History’s greatest artists have each perceived the world in a unique manner. Picasso expressed it in cubism, Van Gough through swirling cacophonies of melancholia, Turner via nebulous explosions of light.
With an equally singular vision, Tony Pulis sees the world in banks of four. In fact, Pulis’ worldview is so instinctively engineered towards defensive shape that on his wedding day, as the opening chimes of ‘Here Comes the Bride’ began to blare, a young Tony turned his head and stared in mesmerised fixation, not at his bride-to-be, but at the formation of the guests: the full-backs tucked in snugly on the end, the narrowness of the lines. So compact, so structured. They seemed as beautiful to him as the woman whose deep central run split the two units.
In tragic news for all those who love stale 0-0 draws, the only bank Tony will be casting his eye over this week is the one in which he cashes his fat redundancy cheque. Now as isolated as the strikers he’d occasionally pick, Pulis will instead have to turn to his kindred spirit Sam Allardyce for company as the two men whittle away the days piling clean sheets of a very literal kind and playing Connect 4 until clubs even more desperate than West Brom come begging to bring their philosophical stylings back to the big time.
All of which raises an interesting point. In recent memory, excluding the jobs they’ve either walked out of or been forced out of for slightly shady financial reasons, these two grizzled Premier League veterans have developed a remarkably consistent pattern of employment. First, you bring them in like emergency contractors to a collapsing building. You let them have look at the insulation and the electrics, they let you know what parts they need, you take care of the money and they take care of the problem. Done. Sorted. Job’s a good’un.
The problem is that, owing to the way managerial contracts tend to reward success in length as much as wealth, rather than then being on their way with a cheeky smile and a bundle of cash in their back pockets, you find the same characters then charged with picking out the furniture and arranging the interiors as well. Clearly unsuited to this somewhat more sophisticated task, the goodwill earned from the functional early days slowly gives way to a frustration at the project’s lack of progress towards a more funky feel before you fire them upon finding a £10,000 chaise lounge repurposed as a bench from which to inspect the piping under the sink.
Henceforth, Pulis and Allardyce should work solely as independent guns-for-hire; quick-fix, merchants who are in and out in an instant leaving behind only the feeling of complete security, a still warm cup of tea and a business card in case you ever find yourself in need of their service again. In fact, there’s nothing to stop them returning to the same clubs multiple times just like we in the civilian world build up such relationships with tradesmen. If you’re the owner of a small Premier League club whose twin priorities are playing good football and ensuring survival, why not try a progressive approach to start the season and, if you find it’s not working out as Christmas draws near, bring in Tony or Big Sam to take care of it. Then, having secured Premier League status for another 12 months, you can shake their hands and release them back into semi-retirement unless the next continental type doesn’t cut the mustard. You wouldn’t so much employ them as deploy them as and when necessary.
One man who has been labelled as the new Tony/Sam is Sean Dyche, yet Burnley’s ascent this season shows that it is possible to make the transition from a no-nonsense workmanlike approach towards something more cultured.
Burnley took just seven total points away from home last season but already have 11 from their six fixtures away from Turf Moor this campaign. What’s more significant is that Dyche is slowly introducing a controlled, possession-based style which has slowly crept into their style of play and which was very much evident in their defeat of Swansea at the weekend. While I can hear you screaming ‘it was only Swansea!’ from here, these developments nonetheless show that it is in fact possible to start from a defensive base and slowly expand it towards something grander before being branded as an dinosaur.
Dyche, however, should be under no illusions as to the scale of the task he faces. Indeed, the last man to build a side from stodgy relegation scrappers to formal members of the upper-echelons was David Moyes, who after leaving Everton has spent the majority of his time starring in the footballing equivalent of Cowboy Builders. Sometimes the cosy comfort of a small cottage can outweigh all the grandeur of a cold, vast mansion, no matter what potential one sees in it.