match text commentary
i am going to have no trouble this week writing about how well the baggies played last saturday; nor will i find it difficult to credit the character and skill of shane long either. the young republic of ireland international made a heroic return to the albion first team a full two weeks ahead of the expected time frame, as well as scoring the winning goal.
in truth, there were any number of players in the side which played against bolton who could have been given the man of the match award. while long was truly heroic in coming back from what is generally a six week injury in just four weeks, nicky shorey played what was by far and away his best game since coming to the club and both centre-halfs were brilliant. youssouf mulumbu and jerome thomas were both back in form. chris brunt has evolved into the most cultured of players, now being the team's most senior member and club captain. stephen reid played an extremely solid game at right back and one can only hail the return of zoltan gera as a revelation.
the baggies haven't played anything like this since the opening games against manchester united and chelsea, and this was even better football than either of those two performances. especially the second-half, where we finally saw the possession and passing of a roberto di matteo or tony mowbray team infused with the economy, steel, defending and counter-attack of a roy hodgson side.
only time will tell, but this may have been a real turning point in the season. it might just have determined whether the baggies spend the rest of the campaign moving steadily, and in workman-like fashion, towards a mid-table finish, or whether they end up desperately battling against falling into the bottom three. the quality of this performance would suggest a scenario more in line with the former than the latter.
since the opening couple of matches against two genuine premier league giants, the baggies have been uneven and have played a very one dimensional style of football. that is, they have allowed teams to have possession, defended from midfield and increasingly pushed up from the back to force counter-attack opportunities. this tactic was practiced to great success against wolves and the villa, but was of little use against the likes of liverpool and arsenal.
the first order of business going into the season was to improve the side defensively. roy hodgson is known for producing very solid teams who are difficult to break down. after all, if your opponents don't score they're going to have a hard time winning games against you, aren't they?
under roy hodgson, a team has to learn how to defend and counter-attack efficiently.
the trouble has been that in adapting to the gaffer's style of football the baggies seemed to have committed to working on this pressing defence/counter-attacking system to the exclusion of anything else. this meant almost nothing but long balls cleared from the back that depend on shane long's ability at running the channels, holding the ball up or (with no other option) looking for a crack at goal. gone was the pretty and precise passing game that the baggies have been known for since the days of ronnie allen, ray barlow, don howe and bobby robson. albion supporters have come to have certain basic expectations, and win, lose or draw, hard tackling "long-ball" has never gone over well at the hawthorns.
the trotters started out brightly enough, signalling their intention to take the game to the albion by going straight into attack. but with just 15 minutes of the match gone, and the baggies meeting the lancashire clubs enterprise with resolute defending, zoltan gera beat the off-side trap putting jerome thomas through on goal. the albion left-winger went wide forcing the bolton keeper, jussi jaaskelainen, out of position and finished the move by putting the ball into an empty net.
however, inside of five minutes and in a near carbon-copy of what became a questionable and contentious call in their home game with liverpool, thomas was adjudged to have taken down fabrice muamba just inside the baggies' penalty area, giving ivan klasnic the opportunity to level the score at 1-1.
with west brom having a slight edge in terms of possession at the half and the game poised for a competitive second period, the baggies came back to take complete control of the match from here on out. in fact, the final 2-1 scoreline was in no way indicative of how one-sided the second-half really was.
the quality of the bolton defenders was evident from early on. in one of the first really dangerous attacking opportunities of the game jerome thomas sent shane long through on goal. the albion striker looked almost certain to get a proper crack on target but was thwarted by a perfectly time last ditch tackle made by a desperately back-tracking gary cahill. in truth, the baggies could've won this one by two or three goals save for the excellent work of jaaskelainen and the bolton defence.
the baggies finally made the breakthrough that put them on top 10 minutes into the second half. with bolton increasingly on the back foot, chris brunt spread the play with a cross-field pass to thomas, who held the ball up on the edge of the bolton penalty area just long enough for nicky shorey to find space in behind him. the albion left-back, returning to the starting eleven after several weeks out of the side, delivered a perfect cross for the athletic long to beat his marker in the air and head albion into the lead.
the next half hour saw the baggies playing football of the highest order, keeping the ball and always threatening. the trotters didn't see much of the play nor any real opportunity to threaten ben foster in the albion goal.
what roy hodgson has done is very simple. he's got everybody on the team performing fundamental defensive duties that they did not attend to under the last two managers. he has got both james morrison and chris brunt moving into deep defensive positions, winning and playing more balls out of the back. he's taught youssouf mulumbu where to set himself up and how to defend on set-plays - always a weakness for the congolese midfielder in the past; and in gareth mcauley he's found the centre-half that the albion have needed to play alongside jonas olsson.
the only problem is that the whole thing has required shane long leading the line to make it work. peter odemwingie has not found anything like the form of which he's capable; simon cox hasn't been given enough opportunity to play; and neither marc-antoine fortune nor roman bednar seem to be in the gaffer's plans. this leaves the enigmatic somen tchoyi as the only candidate to lead the line in the case of long being injured, and it is unlikely that there'll be any action during the january transfer window.
now that we've seen what kind of football the baggies should be playing, we can only hope that they continue to do so. this was an excellent performance all around.