Tottenham welcome Pul-less West Brom to Wembley

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Spurs host West Brom on Saturday, who, for the first time in almost three seasons, head into a match at Wembley without Tony Pulis at the helm. 

Pulis was sacked in the aftermath of West Brom’s 4-0 defeat at home to Chelsea. The sacking came on the back of four successive Premier League defeats for the midlands club, who find themselves a mere point above the relegation zone.

While the Lilywhites have lost only once in 15 previous meetings with the Baggies, West Brom have tasted defeat one time in the last five away tests at Spurs. Historically, this fixture sees a lot of draws, with eight of the last fifteen ending in a stalemate.

But Mauricio Pochettino’s side showed their superiority when the teams last met in January, with Spurs handing West Brom a 4-0 thrashing.

Everton, West Ham and Crystal Palace are the only Premier League teams to record fewer away points so far, with West Brom taking four points from a possible 18. In those six away encounters, the Baggies scored three goals and allowed eight. Their single away victory came at Turf Moor against Burnley on Aug. 12, three and a half months ago.

Spurs happy to be home

Sounds like a strange thing to say, with all the historic negative rhetoric surrounding playing at Wembley, but Spurs are happy to be home after losing consecutive away matches in the Premier League for the first time in over a year.

Tottenham, at White Hart Lane and Wembley, have lost a single match in their last 25 home fixtures. After a slow start to the current campaign, Spurs have found their feet at the national stadium. They’ve won three on the bounce – against Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth – by a 6-1 score line.

Top four finish prime concern for Spurs

Forget runaway leaders Manchester City for the time being, Spurs need all three points to avoid falling out of the top four. Two behind Chelsea for third, Tottenham are a point up on the chasing pack – Arsenal, Liverpool, and of all teams, Burnley.

Maintaining their place in the top four has to be the primary focus for Pochettino’s men as they enter the busy Christmas period. Any more dropped points against lesser teams will cause irreparable damage to Tottenham’s 2017-18 title aspirations, while leaving the team with an uphill battle to be counted among the top three.

According to the PremierLeague.com, only Newcastle United (6) and Liverpool (5) have taken more away points against Pochettino’s Spurs than West Brom (4).

Losing a long-serving manager is never an easy thing for a squad to deal with, but it’s a routine part of the modern game. Teams historically play well in matches following a manager’s sacking, so Spurs will have to be on full alert, ensuring they don’t add to those foreboding stats.

Pochettino, though I doubt here’s aware of the Baggies’ success against him, won’t allow for his team to lose three successive Premier League matches. It’s a worst-case scenario that doesn’t bare more thought.

(This piece originally featured on Tottenham HQ. Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

West Brom’s Gareth McAuley defying sands of time with career year

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Gareth McAuley is defying the sands of time. The 37-year-old is enjoying a career year at the heart of the Baggies defence.

Gareth McAuley, like a 21-year distilled bottle of Bushmills — the oldest of its kind — is getting better with age. He’s the oldest current outfield player in the Premier League.

Only 40-year-old keeper Shay Given, who has made five appearances for Stoke this season, is older. But unlike the retired Republic of Ireland international keeper, Gareth McAuley is a mainstay in West Brom’s first team.

Not only has he appeared in every West Brom match, he hasn’t missed a single minute of action. The ageless center back has played 2,610 minutes in 29 Premier League matches this season.

Only six other players, two of whom are goalkeepers, can make that claim.

From humble beginnings

McAuley had to scratch and claw for every opportunity. He started out with semi-professional outfit Linfield F.C. in 1996 when he was 16 years old. Based out of Belfast, McAuley played three seasons with Linfield before moving on loan to another Northern Irish semi-pro team, Ballyclare Comrades Football Club.

He stayed at Ballyclare Comrades for a season before roughing it up in the lower ranks of semi-professional Northern Irish Football League (NIFL) for an additional four seasons.

A chance to play professionally presented itself in 2004. McAuley, at 24 years of age, was on his way to play for League Two Lincoln City F.C.

McAuley paid his dues and grafted it out in the lower leagues for the better part of a decade. Then-Champioship side Leicester came calling in 2006. He had climbed the ladder all the way to the second tier of English soccer and was one step away from fulfilling his ultimate goal, to play in the Premier League.

In 2011, after 15 arduous, battle-tested years, he achieved Premier League status. West Brom were keen on McAuley, who was 31 years old at the time.

A perfect fit for a Tony Pulis team

STRATFORD, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 11: Gareth McAuley of West Bromwich Albion celebrates scoring their second goal to make it 2-2 during the Premier League match between West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion at London Stadium on February 11, 2017 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Tony Pulis builds his team around solid, strong and robust defensive players. He usually veers away from the flashy, creative types, worrying first about solidifying things at the back.

Pulis’ management style has been stigmatized in inner circles across the Premier League, but West Brom are one of the toughest teams to play against because of his conservative, yet effective tactics.

McAuley fits into his manager’s mantra perfectly. Strong, stoic, defensively sound and deadly at getting on the end of set pieces, the Northern Irishman is tailor fitted for West Brom. He’s also a boisterous leader, pulling the strings at the back through unwavering verbal communication.

McAuley accomplishing the implausible

One starts to run out of superlatives to describe how implausible, yet impressive a season McAuley is having.

The consummate professional isn’t merely playing sound, beastly defense.

He leads all other Premier League defenders with six goals, two ahead of Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso. Four of McAuley’s six goals have come from headers off of set pieces, which, I can speculate, is exactly what his crafty manager envisioned all along.

McAuley wasn’t always so prolific in front of goal. The defensive specialist has scored only 15 goals in 187 top flight appearances. Yet he’s managed a goal every five matches so far during the current campaign.

Compare that to a goal per every 18 games in previous seasons and you get a better sense of just how astonishing the 2016-17 season has become for McAuley.

And there’s still nine games left.

If he continues to defy nature and prolongs this rich vein of form into the 2017-18 season, I might soon question whether the Curious Case of Benjamin Button is indeed a fictional tale.

(This piece was originally featured on Fansided)