BY GREG EVANS
The great Italian player and coach Annibale Frossi once said: “0-0 is the perfect result because it is the expression of total balance between the attack and the defence of the two teams.” Tony Pulis has not only adopted this philosophy, he has taken it to the next level. The West Bromwich Albion manager oversaw four scoreless draws in the Premier League last season and 13 draws altogether. In seven top-flight games last term the Baggies failed to have a single shot on target. This apathetic and unadventurous style of football has infuriated a large portion of the West Brom fan base that is craving far more attacking intent from their chosen club.
Watching a team more interested in defending than attacking, and who practically refuse to score goals, isn’t the reason we enjoy football, but is Pulis actually trying to achieve something beyond the formulaic pursuit of three points every week? Is he actually masterminding a methodic demonstration on the natural trauma of life and the banality of existence, much like a string of European art house film directors?
Now, bear with me here. The Welshman’s desire for his teams to basically do nothing other than prevent the other team from scoring requires a level of stoicism that moves beyond the basic practice of sport and, dare we say it, becomes existential.
This mentality isn’t a million miles away from the work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr. The 61-year-old has directed nine feature films over his career and his style and cinematography has changed considerably over time. Since his 1988 film Damnation, Tarr’s work has focused on desolate depictions of society and reality. They feature long and lingering shots in sparse environments, are predominantly black and white and to describe them as bleak and uneventful would be an understatement.
We don’t want to speculate as to whether Pulis has actually seen any of Tarr’s film but in many ways they are the perfect bedfellows. To want to watch a Pulis match or a Tarr film isn’t rooted in a desire to be thrilled but in a desire to learn something more about oneself and the struggle of life. Thoughtful, methodic and troubling are all words that you could use to describe Tarr’s seven-hour masterpiece Satantango or West Brom’s 0-0 draw with Aston Villa last January.
Both strive for brutal realism in their work, which is incomparable among their contemporaries, full of anguish, blood, sweat and tears, and void of flair or excitement. Is the scene in Tarr’s 2011 film The Turin Horse where a poor and weather beaten couple, agonizingly peel a hot potato with their bare hands so different to Salomon Rondon fumbling the ball over the line in a scrappy 1-0 away win at Goodison Park?
This is Pulis at his absolute best. Demanding his team defend within an inch of their life in the hope that they might just nick a goal at the other end. It’s a tried and tested formula, which is yet to result in a single relegation for the 58-year-old (nor has it provided much more than mid-table mediocrity). As anyone who has supported one of his teams will testify, this tactic can go horribly wrong and when it does it is not pretty to watch in the slightest.
Conceding more than one goal often spells doom for a Pulis side and it can be torture, for both players and fans, to see them trying to salvage anything from such a position. Seeing a virtually immobile Rickie Lambert trying to score a one-on-one is an indignation no one should have to endure but the Hawthorns faithful have witnessed such sights.
In this aspect, Pulis’ approach begins to resemble that of cinema’s enfant terrible, Lars von Trier. The notorious Dane has never shied away from making confrontational or provocative films that almost go out of their way to upset viewers. The despair often portrayed in his films is unique to a point, in that it is often the fault or undoing of a protagonist. For instance, in Dancer in the Dark, Bjork could easily speak up for herself and avoid the capital punishment, for which she is wrongly being charged, but she doesn’t.
It’s not just audiences that leave von Trier’s films an emotional wreck, his actors often leave with more than just a bit of resentment for the demanding taskmaster. Bjork was left so bitter and so angry at her treatment on the set of Dancer in the Dark that she quit acting for good and frequently told the director how much she hated him.
Von Trier’s films can be an ordeal to watch, leaving you screaming at the screen, asking why characters didn’t do anything to improve their situations or stand up to injustice. In many ways Pulis is guilty of exactly this in football. Asking for hard work, grit and determination is all well and good but it won’t get you anywhere when chasing a game. A simple change in tactics and ideals every now and again wouldn’t go a miss. Alas, Pulis seems intent on making his players suffer, just like Von Trier does his actors.
There have been more exciting times in Pulis’ career where his regimented approach produced wondrous results at Stoke City and Crystal Palace, where we could compare him to greats like Andrei Tarkovsky or Michael Haneke but that would possibly be praise too high for even his standards.
Yet, this new Pulis is a far more complex and contemplative beast. The rewards are there to be seen in his teams but those prizes lie beyond the boundaries of football. It’s almost as if he is telling his squad and the fans of his clubs ‘if you can get through this, you will be a better, wiser and more cultured person.’
The rewards of Pulis’ football are subtle and small in quantity but if you learn to savour them then not only do you learn to accept the flaws of existence you actually begin to appreciate the smaller things in life.
In the modern age of football, it is far too easy to wax lyrical about tactical masterminds like Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp, Conte and Simeone, but when talking about Pulis and his brand of football you have to consider what you have learned about yourself and above all life. Pulis is not a football manager, he’s a misunderstood auteur.
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