Tony Pulis And The Courage Of Pragmatism

Managers are typically praised for playing with attacking verve, but Tony Pulis has stuck to his principles to wonderful effect at Crystal Palace. Surely that takes bigger balls?

Last Updated: 09/04/14 at 09:32 Post Comment

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Crystal Palace bear all the hallmarks of a Championship club. Before this season, only one of their previous 15 campaigns had been at the highest level, and the club had never survived more than one season in the Premier League. Palace have finished in the top half of the top flight only twice in their entire history, Selhurst Park is the 32nd biggest club stadium in the country and, until this season, the highest fee they ever paid was the utterly wasted £2.75m on Valerien Ismael is 1998. As I say, these all point to Championship over Premier League.

Although Ian Holloway had managed to effect a remarkable run that led Palace to a play-off final victory over Watford and their place at English football's top table last year, the Eagles' early-season performances smacked of a team that was simply happy to be invited to the party.

Whilst there was some sympathy with Holloway upon his resignation, promotion to the Premier League becomes little more than an extended payday if you fail to adequately prepare yourself for the rigours of a relegation battle. From Holloway's eight league matches in charge, Palace took just three points and conceded 17 goals, their displays reflecting the manager's own character and aptitude - optimism and chirpiness soon giving way to a sense that insufficient quality was likely to undermine the potential for success.

In replacing Holloway with Tony Pulis, Palace risked the wrath of large sections of their support. 'I associate Palace with creativity, pace and individuality,' an article in a local paper asserted. 'Pulis favours solidity, teamwork and often tries not to lose a game, rather than tries to win it.'

Some supporters clearly have short memories, more than happy to enjoy the progress achieved under the practical style favoured by Dougie Freedman before he left for Bolton. Furthermore, with six goals in eight games at the start of the campaign, it wasn't as if Holloway's Palace were a replica of the comparatively free-scoring Blackpool side relegated in 2011.

More pertinently, Pulis also staked a lot on his success at Selhurst Park. After five successive seasons of Premier League management and a CV without the blemish of relegation, this was an undoubted gamble taken by a man clearly itching to get back in the game. Had it failed, Pulis would have struggled to regain Premier League employment, forced to rebuild his reputation at a lower level. As Arsene Wenger admitted recently: "I must honestly say when he took that job, I thought 'my friend, you take an impossible job'."

Since his appointment, Palace have taken 30 points from 21 league games, a points-per-game total higher than any other club outside of the current top seven. Safety now looks all but secure, a 3-0 victory at doomed Cardiff almost sealing such a satisfying conclusion. Most impressively, there has been no magic formula. Pulis has simply relied on the values that he holds dear: determination, solidity and a belief that, at the bottom of the league at least, defence is the best form of attack.

Forgive me for harking back over seven months, but in August I wrote a piece asking why struggling sides under-invested on defensive players when history dictated that a resolute defence was the key to surviving relegation. In January, whilst Sunderland were spending £6.5million on Liam Bridcutt and Ignacio Scocco, Fulham were breaking their club record to sign Konstantinos Mitroglou, and Cardiff were recruiting two Norwegian strikers, a Norwegian midfielder and Kenwyne Jones, Pulis brought three players in for small fees. One was Scott Dann, who has replaced Danny Gabbidon in central defence, whilst Joe Ledley has played in central midfield (and even left-back when called upon) and Wayne Hennessey provided back-up and competition to Julian Speroni. I think we can assume that Pulis would not have signed Dwight Gayle for more than £5million last summer.

Pulis' notable pragmatism has ensured that Palace have increased their defensive solidity markedly. Rather than allow his team to entertain with the fluidity favoured by Holloway, Palace now deliberately allow the opposition to have the majority of the ball both home and away, hoping to soak up pressure before hitting back with a sucker punch. Against Cardiff last weekend, Pulis' side won 3-0 away from home despite recording less than 37% possession.

In addition, whilst Pulis demands that his midfielders press hard to get the ball, his defenders (not known for their pace as a group) sit deep, hoping to force the opposition into impatiently knocking the ball long after being unable to find that killer pass in behind.

It may not be mesmerising viewing for the neutral, but Pulis has little reason to feel sympathy for them. Only Chelsea and Arsenal have kept more clean sheets than Palace's nine since Pulis was appointed, and only Chelsea and Manchester City have conceded fewer goals. It is no coincidence that the two teams that have conceded the most goals in such time (Cardiff and Fulham) occupy the bottom two spaces.

Speaking after Saturday's win in South Wales, Pulis detailed his ethos at Selhurst Park, as if it needed any illuminating. "When I took over we were conceding a lot of goals," Pulis said. "We were conceding a lot in the early stages of games. To stay in games you have to keep it tight. Clean sheets for us are very important. We defended fantastically. They sent a lot of balls into the box, but we dealt with everything. The two central midfielders were fantastic too, and we looked good on the break." It may sound simplistic, but there are enough Premier league managers failing to operate with such pragmatic logic to make it successful.

There's that word again, pragmatism.

Football continues to promote this rather backward logic that it takes great bravery to go for broke in the style of Holloway at Blackpool, for example. Win and you're hailed as this expansive genius, whilst if you lose it's a hard luck story, and you can sleep safe in the knowledge that you gave it a good go. Added patience is often afforded because you 'tried to play the right way'.

But, actually, that's just untrue. It takes a great deal more bottle and courage to stick to your principles of maintaining a tight defence and hoping to grind out victories with clean sheets, partly because any individual mistake can undermines a plan that relies on both individual and group discipline, and partly because should your plan fail, supporters will be quick to castigate you for being unsuccessful and boring.

For that alone Pulis should be congratulated. But given Palace's extraordinary resurgence since his appointment, such plaudits may instead get lost in the wave of appreciation from Palace fans and the respect of the wider game. As Jose Mourinho stated before his Chelsea side were beaten at Selhurst Park: "The normal tendency is to give the Manager of the Year to the champions. But if Palace stay up, he can feel like a champion. He'd have won his challenge. So why not?" Why not indeed.

Pulis is an individual whose often cantankerous personality is not immediately alluring, but in the midst of a fight for Premier League survival, such things are meaningless. At a time of crisis Pulis remained committed to the belief in his own footballing principles, risking his managerial reputation in the process. To do so takes a huge amount of courage and conviction - Crystal Palace have reaped the rewards.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter.

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