The Season So Far
For all the good work done by Jeremy Peace and Dan Ashworth in solidifying West Bromwich Albion as a Premier League side - an arduous process that took the best part of a decade and four promotions and three relegations - for most of this season it looked like it would all have been for naught. The Baggies have looked truly dismal at times and at the halfway point they were sinking without trace. The mess has been almost entirely of their own making.
The appointment of Allan Irvine as manager, previously best known for being that immaculately coiffed guy who stood next to David Moyes on the touchline at Everton, had plenty of fans scratching their heads and with good cause. Irvine may have fit the bill as an obedient and humble Head Coach willing to work as part of an overarching managerial structure, but he was hopelessly out of his depth and the players seemed to realise almost immediately.
Given the state of West Brom’s results and the absolute turgidity of their performances, it was a wonder that Irvine lasted until December 29, when the availability of Tony Pulis and the impending transfer window made Peace finally pull the trigger. Pulis’ arrival was billed as the Baggies’ saving grace, their immediate one-way ticket to mid-table respectability and, given Pulis’ heroics at Crystal Palace last season, perhaps even a rapid rise to even greater heights.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that. West Brom simply don’t have the individual flair and pace that Palace do, and their escape from relegation has been markedly unspectacular. What’s more, there have been some pretty catastrophic results along the way, a 4-1 home defeat to QPR and consecutive defeats to the rudderless Aston Villa chief among them. That said, Pulis has still achieved his aim of preserving the club’s Premier League status and they will come into the game in good spirits, looking to give their fans one last hurrah before the end of the season.
Michael Owen recently described Pulis’ training as "boring" and "mind-numbing", which really is saying something. If Owen, the world’s beigest man by several million parsecs, strongly believes something to be indescribably dull, then the boredom the rest of us would feel in that situation must be horrific. I’m feeling nauseous just imagining it.
That said, Pulis’ soporific methods appear to be effective. As always with his sides, West Brom’s main focus is on keeping a good defensive shape and giving their opponents as little time and space near their goal as possible, and they have become competent enough at it to move several places up the table since the Welsh manager’s arrival.
The opposition’s space is minimised by keeping all four defenders back and making sure the central midfielders – usually two, more recently three – sit deep and protect the back four as best they can. With none of the defenders obliged to attack or provide width, Pulis tends to use four tall centre-backs to make up his defence and their task is very simple: keep their shape, protect the penalty box and punt the ball as far as possible whenever it arrives at their feet.
Such extreme focus on the defensive aspect of the game tends to limit attacking output somewhat. Pulis’ Stoke City side was, among other things, renowned for its toothlessness, and this West Brom side is no different. They have scored only 15 goals in the 16 league games since Pulis came in. Emphasis on defence is one reason for their failure to score – the other is Pulis’ favoured method of attack.
It’s been 65 years since Charles Reep began collecting notes at football matches and analysing his statistics, a process that eventually led to the creation of the long ball game, and in that time route-one football has been thoroughly debunked as a pseudoscience – or, at the very least, the evolution of modern tactics has meant that most managers have long since left it behind. Not Pulis.
Since January, the Baggies have been rocketing up the Premier League ‘most long balls per game’ table. At the moment, only QPR, Burnley and Manchester United have hit more. There are obvious differences between West Brom and those sides, however: firstly, QPR and Burnley are newly promoted sides fighting for survival, and Man Utd’s high number long passes A) are usually cross-field switches to feet and B) form a relatively small proportion of their overall total.
In recent matches, around 30% of West Brom’s passes have been long - an extremely high figure. They’ve also been very inefficient – the idea that the most reliable way to make a good shooting opportunity is to quickly get the ball as close as possible to the opposition goal no longer holds water. Ultimately, however, Pulis doesn’t care: the idea is that his team’s defensive structure should be impenetrable, and consequently they should only need one of their attacks to be successful. It's pretty much the most disgusting football idea ever to have existed.
All together now: *VOMIT*.
One imagines that after a summer transfer window and a pre-season, West Brom will be significantly better at key aspects of Pulisian football than they are now. As it is, their threat from set plays is really the only aspect of Pulisball that they’ve really understood and excelled at. In fact, they’ve possibly excelled at set pieces too much: they’ve scored 17 goals from set pieces this season (20 if we’re including penalties) and only 14 from open play.
The main reason for their excellence in this area is Chris Brunt’s left foot. The Ulsterman’s delivery is fast, powerful and viciously whipped. Chelsea will have to be very alert at every dead ball situation and John Terry and Gary Cahill will have a difficult time marking their men as well as reading the flight of the ball. From certain angles and distances, the right foot of Craig Gardner is sometimes preferred, and when the Baggies are pumping the ball into the box from halfway line Darren Fletcher occasionally does the honours, but Brunt is the biggest threat.
It’s unclear whether Saido Berahino will start, but if he does then Chelsea have to minimise his space, especially if he receives the ball with his back to goal. Although his overall contribution can be patchy and he hasn’t scored since March 3rd, the kid has magic in his boots and can open up any defence given the opportunity.
Where to start?
Their attacking play doesn’t lead to many shots on the opposition goal; they can’t (well, won’t) keep the ball; despite hours of rigorous defensive coaching, they allow lots and lots of shots on their own goal; for a team that spends a lot of time without the ball, they don’t do anywhere near enough to win it back.
Most of these weaknesses are by-products of employing Tony Pulis, but some of them will disappear over time. The fact is that certain key players at the club don’t really suit Pulis’ style: James Morrison, Youssouf Mulumbu and Berahino especially are used to a different kind of football with more possibilities and ingenuity. One expects that they will be moved on in the summer to make room for more lumbering, unimaginative and diligent players.
It’s the time of year when routine and predictability go out of the window, so it really is anyone’s guess what the line-ups will be. José Mourinho has all-but confirmed Chelsea’s starting eleven will include several youth products, but where they fit and who they will replace is difficult to say. Pulis will presumably pack the midfield to deny Chelsea’s attackers space, which means that it makes more sense to play Victor Anichebe or Brown Ideye as the lone striker instead of Berahino, whose slight frame means he doesn’t hold the ball up effectively.
Given that Chelsea’s season is now all-but over the level of intensity on display might not be that high, and that could lead to West Brom having a better chance of getting a result than usual. The fact remains, however, that Chelsea are very, very good and West Brom just aren’t, so we’ll go with another 1-0 win for the Blues.