There are two distinct identities of managers of team outside of the Premier League’s top six or seven: you are either a pragmatist or an aesthete. The aesthete believes in an attacking, entertaining style of play, adamant that it can rise like cream to the top. The pragmatist (or firefighter) believes in doing whatever is necessary to achieve victory. When you are fighting for survival, only the result is king.
In truth, it is nothing like as black-and-white as that makes it sound. Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, two of English football’s most famed firefighters, have embraced players with skill as well as gnarled central defenders and combative central midfielders. Marco Silva is probably the Premier League’s current most obvious aesthete outside the top six, but only four teams have kept more clean sheets than Watford.
The only universal truth is that there is no true right or wrong, only variations on both. There are plenty of pragmatists who have bored their way into unemployment, and plenty of aesthetes whose inability to organise a defence has led them just as quickly to obscurity. Without balance, a philosophy is nothing.
Yet for supporters, there is a difference. While fans will appreciate the guarantee of relegation safety that a Pulis or an Allardyce ensures, watching your football team is an expensive business. A season must contain enough moments of wonder to avoid becoming a dreary trudge.
The conventional wisdom is that it takes bravery to play attacking football but, actually, the opposite is more likely to be true. Losing with flamboyance has always attracted more sympathy and praise than losing ugly. Let’s call it the principle of Kevin Keegan.
And so to West Brom vs Watford and The Hawthorns, where these two houses of Premier League management met. Tony Pulis will be distraught at his side’s set-piece defending that saw two points dropped during added time on the added time, but Watford merited their point. They were dominant for almost the entirety of the match outside the four minutes during which the home side scored twice.
Watford completed 250 more passes and had six more shots, preferring to pass the ball between defence and midfield and use Richarlison and Andre Carrillo to stretch the play out wide. West Brom looked for long balls down the channels and over the top, asking Salomon Rondon to compete. Rondon competed in 15 aerial duels in his 73 minutes.
The second half became a mini-battle in this metaphorical war between aesthetics and pragmatism, with Pulis eventually relying on a back seven to keep Watford at bay. It almost worked, but almost is nothing. Watford’s away support will wake on Sunday morning whistling a happier tune.
For Pulis, signs again that his raison d’etre is set for scrutiny for the umpteenth season in succession. West Brom have now taken nine points from their seven matches and sit in tenth, but haven’t won since August. Concern is to be found in the identity of six of their seven league opponents, with current league position: Bournemouth (19th), Burnley (8th), West Ham (15th), Watford (5th), Stoke (13th) and Brighton (14th). Gentle fixtures, rough results.
Silva and Watford represent the mirror image of that picture. Their only league defeat came against a Manchester City team in the rudest of health and they are still unbeaten away from home. While British manager Pulis has preached the benefits of continuity after a relatively quiet summer transfer window, foreign head coach Silva stood by and watched the Watford revolving door spin. To have this unfamiliar collection of players fifth in the table and playing expansive, attacking football so soon in his reign is arguably the standout achievement of this Premier League season so far.
Pulis may not resent managers such as Silva – that seems a little too much like manufactured conflict – but his success must worry him. In a world of foreign investors wanting bang as well as betterment for their buck, Watford’s manager is quickly demonstrating that entertainment and progress are far from mutual exclusivities. Pulis faces another battle to prove that there is still room for old dogs and their old tricks.