Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blackburn Rovers F. C. 2-0 WBA

live text replay

after last week's heroic and highly entertaining match with blackpool, the baggies returned to their poor away form as rovers became the first team of the season to do the double over the albion. blackburn beat the baggies 3-1 in the reverse fixture at the hawthorns back in the dying days of december.

while making a good start and pressing rovers early on, the baggies best chances came much too early in the game to take full advantage, and in the end they were once again thwarted in their more enterprising moments of attack by the brilliant goalkeeping of paul robinson. the baggies showed the trouble they have with big physical teams who defend well, and for the first time this year, suffered for the absence of central midfielder, graham dorrans, following his return to form over the last month.

unlike their last away match at fulham, the albion started out the more aggressive and enterprising of the two teams. peter odemwingie found himself in a one-on-one with rover's keeper, robinson, within the first couple of minutes. the ex-england international came out well and aggresively cut down the angle to make the save.

the baggies' defensive mistakes aside, the real difference in the match (as it had been in december for the reverse fixture) was paul robinson, who continued his good form against the baggies with goal-saving stops from odemwingie, james morrison, chris brunt and jerome thomas. with 20 shots on target to the baggies' credit, robinson would seem a critical component in the success that rovers have enjoyed this year.

the importance of jonas olsson's return to the team was immeasurable as the baggies looked better at the back than they have for some time. for the first 40 minutes of the match they were very good defensively. especially after the first 20 minutes and blackburn began to really control things with a massive 70% possession for about 15 minutes in the middle of the first-half. after 40 minutes the two teams were on pretty equal footing and both looked to get into the dressing room on a 0-0 scoreline, which was probably to the baggies' tactical advantage.

however, a huge mistake by gabriel tamas created an own goal and - much as it had been against fulham - the baggies went in at the half 1-0 down. the goal came on 41 minutes with blackburn finding space down the albion left flank and the baggies' defenders out of position. the romanian centre-half was caught between tracking his man and defending the cross, and in meaning to give up the corner-kick, had lost where he was positioned and sent an unfortunate, powerful header past his own goalkeeper, boaz myhill.

as has been the case on more than several occassions this year, west brom were down by a goal that was the result of a momentary lapse in judgement on the part of a defensive player.

however, and citing their good record at coming from behind, one doesn't ever lose faith as an albion supporter as long as the scoreline is 1-0. however, a second goal without having first equalized and the baggies are in trouble, and that's just what happened less than a minute-and-a-half into the second period. it was another mistake by the baggies defenders, not closing down and giving the ball away in a dangerous position with the opposition capitalizing on the error.

rovers' canadian forward, david hoilett, took full advantage as the ball fell for him at the top of the box and blasted past boaz myhill from the edge of the penalty area to give the home-side a 2-0 advantage.

this was the kind of game that frustrates the albion in the most profound way. against other teams that play a more open style of football, the baggies seem to rise to the occasion and are a much more dangerous side - as they have consistantly shown this year - when playing the likes of arsenal, liverpool or manchester united than they are against bolton, blackburn or fulham. for all their good passing and possession, the baggies have resorted to playing a lot of long ball this year and actually rank amongst the top 3 premier league teams in terms of long balls attempted.

the real problem is that the team - after a good start to the season - has probably become a bit too predictable. ever since the end of first half of their home match with local rivals, birmingham city, where the baggies found themselves being badly outplayed in midfield, they have employed an ever more predictable 4-5-1 formation with peter odemwingie as the preferred lone striker. at this point in the year, all the top managers will have seen the baggies and know what they do.

keep west bromwich albion from pressing the ball high up the pitch and you will isolate odemwingie, effectively taking him out of the game. the formula is simple, if you can manage to make it work; and the good defensive teams are doing just that. this is the primary reason that the albion have resorted to using the long ball as a major tactic in their attacking game.

there was one real moment of contention in this match when a clear foul was committed against odemwingie on the edge of the blackburn penalty area. while the TV replay indicated that the ball was outside the area, both the defender and the albion striker were in the box when the infraction occurred, and to anyone watching it was a stonewall penalty. the referee, however, awarded a free-kick just outside the blackburn penalty area and the baggies were unable to capitalize and score the goal which would have seen them back in the match and chasing a draw for the last five minutes or so.

with all the genuine suprises in terms of results at the beginning of the season, the pundits were predicting that 40 points might be needed this year to avoid relegaton. but with wolves, west ham, wigan, birmingham city , west brom and fulham all hovering at the bottom of the table and not getting consistant results, this is looking less likely now than it was then; and, as per usual, 35-38 points will probably be enough to keep a team up this year.

as was the case last week against blackpool - and despite any managerial rhetoric - there are definitely games that the baggies will have to target, and results needed which will be a real test of character. with the next three home matches being wigan, west ham and wolves there's no getting away from the fact that the albion are facing an immediate series of challenges that will be characterized as "must win" situations with a mounting intensity from week to week. we can only hope that they've done the business and will be well past this when they face newcastle united at st. james park on the last day of the season.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

WBA 3-2 Blackpool F.C.

live text replay

this was truly a heroic victory for the baggies. while almost always able to keep pace with whoever their competition on the day, 'wins' - and more importantly 'points' - have been hard to come by since the beginning of november and the side have looked like the struggle of the PREMIER LEAGUE might be beginning to take its toll on team confidence.

in truth, after west brom's exit from the FA CUP to CHAMPIONSHIP side reading, i rather thought that they might not be able to bounce back from what was then 6 straight losses. club captain and goalie, scott carson, looks like he's completely lost it, and the lack of spirit exhibited in the cup fixture indicated that the club might be in real trouble.

the baggies, however, proved themselves a team of exceptional character and heroic determination in what was - to date - their most important match of the season. with scott carson on the bench following a poor run of form, and jonas olsson serving a single match-ban incurred in the cup game with reading, the albion had their work cut out for them.

it's almost a joke at this point, but the baggies went behind to a david vaughn goal in the 10th minute. the albion must surely be on for setting some kind of PREMIER LEAGUE record for most points taken from games in which they have had to come back from a losing position. with rare exception, the baggies are almost always required to come from behind in order to get points from a game. i can only think of three matches which produced points where the baggies haven't had to come back from a 1 (or 2) goal deficit.

considering the two teams involved in this match it was never in danger of being a 0-0. in fact, with a 5 goal total, this match could easily have produced 8 or 9. an early miss by striker dj campbell was followed by vaughn's unstoppable long range strike in the 10th minute. the baggies were then lucky not to be 2 down when gabriel tamas, returning froma three game match-ban, badly misjudged a ball running down the line and in attempting to shepherd it into touch, allowed luke varney a clear run and free shot on goal. luckily the blackpool striker put the ball over boaz myhill's crossbar and, after a hectic opening 15 minutes, the baggies were afforded a chance to settle.

chris brunt almost put the baggies level when taking a perfect cross from jerome thomas, but was thwarted by some brilliant point-blank defending at the far post on the part of blackpool defender, stephen crainey.

the tangerines will have rued their early misses when the albion finally equalized on a peter odemwingie goal in the 36th minute. the nigerian striker, who has struggled to score while playing through a series of niggling injuries, returned to form in fine style. timing his run perfectly, odemwingie took a ball over the top from graham dorrans, beating the off-side trap and calmly slotting home past the stranded ghanaian international, richard kingson.

james morrison seems to have hit a rich vein of form as he continued to score with a goal just 6 minutes after the restart. richard kingson weakly palmed away a jerome thomas cross and the baggies' scottish international tapped the ball into an open goal to give the baggies a 2-1 lead.

the albion dominated the next 20 minutes, and in one of the most open games you'll ever see in the PREMIER LEAGUE, both odemwingie and james morrison had chances that should have seen the home side up 3 or 4-1.

gary fletcher-taylor equalized through the ever increasing pressure of the blackpool attack as the match entered its final phase. with 15 minutes to go , the blackpool striker might have thought he had produced the draw. an incisive cross from david vaughn found fletcher-taylor free at the back post and boaz myhill with no chance whatsoever.

but the baggies needed this win badly and odemwingie again scored in the 86th minute on a long-ball from gonzalo jara. the nigerian got the bounce as the right-back's long pass went into the blackpool penalty area, and wrestling free from his marker put the ball low and into the net at kingson's left-hand corner.

some desperate defending was required to preserve the win, but it was the baggies day and was only justice that the albion should take all 3 points from this one after the travesty at bloomfield road back in november which set the baggies onto a poor run of form after a good start to the season.

with this important win, the baggies are now about 15 points short of what they'll need to assure survival in the PREMIER LEAGUE. with important matches coming up against blackburn (away) and wigan (home), and the imminent return of jonas olsson, the baggies came through what was their biggest challenge of the season so far wih maximum points. this team certainly has the character to make out alright this year and 4 points from the next couple of matches will see the baggies well back on course. i only hope they can meet the challenges ahead with similar success.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reading F.C. 1-0 WBA

live text replay

although i noticed it a while back, i have yet to write about roberto di matteo's team selections - and especially his seeming reluctance to play certain members of the 2008-09 squad which was relegated from the PREMIER LEAGUE under tony mowbray.

the gaffer was happy enough with the midfield that he inherited from mowbray's time at the hawthorns, but it seems that there is a real reticence to play certain long-time players (particularly defenders and strikers) in the medium of top-flight football.

i'm not sure that he's got it quite right. ishmael miller, roman bednar, abdoulaye meite and gianni zuiverloon remained with the club, making the final 25-man squad for the 2010-2011 season. gonzalo jara, gabriel tamas, pablo ibanez, peter odemwingie and marc-antoine fortune have all been brought in since mowbray's departure for celtic (and now middlesbrough) and are all preferred starters for the positions where miller, bednar, meite and zuiverloon had previously been first-team selections.

the general rationale is that none of these are PREMIER LEAGUE quality players, where their replacements are decidedly - and in di matteo's mind, anyway - more fit for the job.

at the same time, more than a few of mowbray's defenders and strikers have gone to other clubs. west brom have now sold both luke moore and craig beattie to swansea city; as well as shelton martis, who went to doncaster rovers, while leon barnett and reuben reid have gone out on season long loans to norwich city and walsall respectively.

i'm not outrightly critisizing any or all of these moves, but i've never been sure that the gaffer has got it right with miller, bednar, meite and zuiverloon.

miller has taken a long time to come back from a cruciate ligament injury that was incurred about two years ago. it's easy to forget that he scored on his debut with the club, going on to score 7 goals in the league that season as well as a hat-trick in the FA CUP quarter-final. in 2008-09, and after a slow start in the PREMIER LEAGUE, he scored 3 goals in the 4 matches leading up to his injury. last season, he scored on his first start in 14 months against blackpool, as well as the decisive goal coming on as a substitute 3 days later at the liberty stadium to give the baggies a 2-0 away win that just about clinched automatic promotion for them. if he can get back the form (and provided he gets the opportunity) he was starting to show in the baggies' last top-flight campaign, then i believe he is, in fact, a capable first choice striker in the PREMIER LEAGUE.

i think pretty much the same about roman bednar. he has surprisingly returned to the club after a brief loan spell at leicester city and it had looked like we weren't going to see him back at the hawthorns again. obviously the club's need for strikers was greater than whatever regard (or dis-regard) that RDM currently holds for roman bednar. the supporters love bednar no matter what division we're in and, at his best, he brings a top class spirit to the attack, you never know what might happen when he's on the field and he is technically good at the hold-up play needed for a 4-5-1 playing formation.

gianni zuiverloon fell out of favour after his two mistakes against reading in the FA CUP last year. as we all remember well, it was zuiverloon's careless control which saw 2 goals given up to jimmy kebe that helped put the baggies out of the cup. the young dutch defender had lost both his confidence and a place as a starter in any subsequent matches for the rest of the year. this was a bit of a rough break, as zuiverloon is an above average player in terms of pace and ball skills, and is a rarity in that he is probably more suited to PREMIER LEAGUE football than he is to the more physical grind of playing in the FOOTBALL LEAGUE.

abdoulaye meite was a different story. his downfall came after coming to the club, making a good start, but being part of what was ultimately a poor defensive team. eventually , he too completely lost his confidence and fell out of favour as a first choice centre-half. meite's loss of confidence during the 2008-09 top-flight campaign was painful to see in regards to how plain, obvious and evident it was to anyone watching. the arrival of gabriel tamas - and then pablo ibanez went a long way towards exiling meite to the reserves and subs' bench.

it gets overlooked, however, that he put in a good series of performances following the baggies' loss to barnsley last year, and was instrumental in the recovery of the club's defensive form after a particularly poor showing and a calamitous own goal by shelton martis, who was soon on his way to doncaster rovers. whatever problems he encountered two years ago, meite was still a veteran of top-flight football. however, he is certainly a flawed and uneven talent whose career has been hindered by injury and marred by controversy. i can understand why he would not be rated a "premier-league player". whatever his deficiencies, though, he's still a trained professional and you'd think he might just be useful in a situation where injuries and/or suspensions had limited team selection as far as centre-halfs go.

with this in mind, i was surprised that miller was given a start, even in an FA CUP game. the albion striker has been out of regular football so long that it is hard for anyone not actually going to the baggies' training sessions to know what kind of fitness a player like miller is in.

while he almost certinaly doesn't have a full 90 minutes in him, and he predictably pulled a hamstring just past the hour mark, for the first 20 minutes miller was getting into some good positions and causing problems for the royals at the back. his finishing was beyond rusty, though, as he probably should have had a goal and almost certainly had a legitimate shout for a penalty which was ignored by the referee.

besides james morrison's chip which clipped off the royals cross-bar, there was very little else to recommend this performance by the baggies. in fact, it bordered on disastrous and only the result of saturday's upcoming league fixture with blackpool will tell the tale.

jonas olsson came on after half-time in an effort to give the swedish defender 45 minutes worth of football before league play resumes and he makes his full return to the first-team. the albion centre-half has been out injured since the baggies loss to blackpool at bloomfield road in the beginning of november. however, the strategy badly backfired when olsson's aggressive streak - which we all know well - got him into trouble all too quickly. an over zealous tackle saw him booked within a minute of taking the field and in less than 15 minutes he had picked up a second yellow and was dismissed. the enusing automatic red-card will keep him out of the side when blackpool visit the hawthorns on saturday - a match the baggies desperately need to win.

boaz myhill did well enough in the albion goal that he'll almost certainly start in the next league match, and help take the pressure off squad captain, scott carson, whose recent run of poor form has seen him being blasted by the local press and supporters alike. after last week's loss to fulham, the england international looked to have completely lost his confidence and in dire need of some time out of the side - if only to get him out of the public line of fire and see that he gets a chance to put his head straight.

in fact, the whole team needs to get its head straight. you have to admire the baggies for not letting their heads drop during this last 5 (now 6) straight defeats. they have continued to show character and play some good football with a positive attitude throughout.

it's hard to judge from a cup game - which is why the upcoming home match with blackpool looms so large for the baggies. aside from miller's early efforts, the albion never looked in this one and team confidence looks like it might be finally ebbing away. the loss to fulham was devastating and this cup fixture was pedestrian and spiritless at best.

this coming saturday at the hawthorns is the biggest test of character the baggies will have had to face all season. let's hope they're up to it.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Fulham F.C. 3-0 WBA

live text replay

the baggies came into this match on a run of four straight defeats, the teams' best defenders all out on injury or suspension and only the consolation of some really good performances but with no points to show for all their endeavour.

the impressive thing is that these losses haven't seemed to affect confidence amongst the starting line-up and i thought perhaps fulham might find the albion a bit of a bogey team this year, having previously lost to the baggies in the reverse fixture back at the hawthorns in october. fulham are now struggling to find last year's form which saw the cottagers finish a creditable 12th and make it to the EUROPA LEAGUE final with big wins over juventas and wolfsburg.

roberto di matteo implemented a tactically sound and intelligent game-plan for this away match to the cottagers. knowing that the baggies would almost certainly be out-muscled in crucial areas of the pitch by a bigger fulham side, the gaffer's intention was to hold a good defensive shape, don't give anything up and maintain a clean-sheet for the first half. presumably, if he could get the team in at the break at 0-0, he would have looked for a way to neutralize dickson etuhu - who won absolutely everything in the central midfield - and look to pinch a point away from home or nick a 1-0 win.

the plan appeared to be working as the baggies were within whatever injury there was to played from achieving the first aim: to keep a clean-sheet! with only about 30 second of added time gone, however, youssouf mulumbu lost the ball to etuhu in a dangerous area. the pass fell for simon davies to get in a solid, long-range strike, producing the first goal of the match.

while it was a pretty good effort from the welsh midfielder, it was clear that scott carson should have had this one. he was only about a foot or two too high off his line for optimum positioning, and would have saved easily had he been standing on the goal-line. but the baggies' captain misjudged the effort, and while he got two hands solidly behind the ball, he mishandled the shot, bundled it into the net and the cottagers found themselves with a 1-0 lead going into the break. di matteo's game-plan, which had heretofore looked to be working, was suddenly out the window, and as the second-half would show, so was their confidence.

things went from bad to worse as fulham went on to thoroughly dominate the game on all counts and twice more took advantage of the unfortunate, makeshift baggies' back-four and out-of-form goalie. dickson etuhu continued to boss the central midfield and the baggies never really looked like they were in this one.

the baggies' proclivity for giving up goals on poorly defended crosses and set-pieces continued as they went on to concede two more in this one - both headed goals by clint dempsey and brede hangeland respectively - and were 3-0 down with almost half-an-hour left to play. this was a truly dismal performance.

the exception to this being young james hurst having stepped into the squad at right-back, and gianni zuiverloon in the side at the unlikely position of centre-half. i can only hope that these two players in particular aren't affected by this otherwise miserable performance. the teenage hurst was easily the best baggies' player on the day, and zuiverloon - who has not seen much match-time this year - was more than creditable in, what for him, is an unusual position.

this has been a season of extremes for west brom. their last game against the cottagers produced a 2-1 home win and propelled the baggies into 4th place in the table. they were the undisputed form team of the league over the months of september and october. this visit to craven cottage, however, was as poor a performance as they have produced this season and drops the baggies into a four-way relegation battle with the three other birmingham/black country teams. even the 6-0 opening day thrashing at the hands of chelsea, just down the road from here, produced much better football than this.

following some good performances in a losing cause, this has to be counted as the low-point of the season and we can only pray that it doesn't get worse.

scott carson is a man who needs a rest. he has started to come under some deep criticism from the local press and has completely lost the faith of the supporters. the situation has gotten so bad, that i expect that nothing short of absolute disaster in the upcoming FA CUP fixture against reading, will keep boaz myhill from getting his first league start for the baggies when league play resumes at home to blackpool on january 15th.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

WBA 1-2 Manchester United F.C.

live text replay

of all the fixtures in all the world... one of the most presitigous clubs in all of football comes to visit on new year's day reminding us of a time when the albion were one of the best clubs in england. it was a time when it was all still possible and the large community-based football clubs could still win major trophies.

the baggies have always done pretty well against manchester united over the years. there is an early broadcast of MOTD from back in the mid 60s where the red devils visited the hawthorns. jeff astle scored a brace, with john kaye adding a third goal which are recognized by almost all baggies' supporters as iconic moments in west bromwich albion folklore. there were seven goals in that match and was won 4-3 by manchester united.

even better known still is the 5-3 match played at old trafford on boxing day 1978. it is debatably one of the best games of football ever played in england and certainly one of the best known and well regarded broadcasts of MOTD ever. it is some of the most extensive footage of how good the 1978-79 side really was.

earlier this year - and after having beaten arsenal at the emirates, the baggies went to old trafford and came back from being 2 goals down to snatch a point with a 2-2 draw. the albion historically find more success against manchester united than they do against stoke city (a well known and long standing bogey fixture to baggies supporters). so in fact - and with three straight defeats threatening to send the baggies into a relegation battle as well as erode the confidence that the team has played with all season, manchester united at home isn't too bad a fixture to have to deal with at the minute.

the baggies haven't played too many games better than this one, and after what seems to be the almost mandatory early capitulation and going behind 1-0 to a wayne rooney goal in the 2nd minute of the game, they regrouped immediately and thoroughly dominated the match. the statistics - including possession and attempts on goal - were more heavily in the favour of the baggies than they had been against blackburn, and was a better performance than the bolton game. but unlike at bolton and against blackburn, where the baggies would have done well to come away with a point, this is a game that they should have won but let get away in desperately unlucky fashion.

graham dorrans announced his return to form and was cruelly denied a penalty when he was brought down in the box by united defender, gary neville. even manchester united manager, alex ferguson, admitted that the baggies were unlucky and they should have been awarded a penalty in that situation, also noting that his own player was lucky not to have been sent off.

in fact, i believe that the issue of the card is the reason that the penalty was never going to be given. dorrans had taken a pass from chris brunt, gotten in behind the red devils' defender and had only the goalie left to beat. to foul a man with the ball in this position is an automatic red card. it was fairly clear to anybody on the park, as dorrans was bundled to the ground, that neville never got anywhere near the ball and it was a stonewall penalty. however, referee, chris foy, was not about to put himself in the position of having to send someone off in a big game with live, international TV coverage in a match featuring manchester united. if there was a shadow a doubt, he just wasn't going to do it.

i know from having watched the albion play in the CHAMPIONSHIP, that when you are a distinguished favourite at any particular level of football, you tend to get those little breaks and 50-50 decisions from the referees in order that the balance of the universe maintain its equilibrium.

towards the end of last season, just as albion were ready to clinch the second automatic promotion spot (and set a club record points total), they were awarded two critical and questionable penalties against blackpool and swansea respectively. these were 50-50 decisions that could have gone either way or had different outcome. the baggies were expected to succeed and the decisions were always going to go their way.

this is always going to happen in football. referees too understand that this is an entertainment-based business.

the baggies equalized early and quite deservedly through a tremendous individual effort by james morrison. like his fellow scottish international, graham dorrans, morrison has returned to his top playing form as evidenced by his contribution in the last two albion goals.

from a long and precisely delivered ball by chris brunt which nemanja vidic was unable to clear, morrison blasted the shot on the half volley past tomasz kuszczak for a goal of world-class quality. with not even 15 minutes gone, the baggies looked every bit the equal of their adversary and the equalizer was more than deserved.

with the game poised at 1-1 and the baggies looking the better of the two sides, there was every reason to be optimistic at the half, in spite of the blatant injustice of gary neville's challenge on graham dorrans going unpunished. the baggies certainly didn't look like a team who had just lost three matches in a row. they were playing with a confidence and bearing that completely belied any slip in form in regards to recent results in the league.

in the second half, albion came out with more of the same and continued to control the tempo and set the pace of the match. the baggies were so dominant that they carried a 62% of the possession, and outshot the red devils by a margin of 17 attempts (8 on target) to 5 (2 on target), and were only just edged on the number of corner-kicks by a margin of 1 (5 to 4).

but the baggies pressed and kept the play high, constantly looking for opportunity to attack the united goal. jerome thomas looked that he might have given west brom the full three-points when he was brought down in the box by veteran england international, rio ferdinand. this time there was no dispute or question.

while i was screaming for graham dorrans to take it, peter odemwingie continued as penalty taker. never looking quite confident enough, the nigerian international did well enough to send united keeper, kuszak, the wrong way for an easy sroke-in at the far post, but pushed the ball hopelessly wide. i have come to believe that only under special circumstance (i.e. wayne rooney, carlos tevez) should a striker also be a penalty taker. the psychology of a striker is just too fragile and taking penalties is a job best performed by a strong foot rather than a clever one.

this was a massive miss and might prove a real psychological set-back in the end.

of course, and this is manchester united and the baggies then went behind in the 75th minute. once again, the poor defending on corner-kicks was their undoing as united striker, javier hernandez, was allowed a free header from point-blank range leaving scott carson with no chance whatever.

there are, of course, several contributing factors - not the least of which is injured and suspended centre-halfs - to the baggies current problem in regards to defending set-pieces and especially corner-kicks, but i am starting to lose patience with scott carson. if what is quickly becoming a make-shift back-four for the baggies are lost on set-pieces, then carson is simply going to have to come for the ball and challenge to make the clearances or take the ball himself. it's as simple as that. this goal came through a ball that the keeper definitely could have come for and won easily. seeing a man unmarked and directly in front of you, you should playing to take that ball instead of waiting to make the save. period.

carson is good at what he does. he is a goalie who guards the line and specializes in making athletic saves with a lightning quick reaction time as a shot-stopper. he doesn't come off his line and his positional game is non-existent. he is very much in the mould of another albion goalie, tony godden. but godden had ally robertson and john wile covering the penalty area for him, and the style of goalie and centre-halfs complemented each other to produce a successful method of defending.

without olsson and tamas in the team, carson is all the more inappropriate a choice and his confidence is going to be shot soon, so perhaps it's time that di matteo gave boaz myhill a run in the first team.

it was an otherwise brilliant performance, however, and the albion are to be admired as a side who have continued to play enterprising and confident football despite a string of what is now four straight defeats. this now leaves the baggies needing an away win at fulham to stop the rot of what has been a shockingly dissapointing run without a lucky break in sight.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ghosts of Premier Leagues Past

i have tried to be positive. i have attempted to be patient. my team is playing in the PREMIER LEAGUE this year and i have tried not to be cynical. but after this loss to bolton, i'm beginning to lose my grip on the situation.

i won't get into some hoary old attitude about how great life was before the advent of the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE. the ugly trade-off for the achievment of having given english football to the world has seen unbelievable financial gaps develop between the PREMIER and FOOTBALL leagues which have weakened the integrity of the domestic league structure and destroyed the ability of the large community-based clubs (once the bedrock of the english game) to compete at the highest level .

Bolton Wanderers F.C. 2-0 WBA

live text replay

in the 2010-2011 season we have seen some good competitive football, the surprisingly good performances of all three promoted teams, and a shift from the guaranteed model of the "big-four" with a second-grade consisting of 3 or 4 clubs feeding on their scraps with the rest of the division never more than a few bad results from being relegation fodder.

this year, the division has organized itself into a top half of the table where everyone is a serious contender in playing for a european spot, and bottom half where everyone is either fighting a relegation battle or looking to keep clear by a vital few points and never more than a couple of poor results away from trouble. since jonas olsson's injury, the baggies have gone from being a european contender to a team who needs to avoid slipping into the bottom 4 or 5.

whatever skill we've seen in the work of kevin davies and johan elmander in leading a very successful bolton attack, the trotters are still essentially proponents of the long ball and purveyors of tough, ugly football. however, they have managed to raise the art of PREMIER LEAGUE survival to a level where they can now compete and see some success at the higher end of the table and the trotters are definitely in with a shout for a spot in europe next year. owen coyle deserves real credit for having brought something special to the reebok stadium.

while the baggies had the higher percentage of possession, interestingly enough, the wanderers dominated - albeit only very slightly - in all other categories. this surprised me, but was testament to the quality not only of bolton's defensive play (they simply don't give you many opportunities to get a look at goal) but that there is now a spark of creativity in their attack. the injection of some skill and subtlety in going forward has proved a successful addition to their footballing repertoire.

i had gone to england for the west brom v wolves fixture which ended up being postponed. so i was already suffering the effects of massive disappointment. there are no trains anywhere in england on boxing day, so it is impossible to go anywhere unless you have a car. i had no way of getting to bolton, and although i had not originally planned it, i would have probably made a desperate attempt to get there at this point.

originally, my mother was going to drive me down to huish park (not too far from where she lives) where i was going to watch yeovil town play brentford in their boxing day game. that match too was postponed, making it 3 out of 4 matches for which i had tickets now irretrievably gone, and my "football holiday" effectively ruined.

all i could do was sit at my mum's place in chilcompton, radstock listening to ALBION RADIO and yet another disappointing result from what sounded to be a terrific match. the MATCH OF THE DAY HIGHLIGHTS confirmed that it was indeed a very evenly contested, skilled and exciting game.

there was every reason to take heart at the baggies' performance in this match... just no points to celebrate. the albion will almost certainly win one or two more matches this year where they will not have played anywhere near as well as this.

WBA 1-3 Blackburn Rovers F.C.

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this was the only match for which i had tickets that i was actually able to get to. in the end, it was just another disappointment.

while the baggies performed admirably with chris brunt out on a single-match suspension for incurring a 5th yellow card, they missed his leadership in pushing the team forward and looked just slightly disjointed for his absence.

it was good, however, to see graham dorrans starting to come into some much improved form after a slow start to the season and being unable to get a place in the first team. while still not as spectacular as he was last year, he was looking more the part of the little general than he really has all season. likewise, dorrans' midfield partner, james morrison, has been improving with each match and looks to have returned to top-form following a long injury that had kept him out of the side for the better part of a year, followed by a lengthy rehabilitation towards regaining full match fitness.

the scottish international created one of the best early chances of the game with a tremendous individual effort which saw a scorching shot from 25 yards out beat the rovers' goalie, paul robinson, only to see the shot curl millimeteres wide of the far post.

however, the match itself was absolutely ridculous. the baggies have now fallen into the trap of delivering solid possession and attacking performances, but are conceding too easily - especially on corner-kicks. i think the problem probably stems from the fact that there are too many defenders - starting with jonas olsson - who are now out injured and while paul scharner has been a sterling stand-in at centre-half, the baggies are conceding soft goals through lapses in defending - and on set-pieces especially.

to compound they problem, they are not taking enough of their chances at the other end, and - like the 2008-09 team - they are becoming tentative in attack, looking for the elusive "perfect" goal. in other words: they have become desperate and having to think too hard about the final ball that the instinctive play we saw against arsenal, manchester united and everton has dried up and the baggies are now spurning chances that might produce an own goal, a dangerous deflection or an opportunity from a scuffed shot or mishandled ball in a dangerous area.

if you look at the statistics from this game it's clearly evident as to who played the more enterprising football:

west brom 55% - blackburn 45%
on target
west brom 11 - blackburn 4
off target
west brom 10 - blackburn 2
west brom 8 - blackburn 5
west brom 9 - blackburn 13

i guess it was the in the psychological intangibles that this game was both won and lost. there was also some moments of excellent goal-keeping from veteran england interantional, paul robinson, and for all their good possession football and attacking build-up the baggies were going to have a hard time getting a clear chance on goal.

after going behind 1-0 early on in the match, this looked another carbon copy of my first three or four visits to the hawthorns. in matches i had seen against plymouth argyle, doncaster rovers, blackpool and preston north end, the baggies had conceded both first and early before then turning the games around and winning all four matches by scores of 3-1 (plymouth, doncaster) and 3-2 (blackpool and preston). so the sight of nikola kalinic scoring on the break with just 3 minutes gone didn't phase me in the least.

the albion were caught in a good move out of the back by rovers for the first goal. with the wingers and full-backs caught playing in a high position, kalinic took a good long-ball hit into space down the albion left flank and having gotten in behind the albion back-four buried a low, hard shot just inside scott carson's far post.

welcome to the hawthorns, i thought sarcastically, recalling the first time i had seen the albion concede a goal at home.

in keeping with the script, the baggies then began to assert their possession football and created the better chances with a concerted effort and dominance in attack. as i have come to expect from my visits to the hawthorns, the baggies equalized on 17 minutes through a jerome thomas goal.

it was a good run from morrison, in fact, that made the equalizer for the albion just on 17 minutes. the baggies' midfielder went on a scintillating run, taking the ball from his own half and well into blackburn territory, finding somen tchoyi on the right wing, before the cameroon international delivered a perfect ball across the face of goal for jerome thomas to bundle it in at the far post.

the baggies went on to dominate the rest of the half, and would have had the lead were it not for the goal-keeping of paul robinson. ironically, robinson was substituted at the half for a strained calf-muscle. this gave opportunity to PREMIER LEAGUE debutant, marc bunn, to prove himself in the blackburn goal. he was given the chance to show his worth early on after the restart with having to turn a stinging effort by peter odemwingie around the post.

the baggies ultimately lost this match by two goals that resulted directly from blackburn corner-kicks. with jonas olsson out with injury, and now tamas on a three-match suspension, the albion marking on set-pieces - and especially corner-kicks - has fallen apart. no one seems to know his job and the situation need some real sorting. the other big problem - and in lightof this particular defensive frailty - is that scott carson is a keeper who just doesn't come off his line, so depends heavily on good marking from his central defenders on set-pieces. without olsson to marshall the back-line, carson is going to have to come for the ball a lot more than he is naturally inclined to.

in fact, if this situation persists and the albion start to give away too many more soft goals from set-pieces, then it might be worth giving boaz myhill a run in the first team and see if he does any better. above all, someone has to organize the marking better and carson doesn't seem to be doing that either.

oh well, onwards and upwards...