When Tony Pulis was named West Brom manager back in January of 2015, the club gave him a single task—one he’s demonstrated for years to be better at accomplishing than practically anyone in English soccer: keep the team in the Premier League, and make sure they stay there. In his just about three years as the Baggies’ manager he’s done exactly that, and that success is exactly why he’s been fired today.
Pulis’s coaching gift is also his curse. As a manager, he is great at doing one specific, very valuable thing: He takes under-talented, lower-table Premier League teams and erects a defensive wall capable of withstanding the biggest, most expensively assembled battering rams’ assaults on his team’s goal, and in doing so avoids relegation. Pulis has shown just how uncannily adept he is at building steel walls from aluminum-quality squads for over a decade now, which is why he has rightfully earned his reputation as a relegation Houdini. There’s a reason he is called, somewhat jokingly but not without real admiration, the Welsh Mourinho.
However, that style of play has a ceiling. Though Pulis can organize a deep-block defense in his sleep, he proves much less capable when setting up teams on the attacking end. A combination of his teams’ habitually inconsistent, aesthetically lacking offensive strategy and the reverberating effects that strategy has on player recruitment (it’s hard to entice too many cultured attackers to join you with the prospect of spending 90 percent of their time on the pitch pinned down in their own penalty box, chunking long passes into the channels in the vague direction of one of the strikers a couple dozen yards away) limits the upside of teams that play in this fashion. This means Pulis’s teams tend to get trapped in the table’s Pulis Zone, consistently a spot or two above the drop but only in the rarest of circumstances venturing too much higher than that. It is, in a word, safe, with both that word’s positive and negative connotations.
Because it’s so hard to find and hold onto good attackers for those in the lower half of the Premier League, dodging relegation is mostly about defending. (Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, since more tactically adventurous managers in places like Spain have shown that there is more than one way to ensure you don’t end the season as one of the skinned cats, but in England defense reigns supreme at the bottom of the table.) However, because winning titles is mostly about scoring goals, in order to climb higher up the table you’ll need to commit more and more to attacking. Pulis is a savant at the former but bad at the latter, and so his career trajectory of late has consisted of him arriving to a relegation-threatened club, keeping them up, consolidating their place in the league for a few years, and then getting the sack once the club’s leadership starts getting antsy and aspires for more than just another finish in the low teens.
Pulis’s tenure at Stoke City is the best example of this dynamic. Taking over in 2006, at a time when Stoke had been putzing around in the second division’s midtable, Pulis led them to promotion in just his second season. Entering the Premier League as one of the favorites to go straight back down to the Championship, Pulis and his band of hardmen stonewalled his top flight opponents enough times to wind up a very respectable 12th place. It was Pulis’s big, muscly, deep-defending, hard-tackling Potters that inspired the famous saying about the Premier League’s unique difficulties. Pulis was tasked with getting Stoke to the Premier League, avoiding relegation in his first season, and making sure it stayed that way, and he delivered with aplomb.
Then, Stoke’s board got bored. In Pulis’s five seasons at Stoke, his team finished 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th, and 13th. At the start of any given Stoke year in the Pulis era, you’d always wonder if this might be the year they went down, then soon realize that Pulisball was still effective enough to prevent that from happening without too much trouble, but never worry about the Potters journeying too far from their lower-midtable comfort zone. This isn’t a terribly exciting life for a club to sell to itself and its fans, and after consecutive years of EPL play and the steady TV broadcast rights checks that come with them, the board inevitably starts to glance up the table and wonder if a different manager couldn’t lead them to even loftier places.
And so Pulis was fired at the end of the 2012-13 season, succeeded by Mark Hughes. Hughes was explicitly tasked with bringing Stoke a more expansive style of play, which the former Barcelona player and Manchester City manager has for the most part managed to do. Under his watch, the gruff and burly Stoke players asked to do a low-budget impersonation of a more attack-minded team. Hughes turned Stoke into Stokelona and finished in 9th place in each of the three seasons immediately following Pulis’s departure.
After leaving Stoke in the spring of 2013, Pulis was hired by Crystal Palace later that same year in November. Once again he’d taken over a relegation-threatened side, and like clockwork he managed to shore up their defense and guide them to safety. An offseason dispute with Palace’s owner saw Pulis leave the club “by mutual consent” in bizarre fashion. But again, Pulis’s unique set of skills were just as much in demand, and in January of 2015 West Brom were the relegation candidates who came knocking in search of his tried and true strategy of beating the drop. Beat the drop he did, for three solid years—a success which he has now paid for with his job.
As proved the case with Stoke, West Brom are probably smart to part ways with Pulis now. Between Salomón Rondón, Nacer Chadli, Matt Phillips, Oliver Burke, and Jay Rodriguez, the Baggies already have the building blocks for a pretty damn good forward line. And, thanks to Pulis’s proclivities, they also boast a well-structured defensive set-up and lots of strong and tough midfielders. This team should be doing better than they currently are (as of today, they’re in 17th place, with just nine goals scored). While Pulis could’ve brought them a little higher in the table, it probably wasn’t going to be by much.
West Brom have already shelled out a good chunk of change for attackers of sufficient quality. Plus, the mega-bucks the Premier League’s TV broadcast contract funnels into their coffers every year make it increasingly plausible that a club like West Brom could sign and keep hold of some legitimately exciting goal-scorers and -creators. Together, those two realities are probably what inspired the club’s leadership to demand more of their team than then safe and staid soccer Pulis brought to town. With the right managerial hire and some savvy transfer dealings, there’s no reason why West Brom couldn’t crawl their way up the table and start challenging for Europa League berths here in the near future.
This is all Pulis’s doing, though none of it is his fault. West Brom probably wouldn’t still be in the Premier League right now if he hadn’t come in to save the day a few years ago, nor would they have been cashing those fat TV checks had they spent the last couple years in the Championship. Without EPL status and TV-related riches, West Brom wouldn’t have endured the existential crisis—the internal debate about whether they are content with where they are now or if they should strive for more—that got Pulis the boot.
By being so good at what he’s good at, Pulis has gotten himself fired. Again. It’s a cruel fate, indeed, and it probably won’t be the last time this happens to him. As much as that has to suck, it’s also quite the testament to just how talented a manager he truly is.