Manager of The Year contenders to lock horns at Selhurst Park
Tonight's meeting at Selhurst Park sees arguably the two strongest candidates for this season's Manager of the Year crown come face to face. Both managers have overseen remarkable improvements in their respective sides this season, and here we take a brief look at each man's claim to the award:
Tony Pulis: Having begun the season out of office after ending his most recent 7 year stint with Stoke City, Pulis was forced to look on from the sidelines as the Premier League marched on without him. It was not until November that the Welshman was given the reins at a Crystal Palace side who looked devoid of quality footballers. Critics and analysts questioned the move, arguing that by accepting the job Pulis was disgarding his impressive record of having never been relegated in his managerial career. Relegation was to be a certainty for Palace this season.
His first win came on December 3rd against West Ham, a 1-0 victory in which Marouane Chamakh (a player much improved under Pulis' management) scored the only goal. The 2-0 victory over Cardiff four days later was perhaps even more important. The game marked not only the first time that Palace had won two games in a row all season, but was also Pulis' first victory over a team which would eventually finish in the Premier League's bottom seven. Pulis knows that to avoid relegation you must beat the teams around you. As if to prove this point, Pulis has since lead his team to victories over Aston Villa (twice), Hull City, West Brom, and Cardiff once again.
Pulis was named Premier League Manager of the Month for April after leading his team to a string of 5 consecutive victories, beginning on March 29th with a 1-0 victory over title challengers Chelsea. This run also included a 3-2 win over Everton, a side who looked like favourites to take the coveted 4th position from Arsenal at the time. When the streak ended at the hands of Man City on April 27th, Palace were safe. Relagation was no longer a possibility. Pulis had kept his record, and more importantly kept Crystal Palace in the Premier League.
Along the way, Pulis has garnered praise for his work from fellow managers. When Arsene Wenger was asked about his choice for Manager of the Year, he said: "Steve Bruce and Tony Pulis have done exceptional work, that is for sure. I believe the real job of a manager is to take the best out of the potential of the team. The easiest way is always to choose the guy who wins the league, but it's not always him who has done the best job."
Brendan Rodgers: Rodgers' season began surrounded by difficulty and controversy, all of it stemming from one man: Luis Suarez. Not only was Rodgers to be without his star man until the end of September, but at the same time Suarez and Arsenal were both looking to force through a transfer for the Uruguayan to move to the Emirates. This culminated in Arsenal launching a £40,000,001 bid for the player, leading Liverpool's owner John W Henry to tweet his now famous "What do you think they're smoking over there at the Emirates?"
If things looked difficult off the pitch, Liverpool showed no sign of it impacting their performances on the field. The season began with a string of three 1-0 wins over Stoke City, Aston Villa and Manchester United, with Daniel Sturridge putting in some excellent performances standing in for star man Luis Suarez. When the Uruguayan eventually returned, Rodgers found a way to accomodate both Sturridge and Suarez in his starting eleven, with both men knocking in goals for fun. This led to many commentators referring to the pair as the new SAS (a reference to the strike-partnership of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton).
As the season wore on, Suarez showed why Liverpool tried so hard to keep hold of him, and rewarded the Reds with a fantastic return of 30 Premier League goals so far, with Sturridge tacking on another 20. Suarez and Rodgers proved that in this case there is little truth in the generally observed wisdom that once a player asks to leave a club his performances and his mood will begin to suffer.
Blighted by injuries around Christmas, with influential players such as Sturridge, Gerrard and Agger (to name just a few) missing several games. Although Liverpool dropped some points during this period, it could have been much worse, as evidenced by Arsenal's recent slide down the table. Rodgers has done an excellent job of managing his relatively small squad of players in this regard. Logically, it seems unlikely that a squad as small as Liverpool's should be able to maintain a title challenge for an entire season (even if they do not have European football to contend with).
They have been able to do just that though, and they have done it in impressive fashion. Exciting, attractive football has lead to the team winning eleven consecutive games this season (a run which was ended by Chelsea last week). They have also managed some huge wins over some of the best teams in the league: 3-0 over Manchester Utd, 4-0 and 5-0 over Tottenham Hotspur, and 5-1 over Arsenal to name just a few.
One of the most impressive features of Liverpool's season however is the fact that not only have they moved from 7th position last year to being level on points with Man City in 1st this year, but that they have done it with what is basically the same starting eleven: Only Simon Mignolet was not a Liverpool player last season. The improvements that Rodgers has brought about in players such as Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, and Jon Flanagan shows that (similarly to Pulis), Rodgers knows exactly how to get the best out of the players he has.
Rodgers has also shown a high level of tactical awareness at times this season, experimenting with a variety of different formations throughout the season. Almost all (with a few exceptions) have worked to perfection. His decision to move Steven Gerrard into a deeper position in the midfield could potentially add several years on to his career. Rodgers has proved himself to be the most tactically astute manager in the Premier League this season.
Conclusion: For me, if Rodgers can lead his Liverpool side to the Premier League title then he should no doubt be named manager of the year, but if he were to fall short then there is definitely a debate to be had. Not only Pulis, but others such as Roberto Martinez and Steve Bruce could be in the running. I still believe that Rodgers ought to win in this scenario, but it will certainly be a much closer race.
Whatever happens, the one thing that can be said with certainty is that all of these men have had seasons to remember at their clubs. It almost feels unfair to choose between them... Almost.