IT’S been eight years since Tony Pulis and his merry band of rugby players and ex-javelin throwers arrived in the Premier League. Since then, the Welshman, complete with tracksuit, baseball cap and gleaming trainers, has become an established Premier League manager, notorious for being a difficult opponent.
Liverpool fans know this more than most. In 14 attempts, the Reds have only beaten Pulis in the league twice.
On Saturday, Pulis’s most recent incarnation, West Bromwich Albion, will travel to Anfield. The two sides’ meeting last season was certainly eventful. Liverpool, with 15 minutes to go, found themselves 2-1 down having conceded two goals from set-pieces. Divock Origi’s 95th minute equaliser saved Liverpool, and resulted in Klopp leading his players over to salute the Kop.
West Brom that day were prime Pulis. It was Klopp’s first real taste of the darker side of English football and the German refused to shake Pulis’s hand at the end of the match. It was an unfriendly end to an unfriendly game.
After Liverpool were held by Manchester United on Monday night, Jose Mourinho claimed that his side not only controlled the game, they also controlled the emotions of the Anfield crowd.
As much as he is loathed by Liverpool fans, Mourinho was right. After a somewhat loud You’ll Never Walk Alone, the atmosphere fell flat. United played the occasion like great Liverpool teams of the past treated big European away games. They silenced the crowd and dictated the game in their own way.
Liverpool will face a similar challenge on Saturday against Pulis’s West Brom. The most effective Pulis teams did everything they could to control how the game was played. When Stoke were first promoted to the Premier League, statistics showed that during their games the ball was in play for significantly less time than during other Premier League games, often by as much as seven or eight minutes. Pulis reckoned that by reducing the amount of actual game time, he increased his side’s chances of avoiding defeat. Stoke survived and built themselves into an established Premier League team.
While Pulis’s current West Brom are still agricultural, they are slightly more evolved than the Neanderthalian style of the Welshman’s former teams. Their four tall, physical defenders are all still guarded by two strict holding midfielders, but in front of them Pulis has spent enough money for Albion fans to expect a reasonable amount of flair.
In Salomon Rondon, Matt Phillips and record signing Nacer Chadli, The Baggies have acquired pace, creativity and goals but despite this, Pulis will stick true to what he knows best. He will keep it tight, keep 10 men behind the ball and hope Rondon will win enough free-kicks in dangerous positions. In doing so, Pulis will want to frustrate Liverpool and quieten the crowd. With each set-piece, and as West Brom’s lumbering defenders make their way forward, he will hope that anxiety will spread its way through the stands and onto the pitch. That’s if Liverpool allow West Brom to dictate the game.
The Reds need to get off to a fast start and with Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum both fit and pushing for contention, they will be able to press and move that bit quicker than they did on Monday night. They need to be intense. They will aim to blow West Brom away with the movement and pace of Sadio Mane, and bamboozle them with the craft and skill of Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino.
Patience may be required. If Liverpool try to play it out from the back it’s not because Loris Karius wants to give some fella in row 37 a heart attack. It’s because he is under specific instructions from the manager to try and draw the opposition out and create space further up the pitch for his most dangerous players.
Calm heads will be needed too. Liverpool mostly did well when defending set pieces on Monday. There is no need to panic, or grumble, if a Liverpool player gives away a free kick 40 yards from goal. Yes, West Brom’s height and physicality pose another test for young Karius, but it’s a test that becomes a lot easier when surrounded by composed teammates.
Liverpool have, of course, emphatically defeated defensive approaches in their two other home games this season. Those teams, however, were Leicester, this season’s version that is unmotivated by the league, and Hull. Neither were Manchester United.
West Brom will fall somewhere between those two levels of defensive aptitude but as ever, Pulis’s chances of getting a result depend on his side’s ability to dictate the flow and rhythm of the game.
Liverpool must not allow this to happen. They need to be ones in control.
This is our game. These are our points.
Into these, Reds.