Manchester City cruised to victory over an abject West Brom Monday evening at the Hawthornes. Tony Pulis has always been a conservative and functional manager- he typically sets his side out in a rigid 4-4-2, defends in deep, compact banks of four and looks to find goals on set pieces. While Pulis's relentless focus on defensive organization is a major reason he has never been relegated during his managerial career, the pursuit of functionality over creativity means at times his side's can be dour. That was certainly the case against Man City today.
West Brom set out in what looked like a reasonably attacking 4-4-2 with Saido Berahino partnering Rickie Lambert up front. In practice however, it was far more defensive. When City were in possession Lambert dropped alongside James Morrison and Darren Fletcher forming a midfield bank of five. Berahino stayed slightly higher up the pitch but even he defended inside his own half, typically staying tight to Fernandinho. The thinking behind the tactic was to clog the midfield and deny City's tricky midfielders- Silva, Sterling and Toure- the time and space on the ball to cause problems. Pulis wasn't overly concerned with City having the bulk of possession as long as that possession wasn't in dangerous areas around the box.
The problem for West Brom was that when they won the ball back they were positioned so deep that they couldn't find an initial outlet pass to initiate counter attacks. Berahino was isolated up front. When West Brom regained possession they simply dumped it into the corner for Berahino to chase. City easily won possession back and mounted wave after wave of pressure. David Silva broke the deadlock with a fortuitous opener in the 9th minute- he deflected a weak Toure effort off the leg of Michael Dawson- but it had been coming.
Recognizing that having Lambert drop into midfield to defend left his side unable to find an outlet pass to transition into attack, Pulis had Lambert stay higher up the pitch alongside Berahino after City's opener. West Brom were now defending in a 4-4-2 rather than 4-5-1. The change in tactic posed a new problem for Pulis- it left City with a 3 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield which meant West Brom risked Morrison and Fletcher being overrun in the center of the pitch. Almost immediately City were able to exploit the midfield in advantage. Fletcher and Morrison were occupied with Silva and the interior runs of Sterling which left space for Toure to play a 1-2 with Boney and fire in one of his vintage curling efforts from just outside the box to make it 2-0.
At 2-0 down Pulis tinkered with the shape for a third time to give his side equal numbers in the middle of midfield. Rather than dropping Lambert into midfield as he had to start of the game, he shifted Gardner infield alongside Fletcher and Morrison and moved Berahino to the right wing into a 4-5-1. West Brom were marginally better in attack but the change posed a new defensive problem down City's left wing. Berahino is far and away West Brom's most exciting attacking player but he lacked the defensive discipline to track Alexander Kolarov's bursts forward from his left full back position. Shortly after being moved to the right flank Berahino switched off, allowing Kolarov through on goal but the Serbian put his effort into the side netting.
Pulis's starting shape and subsequent two formation changes following City's opening two goals failed to curtail City's dominance. West Brom gave the visitors too much time in possession and failed to offer any sort of an attacking threat of their own.
It's worth pointing out that Swansea and West Ham, sides that got weekend results away to Chelsea and Arsenal respectively, were both far more adventurous in their approach against top quality opposition than West Brom were here. A major aspect West Ham and Swansea were able to exploit was their pace and athleticism. Swansea's Jefferson Montero gave Branslav Ivanovic the runaround with his pace, Andre Ayew's power and speed also gave the Chelsea back four fits. For West Ham Dimitri Payet was largely responsible for Francis Coquelin's worst performance in an Arsenal shirt since returning from his loan spell at Charlton last season. Looking at West Brom's lineup today, it's desperately short on both creativity and athleticism. Berahino can be electric but with a midfield of Gardner, Fletcher, Morrison and McClean there aren't any players there that are going to strike fear into the opposition. Those four will work hard and carry out Pulis's tactics with discipline but you're depending on Berahino entirely to create chances.
With a side lacking in direct, attacking players discipline and defensive shape will be crucial. Pulis is the man to lead a functional side with limited resources. His Stoke sides always stayed up despite being near the the bottom of the league in goals scored. However, they'll need to offer more going forward than they did tonight to avoid a relegation scrap. New club record signing Salomon Rondon was presented to the fans before the match. Perhaps he'll be the man to bring an attacking spark to the Hawthornes but on the basis of tonight's display he may be concerned about the number of scoring chances that will come his way.