaching their teams not to lose as first rule. Brighton’s Chris Hughton could be the exception but they are a newly promoted team so stay away from relegation is enough, regardless of the playstyle.

Premier League’s circles look angry for results through good performances. Guardiolism could have to do with this and that also could explain why a manager such as Watford’s Marco Silva – who amassed just 13 Premier League games so far – already raised so much interest.

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