On Sunday, Liverpool face a team managed by the man with the whitest trainers on the touchline. Tony Pulis knows how to keep his kicks clean as anyone out there, and although his West Bromwich Albion side may not be as dazzling on the pitch, the Hawthorns can be dark and full of terrors for visitors.
Liverpool came from behind to beat a tall and physically imposing Stoke City side with the help of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, and Daniel Sturridge from the bench to take seven points from a possible nine after the international break. Those points in the space of a week have set Merseyside's finest up for the final six games of the season where Champions League qualification is at stake. Despite dropping points late at home to AFC Bournemouth, two wins and a draw is difficult to quibble with at this stage of the season.
West Brom may be another top flight denizen with negative goal difference in Liverpool's exploration of life below zero, but the Baggies haven't been a minnow by any means this season. They've been in the top ten since beating Burnley 4-0 in late November and eighth since taking all three points away to Southampton on New Year's Eve. Liverpool may be the bigger club that should be expected to win in most circumstances, but Sunday's game is between third and eighth. Not only do West Brom have home advantage, but their strengths also match the notable weaknesses of the visitors.
Despite losing at home to Southampton at the weekend, Tony Pulis boasts a fine record at the Hawthorns since losing 4-0 there to Pep Guardiola's Manchester City at the end of October. In eleven home games since that defeat, West Brom have won eight games and lost only three. Their last home victory, against one of Liverpool's rivals for a top four spot, was an example of how a drilled Pulis unit can expose a failure to defend set pieces. Arsenal's defending needed to be better, but there is a tendency to highlight flaws as opposed to praising what is clearly an effective strategy that is the result of training and squad building.
West Brom are the tallest team in a league known for its robustness and have scored the most goals from set pieces. A league high 18 is far superior to Stoke's nine (joint twelfth in the division), and it's an area of the game where Pulis' work excels. His sides do not thrive with the ball in possession and have long struggled against intricate football. Pulis' record against Arsène Wenger serves as a reminder of the extent and limits of his philosophy. Wenger has played eight and lost five away to Pulis teams but boasts a 100% win record at home from ten games.
In three games against West Brom, Jürgen Klopp has never lost a game but has conceded three out four goals from set pieces. Incidentally, there hasn't been a clean sheet in the two draws and one win collected against Pulis in the Klopp era. It's unlikely that Liverpool can blow the Baggies away without Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, and Sadio Mané in the starting line-up, but perhaps an alternative can be found against an opponent that has scored 12 set piece goals at home.
One of the major challenges for Liverpool is a predilection for conceding set piece goals away from home. Liverpool rank joint second for conceding these type of goals away from home, but this has been an issue for some time. Curiously enough, the Reds are third in scoring such goals away from home so may be able to at least ask questions of their own despite West Brom's superiority in that area.
That West Ham United have scored 15 goals in total from set pieces (second only to West Brom's 18) and Watford come in at sixth in the Europe's most financially distended league with 11 should serve as a warning for potential difficulties to come. A quick comparison of points, goal difference, and league position with West Brom along with the fact that Pulis sides are the gold standard for physical, direct football underlines the severity of the Reds' immediate concerns.
This game cannot be characterised as part of Liverpool's woes, if Liverpool manage to drop points, against the Premier League's poor. While a Robin Hood complex does exist, it would be difficult to label West Brom, or Southampton for that matter, as teams in desperate need of charitable acts from Liverpool's tender-hearted players with a Klopp hug on its way in the post. West Brom may even be considered a natural predator given that Liverpool have never beaten a Pulis side away from home in the Premier League, find set pieces difficult to defend, do not have many tall players, and sometimes struggle with second balls.
Yet the progress is real under Klopp as last season's tally of 60 points from 38 games has already been surpassed with six games remaining, ensuring that a creditable top four finish in sight. Liverpool have much to play for and a win could provide the final wind to possibly go on and finish in third. West Brom have also bested last season's tally of 43 points and could make history with another six points to achieve a Premier League high of 50 or more. A response will be required, demanded even, after a home defeat.
Like Sam Allardyce, Pulis thrives on being a spoiler against bigger teams and upsetting their best laid plans. He will care not about Liverpool's top four ambitions and may even revel in disrupting them after clashing with Klopp in the past. Moreover, there seems to be a personal crusade by British managers to explain away why foreign managers are in the demand. Simply put, they're better. There are more coaches with coaching licences in Germany, Spain, and Italy than there are in England by quite some distance. Even so, Pulis will try to make a point by taking all three points.
“That’s the way it is. They come into the country, they’re sexy, they’re new, they’re bright,” Pulis said in November without the slightest hint of bitterness or examination of why his own methods haven't garnered much attention. “That’s fine, brilliant, not a problem for me.
“I’ll listen to them, they say Klopp trains them three times a day in pre-season, absolutely amazing. I’d never have thought of that. That’s what Sean’s on about. They do stuff that is astonishing, that we’ve ‘never heard of’.”
Despite the parochialism of managers such as Pulis, what they can be quite effective. They focus on certain areas, while Pep Guardiola and Jürgen build teams differently. That is however, their prerogative. What can be a source of confidence is that no new frontier will be explored in the West Midlands. As Klopp said in October, Tony Pulis will set his team up as expected. When it comes to physical, and direct football of attrition, nobody does it better than the Welshman.
"Even if they didn’t watch the game against Leicester or Hull, they won’t play like Leicester or Hull,” Klopp said before channeling the spirit of Marlo Stanfield. “They will play like West Brom. Tony Pulis is Tony Pulis.
“West Brom are an experienced team with an experienced manager. They want a result and we need to find a way to play them. Early goals would help. Three early goals would really help, but that's not really likely. There is no easy way to go through them.”
This game is arguably Liverpool's most difficult after the international break, and Klopp has already shown against Bournemouth and Stoke that he's prepared to look for alternative solutions. From limiting Eddie Howe's enterprising side to few free kicks in dangerous areas and corners on Wednesday to a back three at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, there is an willingness to make changes and take risks.
Hopefully this difference between the two managers will be reflected in the scoreline as Liverpool seek a second away win of the year.