Tony Pulis is a football genius
At Crystal Palace, Pulis has shown that there's more to him than hoof-ball and baseball caps.
Tony Pulis is a football genius. There, I’ve said it. And with no trace of irony either. His achievement in keeping Crystal Palace up is a modern miracle. Palace’s survival in the top flight, secured with last week’s win at West Ham, wasn’t simply a triumph for the old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon virtues of hard graft, discipline and physicality. Sure, there was team spirit and organisational discipline aplenty, but Palace fans have seen a different side to Tony Pulis. The Welsh wizard hasn’t just out-fought opponents, he’s out-thought them, too. This is a guy who knows his tactical onions.
When Pulis took over in November after the shock resignation of Ian Holloway, many fans were sceptical, myself included. Were we set to morph into a Stoke tribute act: all hustle, harrying and hoof-ball? It wasn’t an appetising prospect. Ian Holloway, by contrast, was an advocate of Spanish-style attacking football. But, while he talked a good game, the quality of football was more pitiful than beautiful. After three months in the top flight, Palace had notched up a paltry four points. Hansen and Shearer were already tut-tutting at our comical attempts to pass the ball out from the back. When we did get into the final third, we simply didn’t have the attacking quality to cause opposing sides’ problems. In a chaotic panic buying spree in the summer, Holloway had brought several wingers but somehow he’d forgotten to sign a goal scorer. Attacking football minus the goals is about as effective as a eunuch in a sperm bank. Relegation seemed inevitable. Some fans were questioning whether we’d even scrape together 11 points – Derby’s unwanted record for the lowest points tally in the Premier League.
In those desperate circumstances, you’d think we’d be grateful for the arrival of Tony Pulis, a manager who’d never suffered relegation; a manager who would get us organised and stiffen up our error-prone defence. But football fans are nothing if not irrational. Our inner Danny Blanchflower was whispering in our ear that football isn’t about results; it’s about glory and doing things in style. Clearly some of Holloway’s infectious romanticism had rubbed off on us. We’d convinced ourselves that, with the right man in charge, a team of Championship-standard players could be taught to play like Barcelona. In a poll on the Croydon Advertiser website, most fans preferred Dan Petrescu to Tony Pulis.
But, gradually, Pulis started to win over the doubters. The first task was to sort out the defence. As well as not procuring a goalscorer, Ian Holloway had also failed to strengthen a defence which had shipped goals in the Championship. Under Pulis’ stewardship, however, the Palace defence became ultra-miserly – at the time of writing we had conceded fewer goals than title-contenders Liverpool. With the exception of Scott Dann, who was recruited in January, Pulis achieved this with the same defenders who had floundered under Holloway.
Palace are well-drilled and work extremely hard without the ball, which, if you look at the possession stats, is usually a large percentage of the game. But, of course, you’d expect a Tony Pulis team to be defensively solid, wouldn’t you? You’d also expect a rudimentary long-ball game. But, while the team sits deep and plays on the counter-attack, it certainly hasn’t been a relentless diet of ‘route one’ football. As Pulis explained, ‘I have a different type of group to the one I had at Stoke. We play through the middle more, we have very quick players and they have different strengths. We have decided on the best way to play and found a system that suits them.’
Not only has Pulis shown that he’s far more than a disciple of Charles Reep, the godfather of direct football, he’s also proved to be an adept tactician. He prepares his teams meticulously with detailed scouting reports – and, some might add, leaked team sheets. He also flexes the tactics according to the situation. When his team was under the cosh against Hull City, he switched to a 3-5-2 system, which mirrored his opponents and nullified their threat. Away at Swansea, with the home team completely on top, Pulis changed to a 4-4-2 formation and a higher pressing game, a switch that ultimately earned a vital away point. In recent weeks, Pulis has masterminded a five-match winning run – including the scalps of Chelsea and Everton – which has secured Palace’s top flight status. Maybe now that Palace’s counter-attacking game is bearing fruit, one hopes that Pulis might finally shake off the reputation as a long-ball merchant. Or as the Palace manager himself put it, in a metaphor mash-up worthy of Big Ron: ‘Someone has just said to me now that that pigeonhole is off your back. We played well at Stoke at times but never got the credit and you get pigeonholed with it.’ Whatever it is on Tony’s back, whether a monkey or a pigeonhole, it really does deserves to be taken off.
No one would argue that Pulis hasn’t done a great job, but does he deserve the accolade of genius? Bear with me here, but I reckon he does. Genius comes in many shapes and forms. Some, like Einstein, Beethoven or Da Vinci, are fairly easy to spot. But genius also appears in more unassuming forms. Some, like Tony Pulis, come wearing the proverbial club shop. With his baseball cap and training gear, he’s doesn’t look like a genius, but his achievement in steering Palace to the giddy heights of eleventh place in the Premier League is nothing short of remarkable. It’s genius Jim, but not as we know it.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.