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Strugglers try old-fashion approach

Julie Stewart-Binks and Warren Barton break down this season's Premier League relegation race.
Julie Stewart-Binks and Warren Barton break down this season's Premier League relegation race.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON

In a world in which it’s generally agreed -- at the highest level at least -- that possession is king, there’s something refreshing about managers who dare to be different. The Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert seems to stand alone among the younger generation of coaches in preferring a direct approach, but nearer the bottom of the Premier League, two of the great panjandrums of the punt are locked in a struggle against relegation.

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Neither Sam Allardyce nor Tony Pulis have ever been relegated, but both could find their unblemished records tarnished come May. Allardyce’s West Ham lies eighteenth, but level on points with the bottom two, while Palace is two points and two places better off, having climbed out of the relegation zone with a 1-0 victory over Stoke City, Pulis’s former club, on Saturday. Given the start Palace had, the sense is the momentum is with it, and for that Pulis deserves enormous credit.

In fact, generally, Pulis probably deserves more credit than he gets, his reputation perhaps suffering because he is such a ready target for satire. He always wears a baseball cap, never sits down for press-conferences and once, it’s alleged, came storming naked from the shower to aim a headbutt at the forward James Beattie. He’s a hard man who believes in hard football, somebody who drives himself to the limit and expects his players to follow. On the day his mother died in September 2010, his Stoke side had an evening fixture against Aston Villa. He missed the first half, but arrived for the second and saw Stoke come from 1-0 down to win.

Nobody questions Pulis’s integrity or commitment, but his style of football is not to all tastes. Even Stoke fans who had idolised him after he returned to the club in 2006, a year after he had been controversially sacked, and led it into the Premier League -- after selling his son to Southampton. He took Stoke to an FA Cup final and thus the Europa League and made it a Premier League fixture, but he was never able to move away from the very functional approach that often saw him deploying four central defenders across the back-line.

The style with which Stoke ultimately fell out of love, though, may be exactly what Crystal Palace needed. Pulis took over after 11 matches, at which point Palace had four points. Eleven games later, it has 20 and amid the cavalry charge away from the bottom -- the bottom 10 sides are separated by five points -- it has a realistic chance of survival. Pulis has gone back to basics and has organised the defence. In his 11 games in charge, Palace has kept six clean sheets and conceded just 10 goals. More unexpectedly, Marouane Chamakh, who became almost a joke figure at Arsenal as his form disintegrated amid a welter of personal problems, has been rejuvenated, leading the line with conviction and scoring four goals in all competitions. Pulis’s plan may not be subtle, but its effectiveness is undeniable.

West Ham, playing a similar sort of football, though, appears to be going in the other direction. Injury problems have hampered it, although the wisdom of going into a season with only one main centre-forward when that centre-forward was the notoriously fragile Andy Carroll was questionable. Carlton Cole, having been released from his contract was recalled as cover, but it’s almost certain another bustling striker will be added before the end of the month. West ham initially bid for the Monaco giant Lacina Traore, but he seems set for a loan move to Everton, making Rickie Lambert, out of favour at Southampton, the most realistic candidate.

What’s most alarming is the way West Ham’s form has disintegrated since the 3-0 win at Tottenham in October. That was achieved with the midfielder Kevin Nolan operating up front as an unlikely false nine and, while it showcased the undoubted talent of Ravel Morrison, it was a slightly fortuitous victory that masked the scale of the problems at the club. There was the win at Cardiff, achieved despite the sending off of James Tomkins, two weeks ago, but the trend is downward.

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Allardyce may be prioritising the league, but the 9-0 capitulation over two legs against Manchester City in the Capital One Cup and the 5-0 humiliation against Nottingham Forest of the Championship in the FA Cup can have done little for morale and suggested a club spinning out of control. Similarly, the apparent unease between Allardyce and Nolan, a lieutenant who has followed him from club to cub but who has riled his manager with two recent red cards, doesn’t speak well of the atmosphere in the dressing-room.

At times in those Cup defeats, Allardyce, who usually stalks the touchline with jowls quivering in fury, has seemed oddly passive, as though resigned to the calamity, and it has been rumored is that the board considered replacing him, only to decide that the £6million that would cost (Allardyce, remarkably, is the 13th-best paid manager in the world) is better invested in players. The booing after City’s third at Upton Park on Tuesday, though, suggested patience is running out.

Yet the truth of the situation is that, as bad as things look for West Ham and positive as they look for Palace, it’s so tight at the bottom that a couple of scrambled wins would make an enormous difference. Even Villa in tenth is only six points of the bottom.

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