I like Tony Pulis. I enjoy his press conferences. I enjoy his passion. And there have been a number of positives in his year as manager.
He got the best out of Adama Traore. Until recently we had a level of consistency to our form. And there have been some brilliant performances this season, mostly away from home.
But even though I like him, Middlesbrough are a hard team to watch right now. Fans are divided.
I have friends who have had season tickets for 20 plus years saying they’ve never felt more detached from the club.
Considering we have been in the playoff hunt for the majority of the season, with the top two still very much in sight, it is hard to believe that a team could have such a fractured fan-base.
How did we get to this point? Something has happened to this club that goes beyond results, and I’ve been trying to work what it is.
In his biography of Pulis, writer David Lee recounts a story very early in his managerial career, when he was managing Bournemouth in the third division. Tony asked for a car to scout some players, and his chairman gave him a battered old Vauxhall. During the trip the car burst into flames. Unfazed, Pulis took out an extinguisher, put out the fire, fixed the engine and drove on.
The story is a metaphor for his managerial career. He is a great fixer of dysfunctional football squads. Just like he did at many clubs throughout his career, Pulis came to Boro last Christmas and organized the side who had been left in a confused state of disarray under Garry Monk. And this season we have continued to be a promotion contender, yet with every passing week the disillusionment seems to increase.
The root of the problem is that Pulis views the game of football in a way that is naturally going to divide fans.
Some managers (you could argue more progressive-thinking managers) view there players as those who can create chances, make things happen.
Pulis sees his team in the opposite way, as a group of players who are merely capable of making mistakes that could lead to a goal for the opposition.
To Pulis football is potentially a random series of events, the key is to suffocate the game to limit these random events as much as possible. That is why his set-up, even against struggling teams, is relentlessly defensive.
Creativity and spontaneity mean taking risks. Risks increase the chance of potential mistakes. Therefore Pulis naturally stifles creativity. He prioritises set-pieces for this reason.
Dead-ball situations in the opponents half are the only time in a game where the team can fully focus on trying to score, where defensive duties can briefly be put on hold.
That’s why watching Boro these days can be painful. You just can’t see where the goal is going to come from. This philosophy works well when you’re a mid-table team.
Keep it tight, prevent any errors, and wait for the opposition to make a mistake and give you a chance. Some days you’ll get the rub-of-the-green, some days you won’t, but over the course of a season it will even out and you’ll be safely in the middle of the pack.
And some days Boro do get lucky (the Derby own goal at home, or the last minute-penalty at Millwall) but those moments somehow leave you feeling hollow.
In his book “What We Think About When We Think About Soccer”, the philosopher Simon Critchley describes being a football fan as basically being in constant wait for “moments.”
The majority of the 90 minutes of every football match is completely forgettable, but you keep watching for those moments, those few seconds, where something happens that you will never forget.
Critchley writes, “Fans know that, just for a moment, and in that moment of moments, there can be something more, which is not about winning but about the attainment of what we might call splendor.”
Tony Pulis makes it his mission, his whole philosophy, to prevent these “moments” from happening. Even when the times calls to take risks, to be proactive and make something happen, like in the playoffs against Villa, he refuses to loosen the shackles. The team was instructed to focus on stopping Villa first and wait for your opening.
For over 180 minutes Pulis waited, and waited for Villa to crack. But it never came.
His football creates a kind of existential crises. If he’s doing everything to deny the moments that make football worth watching, is it still worth watching?
If Pulis left today how many moments in his time as manager would stand out? The odd bit of brilliance from Traore maybe? Aitor Karanka was also criticized for his style of football, but his tenure at the club was filled with so many of these unforgettable moments.
Both Karanka and Pulis have been described as negative managers. A more charitable fan would describe them as pragmatic. But there is a subtle difference in the ways in which they are pragmatic.
When the stakes were high Karanka did tend to retreat into more negative, cautious football, but with his dossiers on the opposition and frequent tinkering with line-ups his pragmatism was essentially always based on trying to find ways to win football matches.
For Pulis the focus is on not losing, not conceding. He asks a huge amount of his attacking players, and he is quick to criticize strikers for missing chances, even when they are lucky to get one decent chance a game. The midfield is expected to be the second line of defence, yet somehow also be a creative threat.
Karanka was a proactive manager. Pulis on the other-hand is purely reactive. If he has had a good result with a line-up he is certain to play the exact same team the next week, regardless of opposition.
He seems to have a genuine belief in the dated “You don’t change a winning team” theory. The most recent example was the 5-central midfielders he played in the Derby draw away, and Birmingham City win away.
Smothering the opponent’s creativity by packing the midfield worked well on the road and produced two great results. But he then played the same formation at home to a struggling Millwall and the performance was woeful. There was clearly no thought given to how to defeat the opposition.
In an era where coaching staffs are analysing their opponents in extreme detail, there seems to be little evidence that Pulis gives any thought during the week to the opposition, and he relies purely on his powers to react during the game.
So often Middlesbrough start games sluggishly, only for the game to be changed by tactical tweaking mid-game. And most frustrating of all is the changes usually involves adding an attacking option. Think how often Tavernier has come on and changed games, and Britt’s scoring off the bench.
But ultimately this is where Pulis’s strengths lie. He’s a fixer. Like the broken-down car while manager at Bournemouth, he can react during a game and often fix hi side when they aren’t functioning well. But Middlesbrough’s dysfunction, particularly at home, are almost totally down to Pulis and his team selection and game-plan.
By this stage in a season, and after a year of being in charge with two transfer windows, the squad should be well oiled and ready to perform.
I think his style of football is more widely accepted by fans when the team is an underdog. At Stoke, Palace and West Brom everybody was waiting for him to fail, but he always proved the doubters wrong. That can foster a togetherness in the players and the fan-base.
But Middlesbrough are not an underdog.
They have one of the most talented squads in the league. They have a £15m pound striker on the bench most weeks, and they have no shortage of talent coming through the academy. This is what makes it so hard for fans to accept the football Pulis is producing most weeks.
Yet everything is still to play for. The Riverside may seem a desolate place right now, but that could all change come May.
With doubts weighing on the team, maybe this is what Pulis needs to galvanize the underdog spirit in his players. With three huge games coming up, that could be key.
Pulis was brought in by Gibson to fix more than the first-team. He is looking at multiple areas of the way the club is run. And perhaps we will have a much different view of his time at Boro in years to come.
Tony Mowbray’s period as manager on Middlesbrough has been reevaluated by many recently, acknowledging him as being the man who steadied the ship in a time of transition, and who built the spine that led to Karanka’s promotion success. Maybe Pulis really is fixing defective areas of the club, and preparing the groundwork for his successor to thrive.
But, as Arsene Wenger said, “the weight of the future has been kicked out of the game. The weight of the present has become heavier and the only thing the people want. The present.”
I like Pulis. And he may be doing a more important job for future than we’ll ever know. But at this present time Boro are a hard watch.