Tony Pulis recently said something very difficult to believe.
He said it after Salomon Rondon headed a hat-trick against Swansea City on Wednesday, when the Venezuela striker offered a timely reminder of his expertise before Saturday’s home game with Manchester United, against whom Rondon scored the winning goal on their last visit to The Hawthorns.
The odd remark Pulis made amid his praise for his striker was this: “He finds it extremely difficult to understand how hard every game is in the Premier League.”
Really? Few people in the world can have as keen an understanding as Rondon of how hard every game is in the Premier League.
As West Bromwich Albion’s lone centre-forward, Rondon performs a role often akin to self-flagellation, although it is Pulis who wields the whip. Rondon runs down every channel, challenges for every ball, duels with every defender and generally drains every bead of sweat from his body and every bit of strength from his muscles.
From a United perspective, Saturday's is a particularly bad match for Eric Bailly to miss. Oft times Rondon is not even rewarded for his work with a scoring opportunity, which is why his tally of seven goals from 15 matches this season is so impressive. But Pulis knows that. His remark was just an unnecessary reminder there must be no let-up, no resting on laurels, no delusion the war is ever won.
The likelihood is every West Brom player gets such reminders from the manager every minute of every day. Pulis is insatiable.
That is one of the characteristics that have enabled him to drive West Brom to a situation whereby Saturday's game can be presented as a contest between the teams in sixth and seventh place in the table and at least two West Brom players, James McClean and Chris Brunt, have talked openly about qualifying for Europe.
West Brom’s last match in European competition was in the 1981-82 Uefa Cup, when a team featuring Bryan Robson, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson were beaten by Grasshoppers Zurich (that is, to discount the Anglo-Italian Cup as a fully fledged European competition, especially as West Brom’s last matches in it, in 1996, were against Birmingham City and Port Vale).
Pulis has assembled a team of sound players who work selflessly to strict instructions. That is not so easy, as the managerial sack rate makes plain, and Pulis has been doing it for years. He, like his players, sacrifices himself for the team, insofar as his approach to management is quite egoless. He does not seek acclaim for tactical innovations or fine play. He frankly does not care whether anyone enjoys watching his team, so long as everyone hates playing against them.
The commentariat can talk to his hand, because his ears are not listening. And his mouth, unlike Sam Allardyce’s, has never invited people to consider what he could do if he were given a gig at Real Madrid, United or any other club where he could vie for titles.
José Mourinho has spent practically his whole career at such clubs. That might be the biggest difference between him and Pulis. Mourinho has never relished comparisons between the functionalism of Pulis’s teams and his own, even though he is an admirer of the Welshman’s consistent ability to get the best out of squads.
On Friday he repeated what he first said in May 2015, that if he were a Premier League club owner, he would hire Pulis as his manager. “It’s a guarantee to achieve what the club wants,” he said the first time. “He does what some people don’t understand – but I do – and what other people sometimes don’t rate – but I do – which is the relation between what the manager wants and what the team is.”
What Pulis will want on Saturday is for his team to sabotage Mourinho’s. There is a chance he will order his players merely to try to suffocate United, as he tried to do at Anfield earlier in the season, like Mourinho, and at Stamford Bridge last week. But since the match is at The Hawthorns, Pulis is likely to be more enterprising than that. West Brom have scored 10 goals in their past three home matches. Admittedly those were against Burnley, Watford and Swansea but, then again, United drew 0-0 at home to Burnley and lost at Watford.
West Brom's goal spree has come for several reasons. One is that Rondon has been getting better support. Midfielders have got forward more, especially since James Morrison's return to full fitness. Service from wide has been excellent, thanks to the terrific form of Matt Phillips and the impeccable crossing of Brunt.
So West Brom will likely ask questions of United’s defence beyond the mandatory starter one posed by Pulis’s teams: can you defend set-pieces?
The victory over United in March to all intents ensured West Brom’s Premier League status. They wound down after that and won none of their remaining nine matches. That was extremely unPulis-like and enraged the manager. He has amended and recharged his team. If they were to beat United again, it would secure nothing but optimism around The Hawthorns. Whatever the result, no player at West Brom is likely to wind down again any time soon.