Turn the clock back just 12 months and you would struggle to find a single West Bromwich Albion supporter backing Tony Pulis as boss at The Hawthorns. The former Stoke City and Crystal Palace boss was left hanging on by his fingertips after his side were dumped out of the FA Cup by Championship outfit Reading and endured a nine-match winless run in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, the Welshman has overseen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Baggies, as they look set for a highly creditable top-half finish. Ever the pragmatist, Pulis has always had his own way of managing and coaching his sides to play; often to the detriment of entertainment and adrenaline-fuelled excitement for supporters.
Albion fans had seemingly had enough of ‘Pulisball’ this time last year, but fast forward to the present day and you’ll find a begrudging acknowledgement from most that Pulis has turned the club’s fortunes around, without the merest hint of a relegation battle this term. So, what’s changed?
More adventurous, less conservative
This season has seen a genuine confidence exude from the Baggies squad. There can be no denying that last year was a bitter struggle, but this time around there has seemed to be a clear determination from all concerned to look up and not over their shoulders. With the shackles off somewhat, Albion have been able to put themselves in with a chance of equalling their highest final league placing in the top flight since 1981, in eighth position.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed with the boing-boing Baggies faithful, with The Hawthorns rocking an electric atmosphere for much of this campaign. Pulis’ men are the third biggest overachievers in the Premier League this season, according to new research from online sports bookmaker, Betway, who ranked the top-flight based on their potential profit and loss this term. If you were to place a flat £10 bet on each Premier League side to win each 2016/17 match, the Baggies would have returned a £48 profit, behind Chelsea (£89) and Watford (£118).
The counter-attack has been arguably their biggest weapon, demonstrating greater pace and a clinical streak on the break; thanks to the threat from wide areas from the likes of Matt Phillips and the enigmatic Nacer Chadli. Pulis’ sides have never been one to dominate possession and strangle teams, as proved again this season by WhoScored indicating an average possession statistic of just 40.5 percent per game.
A successful summer transfer window by West Brom’s standards
The Baggies have never had a budget to compete with the likes of the top five or six in the division, but by and large, they have always been able to offer a wage that’s more attractive than the sides promoted from the Championship, as well as many other bottom half sides. Pulis was particularly shrewd last summer with his investments. Welsh frontman Hal Robson-Kanu was signed on a free transfer following his remarkable impact for Wales at Euro 2016, while marauding full-back Allan Nyom was also acquired from Watford. The latter certainly added power and pace to the Baggies’ backline.
Going forward, Albion were perhaps guilty of lacking that “X Factor” last season. Pulis sought to rectify that with the purchase of Spurs wide man, Nacer Chadli, who brings flair in abundance on his day. Complement that with the direct wing threat of former QPR ace, Matt Phillips – who’s notched eight assists so far this term – and Pulis had certainly added a new dimension to his squad.
Venezuelan powerhouse Salomón Rondón has enjoyed his most successful season with the Baggies, providing the focal point that most Pulis sides require due to their direct nature. There’s no denying that target men still have their place in modern-day football. The 27-year-old took his time to adapt to the English game in his first term but has so far proven a real handful in 2016/17, bagging seven league goals and two assists. In December, Rondón became only the second player to score a top-flight hat-trick of headers.
Rondón’s struggled for goals in the latter half of the campaign however and was the subject of a bid from an unnamed Chinese Super League side in January. Pulis would be highly unlikely to let him go unless he was able to bring in a younger like-for-like replacement with a sell-on value.
An evergreen McAuley and a resurgent Fletcher
Pulis has also been lucky in some respects with many of his incumbent squad players playing themselves into form. The 37-year-old centre-back, Gareth McAuley has been a virtual ever-present, playing 2899 league minutes so far this term and has also chipped in with an outstanding six goals from Pulis’ famous set-plays. Couple that with the form of resurgent holding midfielder, Darren Fletcher – over his illness battle – and his midfield partner Claudio Yacob and Pulis has had a solid base from which to play from.
Pulis is realistic enough to know that this is probably as good as it gets for Albion. Slow and steady progress has meant the club will certainly not be regarded one of the favourites for the drop in 2017/18.