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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

When Conte's Chelsea visit West Brom, Pulis will be the one under pressure

West Brom manager have fared poorly this season and defeat in coming weekend, manager's position will be in peril

Under Tony Pulis, West Bromwich Albion have chosen to play flair-free football. Ed Sykes / Reuters
Under Tony Pulis, West Bromwich Albion have chosen to play flair-free football. Ed Sykes / Reuters

Sometimes seemingly unexceptional fixtures assume a different dimension. Take West Bromwich Albion against Chelsea.

It is a match that has doubled up as a managerial graveyard. Two Chelsea managers were dismissed in 2012 alone. Andre Villas-Boas’s last league game was a defeat at Albion. So was Roberto di Matteo’s.

Now there may be a role reversal. Antonio Conte has had decidedly mixed fortunes, but Tony Pulis is the more imperilled.

Or he is if the Albion public get their way. Normally chants of “sacked in the morning” are directed at an opposing manager. When West Brom lost 1-0 at Huddersfield, they came from Albion fans and were aimed at Pulis.

They form part of a rebellion that amounts to rejection of his ethos. Results – and Albion have only won two of their last 20 league games – form part of the problem, but only part.

While Albion’s decline dates back to April, the summer departure of Darren Fletcher feels a factor. Pulis’s captain was criticised by fans but admired within the club. He was responsible for signing Jonny Evans and regarded as the single most impressive character some at the Hawthorns had ever encountered.

But issues predate a slide that has taken Albion from joint top, after two games, to 16th now. The chairman of Shareholders 4 Albion, stood down in the summer because of he was "fed up" with Pulis's brand of football.

"I can't stomach it anymore," Neil Reynolds told the Express & Star. "I’ve been an Albion supporter for 60 years and never in all that time have I felt so disenchanted."

Albion have a tradition of playing fine football and if it is not unbroken – Gary Megson, now Pulis’s assistant, gained few prizes for aesthetic appeal during his tenure – it is pertinent. As Stoke supporters can testify, Pulis can upgrade the squad without improving the style of football.

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There are parallels with Stoke’s functional, flair-free football, though fielding three defensive midfielders against promoted Huddersfield felt extreme, even for Pulis.

More enterprising players like Nacer Chadli – two starts this season – and the £15 million (Dh72.7m) winger Oliver Burke, who has been limited to 35 minutes’ football, have scarcely featured.

Albion’s other summer arrivals included the double Europa League winner Grzegorz Krychowiak, the African Cup of Nations winner Ahmed Hegazi, the Premier League winner Gareth Barry and the FA Cup winner Kieran Gibbs.

Yet, like excitement, wins have been conspicuous by their absence. Only Crystal Palace have fewer, just as only three clubs have fewer goals.

Only three teams average fewer shots per game. Albion have had the least possession, with the lowest pass completion rate, but they had the ninth biggest summer net spend, at £32.1m.

It was a sign Pulis has been backed. He was granted a new contract as recently as August. Albion’s budget has expanded under Guochuan Lai’s regime. For instance, funds would have been advanced for Morgan Schneiderlin’s arrival in January had the midfielder not chosen Everton.

Albion have been run realistically before and since Lai’s buyout. Low-profile owners have espoused quiet continuity. John Williams, the chairman who established a fine reputation in his days at Blackburn, has long preferred to persevere with managers.

The question is if fans’ dissent or results renders a position untenable. As Albion slip nearer to the bottom three, the greater the Pulis paradox becomes. The worse a team does, the more they need Pulis and the more relevant his extraordinary record of never being relegated as either a player or a manager becomes.

But if other clubs have sacked managers because of a fear of the drop, at West Brom it could be because of a backlash from the stands.