As Tony Pulis and Gus Poyet are showing, there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to Premier League survival. Pulis has gone back to basics in traditional fashion, while the Uruguayan is taking an altogether more stylish route to safety.
There’s no one right way – both were tasked with survival, and both will rightly take the plaudits if they can see their respective great escapes through. PuBut the long-term prospects of each manager will differ, with Poyet’s stylish and brave approach more likely to catch the eye of bigger, more ambitious clubs.
Tony Pulis’s work at Palace has been text book – doing what every manager should do when taking over a squad, low on confidence, shipping goals and points, and lacking quality – he’s made them hard to beat.
The former Stoke boss is all defensive shape and organisation. Hours are spent on the training ground drilling his sides on their positional sense when possession is conceded or when the opposition switches the ball quickly from left to right, for example. No surprise then that he quickly replaced predecessor Ian Holloway’s attack-minded 4-2-3-1 formation with a more stable, old school 4-4-2 – or rather 4-4-1-1 – with Chamakh playing in a slightly withdrawn role behind Cameron Jerome.
Pulis is pinning his defensive organisation on prodigious work rate and two rigid banks of four. And central to his plans for greater defensive rigour has been the restrictions he’s placed on his full backs – who rarely push beyond the half way line. Palace’s attacking threat effectively comes from wide men Bolasie and Puncheon – both of whom have shown excellent form since the arrival of the new manager – and from an emphasis on set piece excellence. All very reminiscent of Trapattoni’s Ireland.
If the Pulis method is largely about football without the ball, then Poyet’s approach is all about possession. He has already shown at Brighton that he can coach even limited squads to keep the ball effectively, be patient and create critical opportunities from open play.
Like Pulis, Poyet took over from a manager with an extremely open, attacking game but ultimately naïve game plan. The holes in the Di Canio’s 4-2-4 were far too easily preyed upon at Premier League level. Poyet has replaced it with the 4-1-4-1 that worked so successfully at Brighton. It’s a formation that has given the Mackem’s a much more solid look and a much greater presence in midfield.
Goals previously so hard to come by are now flowing, and Adam Johnson, their best attacking asset, is finally thriving on Wearside. Bottom at Christmas, Sunderland are now 12th – it’s the most impressive of turnarounds.
Both men will deserve great credit if their clubs avoid the drop. But the future for Pulis, while his reputation may be repaired, is likely to be as a Premier League basement fire fighter, as his methods will only take a club so far.
For Poyet, with an approach that is much more transferrable and palatable to a big ambitious club, success could open some very big doors indeed.