Tony Pulis and the curse of the 40-point relegation safety benchmark
On Feb. 25 this year, West Brom beat Bournemouth 2-1 at home. That victory took them to 40 points, cemented them in eighth place and put them on course for an end-of-season total of 58, comfortably their highest Premier League tally. Yet since then, they have won just one of the following seven games, collecting four points from a possible 21.
For a Tony Pulis side, this is a familiar occurrence. In each of his seven previous seasons as a Premier League manager (six complete, one almost so, with Crystal Palace), Pulis' teams have reached that 40-point mark -- the historically accepted total that ensures safety from relegation -- but then they fall off a cliff.
With Stoke, Palace and West Brom, Pulis has managed 39 games after reaching 40 points and won only five of those games, gathering 29 points from a possible 117 in the process. His final points totals so far have been 45, 47, 46, 45, 42 and 43. In short, before reaching the magic number, Pulis teams are solid, dependable Premier League stalwarts. Afterwards, they're relegation certainties.
So what happens to his sides once they meet the minimum required standard? Listening to Pulis himself, it's not a conscious satisfaction with the least expected. "I want a performance now every week and to make sure we play football," he said after the Bournemouth game. "We played it through the pitch again today with purpose - not backwards or square or sideways. But what we do need to do is be more clinical in the final third."
The slow down after the 40-point mark is also something he's aware of, not least because he's been reminded of it on a number of occasions. "If you come and watch us train, I'm not doing anything different to what I did in the previous 24 or 25 games," he said at the start of March, when the numbers were pointed out to him. Indeed, anyone watching West Brom since February would have to be particularly uncharitable to suggest they've lacked effort.
One fairly plausible theory is that because Pulis puts so much stock in reaching this predetermined total, so much does he emphasise that target of 40 points, that it's rather inevitable that his players might, at least subconsciously, ease off once to that magic number. "We need to get to 40 points as quickly as we can and then we can relax again," he said in December 2011, when he was at Stoke.
"If we get 40 points I'll be doing somersaults," he said in April 2015, a few months after taking over at West Brom, when they were in some trouble. When a manager says a team can relax and he'll be doing somersaults after achieving a certain number of points, a psychological slump seems almost inevitable.
A related theory is simply that his sides don't so much slack off, as slightly change the way they play. Danny Higginbotham played under Pulis for just under six years at Stoke, so is perhaps better placed than anyone to comment. "His teams are very defensively strong," Higginbotham told ESPN FC. "He's always very proud about how his teams play defensively. But when you get to a certain amount of points, you can 'release yourself' a little bit and become a lot more expansive. Then you put yourself at risk of conceding more goals."
Again, this might simply be a subconscious change, but one that is easy to imagine making. The pressure is lightened, the "work" is done, so now it's time to enjoy yourself.
On the face of it, all of this paints a picture of a manager with limited ambition, and without the ability to push his teams on to beyond mere survival. But that characterisation is a little unfair, particularly given the clubs at which Pulis has worked. "More often than not he leaves clubs in a better place than he found them," says Higginbotham. "If you look at his Premier League record, I don't think there's ever been a season where you can look at the club he's been at and say they haven't overachieved."
Survival is a pretty big deal given the state he has found some of those teams in. Stability is an achievement given the ceiling under which all but six or seven Premier League clubs operate. West Brom's current position of eighth is pretty impressive. "Do West Brom honestly think they're on the same playing field as [a team like] Everton?" says Higginbotham. "They're certainly not at the same level as the top six. So what do they want?"
Perhaps it doesn't really matter that his teams reach a certain point and go no further. Pulis does a certain job, operates within the limits of whichever club he's at, and does pretty well with it.
"I go into football clubs, I try to find out what systems suit the players and I try to get the damnedest out of those players," he said last year. "That's what I've done everywhere I've been."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.