After the champagne corks had been popped and the fireworks have ended, New Year’s Day offers Tony Pulis the chance to continue the celebration.
Appointed manager of West Bromwich Albion on January 1st 2015 with the task of clearing the sorry mess left behind by Alan Irvine and lifting the struggling outfit out of a relegation battle, two years later and sights are considerably higher at the Hawthornes.
While the unrelenting form of the top 6 has exposed a chasm in the Premier League, Pulis’s West Brom are competing to be the ‘best of the rest’, sitting in eighth a point below seventh-placed Everton
Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, firmly established in the league’s elite band of clubs, are the only teams to have beaten West Brom since early September and back-to-back victories over Southampton and Hull over the festive period has given upward momentum to a club as accustomed to looking nervously over their shoulders as their infamously pragmatic manager.
Not that Pulis is willing to get carried away.
“We’ve got a long way to go” he warned following the 1-2 win at Southampton. “Don’t talk about it halfway through – let’s see what we’re like at the back end of it.”
Pulis should be pleased
Secretly however he will be pleased at the giddy heights his team are now riding as he defies the critics, rooted from his days with Stoke City, that his talents are limited to reaching the 40-point-mark.
The 58-year-old also saved Crystal Palace from relegation in 2014 before his unexpected departure that summer citing differences with the board.
Irvine left the Baggies just a point above the bottom 3 in late December 2014 and Pulis was called-for, with his expertise in steering teams to safety impossible to overlook.
Having gone through 4 managers in a year West Brom required stability and what Pulis himself identified as “team unity”.
Two years later and both of those boxes have been ticked with the football, most surprisingly for the coach whose reputation for an uncompromising style bears down so heavily, easy on the eye.
There have been occasions when Pulis has sent his team out, habitually, tasked with stifling the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal but the West Brom of this season have been more known for the vibrancy of Nacer Chadli and Chris Brunt, the creation of Matt Phillips and the vigil held to centre-forward play of the more recent past by Salomon Rondon.
Rondon conjures images of the likes of Alan Shearer with his robust strength and intelligent movement in leading the line of Pulis’s 4-2-3-1 and the powerful Venezuelan has ensured the exiled Saido Berahino has not been missed by scoring goals, 7 in total, including the deadly 13-minute hat-trick of headers in the 3-1 victory over Swansea.
It has offered a potent focal point to the supply lines of Phillips and Chadli whose signings in the summer have proven totemic. Phillips, with 30, has already equalled the highest number of chances created from last season and has 8 assists, more than anybody in the West Brom squad last term.
Meanwhile Chadli, cast-aside by Spurs and signed for a club-record £12 million, has proven his worth with 4 goals and 2 assists alongside the continuously under-appreciated Chris Brunt who has provided 3 and scored twice.
Thriving counter-attacking game
An average possession rate of 40.7% is the lowest in the Premier League and their amount of shots per game, 10.2, is nearly level with last season’s, but more guile and conviction in the final third has enabled Pulis’ swift counter-attacking to thrive.
The system is centred around a well-versed engine room that combines the experience and energy of Darren Fletcher with the combative spirit of Claudio Yacob, only 6 players have recorded more tackles so far in the Premier League than the Argentine.
Behind them Craig Dawson, Johnny Evans and Gareth McAuley, who at the age of 37 has not yet missed a minute of the campaign, have forged a resilient back-line.
Pulis spoke glowingly of the Baggies’ mental strength and tight-knit unit following the defeat of Southampton and the use of 21 players, only Chelsea have used less, has helped his squad’s togetherness.
That has owed to Pulis’ shrewd use of resources after the summer transfer window ended in frustration and rumours of a deteriorating relationship with the board.
The manager refused to quit after a confusing August deadline day culminated in a failure to land a desired defensive midfielder while only Allan Nyom and Hal Robson-Kanu, who Pulis publicly said he did not want, came in to add to a worryingly thin squad.
Nyom, signed for £4 million from Watford, has been flawless at left-back while even Robson-Kanu has won over the manager after netting a superb winner on the south coast on New Year’s Eve.
Supported by the club’s hierarchy
One imagines that the opinion held by the club’s hierarchy, headed by a Chinese consortium, are more united in their support of Pulis than they were in late August and the Welshman is likely to be given the funds to strengthen in January with ambitions already aimed at Manchester United’s Morgan Schneiderlin.
The French midfielder, for whom United have already rejected a £13 million bid, is the calibre of player the Baggies should be targeting given their lofty league position and the finances of their owner Guochuan Lai.
The only doubts concerned whether Pulis was the man to oversee their heightened aspirations and for now he is rising to the challenge the only way he knows.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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