The Pulis effect
Written off in November but clear of the relegation zone in February, the transformation at Crystal Palace this winter has been nothing short of remarkable. Tony Pulis is the man responsible and Adam Bate looks at what the Welshman has done to bring about the change in fortunes.
By Adam Bate with graphics by Sam Kallen
Last Updated: 22/02/14 1:13pm
When newly-promoted Crystal Palace opened up with nine defeats in their first 10 games, it's fair to conclude that a swift return to the Championship looked likely. Even Derby County supporters might have been tempted to believe their bad name could be extinguished from the record books. Extrapolate that start over 38 matches and the Eagles were on course to match the Rams' 2007/08 tally of 11 points. Finally, the ignominy might at least be shared.
The odds against Palace taking their place among the 20 Premier League teams to contest the 2014/15 season stood at 8/1 following a 2-0 defeat to West Brom in early November. Hand £20 over to Sky Bet in wagering they'd go down and the bookies would have kindly reimbursed you with the princely sum of £21 the following May. In other words, they were doomed. But things changed. Or rather, one thing changed. Tony Pulis was appointed as manager of Crystal Palace.
Perhaps Arsene Wenger put it best. "I must honestly say when he took that job, I thought 'my friend, you take an impossible job'." And yet, inside three months Pulis has turned things around at Selhurst Park. Having picked up 22 points from the past 14 games, the same as Manchester United have managed from 15 fixtures, there are now five teams below Palace. And they even have a game in hand. So the question that needs answering is an obvious one: How on earth has Pulis done it?
Predecessor Ian Holloway had a reputation for entertaining football. However, he won more plaudits than points in his only previous top-flight campaign with Blackpool and perhaps didn't appreciate the need for a more pragmatic and organised approach. It is surely a prerequisite that teams coming up from the Championship must work harder than their opponents. Worryingly, the Premier League tracking data shows that in the aforementioned defeat at the Hawthorns - and for the fourth time in those opening 10 games - Palace were simply outrun by their opponents.
Work rate might not be the most celebrated of disciplines when considering what makes a successful team, but its significance is difficult to contest. And it's something Pulis can bring to a side. "Character is everything," argued the man himself shortly after his appointment. "You can have all the ability in the world but if you haven't got the character and willpower then you'll never achieve what you should."
Palace are currently on a run that has seen them go 10 games in a row in which they've outrun their opponents. They covered seven kilometres more than Norwich and two kilometres more than Hull. Last time out in the return fixture against the Baggies, the home side ran almost four kilometres more, with new signing Thomas Ince registering the greatest distance covered. "They might not be the most gifted but my god do they work hard," said Pulis with more than a hint of pride.
If all that seems overly simplistic then it just sums up the Pulis approach. The Welshman is something of a master when it comes to clarity. This is not a man whose instructions are likely to be open to misinterpretation. "It wasn't a great rallying speech," Palace captain Mile Jedinak recently revealed in a fascinating Telegraph interview. "I remember that it was very brief but it stuck in everyone's minds and gave us a very clear understanding about what he is about."
"I think having that repetition and reinforcing the fact that this is what we have got to do, it keeps us on top of things and keeps your mind fresh and concentrated on the job in hand. In that way if you are tired or you see yourself slipping away in a game then you revert back to that because we've practised it so many times. He's been brilliant at doing that so far and very clear in what he wants. That sort of clarity was what was needed at this football club and is what we have got."
In practical terms, that has meant making this Palace team a more compact outfit. Recognising the dangers of allowing space in behind a defence that needed protection, Pulis has his back-four operating deeper and doing the basics of heading balls away and getting in blocks. The possession-winning line for their last three home games - all won - shows the tactic clearly. Each time they have engaged their opponents in a deeper position than the visitors. Palace's plan is to soak up the pressure and take the chance to break when they can.
It is a ploy that is working. Possession is down but the points are up. Indeed, Palace saw at least 50 per cent of the ball in three of those first 10 matches. They have not done so once under the management of Pulis. In fact, they've only had 40 per cent of possession three times under the 56-year-old boss. The focus now is on fast breaks up the field. "We've been hard to beat, but also had the ability to counter-attack," explains Ince. "He knows what is best to get points. There is no better man for Palace to have in charge of the team."
Accepting that the plan is to surrender possession in front of your own fans is a brave tactic, but it's reaped rewards. Pulis identified the home record as critical to their hopes and 16 points from seven games at Selhurst Park is certainly an impressive return. The fact that four of those matches saw Palace keep clean sheets is indicative of the new defensive solidity upon which that success has been built.
Saturday's visit of champions Manchester United is likely to test that defensive resolve. And yet, given United's own struggles, this time you wouldn't be in a hurry to bet against a home win. That says plenty about the job that the manager has done. Asked about the dream of staying up, Pulis said: "When you look at Crystal Palace, the structure of the football club and where it is, it will be as big an achievement as anything I've ever achieved." He's now well on the way to making it happen.