Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Two Wins and a Draw...

WBA 0-0 Manchester City F.C.

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if one could accurately judge the performance of a football team based on what that club's supporters have to say, a quick glance at the posts in any online forum, or casual listening to post-match radio phone-ins dealing with west bromwich albion football club would suggest a wild inconsistency in quality of play over the past 6 weeks.

nothing could be further from the truth.

while results may have been erratic, and perhaps a bit unlucky, roy hodgson's west brom side has been consistently delivering good on-field performances since their win at home against bolton. even the subsequent home loss to spurs could be counted as a good footballing performance and the 3-1 scoreline certainly flattered the visitors on the day. the difficulty is in getting the average supporter (or at least, the average online poster) to believe in anything but results, and the derision aimed at the manager, chairman and certain individual players is all too often quite unbelievable.

Newcastle United F.C. 2-3 WBA

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after having listened to the baggies' home loss to wigan, i could hardly believe it when roy hodgson appeared on TV saying that he had no complaints about the team's performance and if they continue to play to this level they will certainly start to get results. it turned out over the next few weeks to be true. roy hodgson's baggies have started to get results.

however, at the time this sounded quite incredible and was completely at odds with what i had just heard online through the ALBION RADIO transmission on the club's website. it had portrayed the baggies' home fixture against premier league strugglers, wigan athletic, as tragic and a terrible game of football on all counts. indeed, it was made to sound so bad that both chris hall and dave bowler spent much of the match decrying the quality of the football rather than offering a description of the action.

"as you can tell," mr. bowler addressed the listening audience following a lengthy digression in the commentary, "there ay' much going on 'ere!"

however, when viewed as a TV broadcast later on that evening, it was a thoroughly engaging match with both teams playing well through the midfield and exhibiting fine displays of individual defending. most notable was the work of wigan defender, gary caldwell, and the goalkeeping of ali al-habsi.

what is apparent from reading posts made in online fan forums is how easy it is to forcefully state a harsh, critical and judgmental opinion. positive and measured speculation as to how the side might improve its play or what the team might be missing in terms of tactics, team selection and/or transfer goals is much more difficult. when result and form aren't meeting supporter expectation, finding a scapegoat is always the first order of business.

Blackburn Rovers F.C. 1-2 WBA

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i don't really know what the baggies' supporters expect realistically, but with most of the albion's points coming away from home, i get the idea that the atmosphere at the hawthorns can get unpleasant pretty quickly these days. the worst example being the aforementioned match against a visiting wigan athletic side.

whatever the case, the baggies have ended 2011 with three excellent results that leave them at 9th in the table and with a mid-season haul of 22 points. in a year that 36-38 points will probably be enough to secure survival - and barring a protracted run of completely disastrous results - the albion will almost certainly be playing top-flight football again next year. i can't understand what all the fuss is about!!!

the truth is, that the style of football that the baggies are playing at the moment is based on the two solid lines of four defenders and mid-fielders holding their shape, and two pacey forwards to produce the counter attack. this will cause the attacking team to have to play the ball wide as their only option coming forward, and any move to play through the middle or put in a cross is quickly cut out. the effectiveness of this style of play was best illustrated in the last match against newcastle, where the winning goal seemed to appear out of absolutely nothing and completely against the run of play.

likewise, the baggies' first half display of single-minded and resolute defending against a frighteningly good manchester city team was nothing short of brilliant, and left west brom with the very real possibility of nicking a win late on rather than sharing the points as they eventually did.

this is fine for away games and has a general use against superior opposition (like manchester city), but they are going to run into trouble playing this way at home against their contemporaries in the bottom-half of the table; and that's exactly what has happened. the gaffer probably needs to rethink how the albion play at the hawthorns. i think it's the most pressing issue for hodgson and his management staff to sort out going into 2012.

like anyone, i'd love to see an improvement on the current home form and would readily welcome some new players to come in and strengthen the squad during the january transfer window. i do have faith that roy hodgson knows what he's doing in that respect and can only hope he's given the resource and leeway to follow through.

Monday, December 12, 2011

WBA 1-2 Wigan Athletic F.C.

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"what are we doing in the same division as manchester city? that's what i'd like to know."

so said dave bowler, the club's head of publication as he rhetorically posed the all important question that, for him, expressed his personal frustration with the state of the albion and results just at the minute.

there was a generalized and ugly booing of the team, both at the introduction of two late albion substitutions; and, as the team came off the field, having suffered yet another hard-fought and unlucky home loss. a bad buzz pervaded the atmosphere at the hawthorns from before the kick-off and was palpable from as far as three-thousand miles away. i know. i could feel it!

even chris hall and dave bowler, who do the audio commentary for the club's ALBION RADIO transmission were negatively affected. the two commentators spent much of the game talking up what a poor match it was and amateurishly allowed their description of the action to drift and ramble. the situation at the hawthorns sounded nothing less than dire, and they gave the impression that we were listening to some really poor football.

"the smethwick is just about empty," bowler noted rather drearily, towards the end of transmission, "and large of sections of the east stand have already gone..."

it truly sounded abject and desperate. from the general reaction one might have assumed that the visitors were well in front and leading by two or three goals. that's how hopeless it was made to sound.

the truth of the matter is that is was a single goal's difference and the baggies did just about everything that was in their power to make it up. in the second-half of the match, and barring the wigan penalty, the baggies controlled the ball and dictated the play quite comprehensively. they laid absolute siege to the wigan goal and just kept coming. it was only the brilliance of the latics goalie, ali al-habsi, and the determined defending of gary caldwell that ultimately kept the albion attack at bay.

yet again, the albion didn't get any important calls go their way, as graham dorrans was booked for diving in the 87th minutes. truly, it was hard to tell if it really was a penalty, because while the contact was clearly much less than dorrans fall would have merited, any contact in this situation would have been a legitimate penalty call and the baggies probably deserved it.

this was one of the most upsetting days in the entire time i have been a west brom supporter. for sure, there have been some heartbreaking disappointments on the trail of being an albion fan this last ten years. but there have been some great and heroic moments of success too. some supporters seem to have forgotten that we were the league's unquestionable form team into october last year. then we hit the blackpool away fixture and went 13 matches (if i remember correctly) without a win.

i remember how some poor idiots were walking out on wolves at home last year. with the baggies one-nil down since the first half, and with 4 minutes injury time still to play, some were long gone and halfway back to dudley when carlos vela scored the injury time goal that earned a draw and kicked-off an eight game undefeated run of form that saw the baggies take points in ten out of eleven matches to end their season.

have these supporters really forgotten how exciting that was? do they remember how, on the last day, when - and 3-0 down to newcastle - we were just getting ready to pat ourselves on the back for a 14th or 15th place finish, somen tchoyi scored a stunning ten-minute hat-trick at st. james park that saw us finish 11th in the table?

and the voices of dissent have returned... singing the nostalgic praise of ex-managers while saying that roy hodgson has "lost the plot" and eternally levelling critical assertions as to jeremy peace's lack of ambition.

for my money, the doom-sayers are missing the bigger picture and don't see that every year for the past decade, the baggies have either been involved in battles for promotion to the premier league or relegation to the championship (formerly called the "second division" and, after that, "league 1") with unquestionable - albeit incremental - improvement to squad and management team every year.

but albion fans are impatient at the moment and they want the success that they perceive other clubs as achieving while we lag behind again, possibly battling relegation. would you really like to be hull city now? they came up from the championship with us for the 08-09 season and were in the premier league for two years... trouble is, they spent three years worth of top-flight wages and transfer fees in doing it. going back down again was not easy, and they had to settle for a mediocre mid-table finish in english football's second-tier last year.

would one really classify the thuggery they serve up at the britannia stadium that gets passed off as football as "success"?

you can keep it, mate!

just a few miles across town and with a team that's still probably going to finish solidly mid-table, aston villa fans are having the most miserable time this season. they are so upset with the club that they say they are actually hoping for bad results so that they might get rid of an unpopular manager. even on days when the villa win, there are endless callers on the BBC WM football phone-in saying they are villa supporters and expressing how angry they are at not being in the top six, not playing the kind of football that they want to see, and being managed by someone who is simply not welcome.

judging by the reactions from west brom supporters, there was something like a mass hallucination at the hawthorns last saturday. where many baggies fans seem to have seen an unspeakably horrible performance by their team, a number of us (including the gaffer) saw a good performance in an absorbing, competitive game of football with a disappointing result.

the premier league can do terrible things to the soul of a football club.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


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while the baggies have what would regularly be thought of as three "winnable" league fixtures coming up, i was wary of travelling to loftus road and thought about what happened last time we went there.

it was a dismal performance in the championship and the baggies deservedly lost by a score of 3-1. the lone albion goal being a late consolation by chris brunt in a game they were otherwise not really in at all.

considering what a difficult place to go loftus road can be - and has been over the years - i thought that a draw would be a good result. with the next match being wigan at home, followed by a trip to blackburn away, this is probably the most difficult of the three fixtures and a single point on a visit to west london would be OK. with a potential 9 points on offer, realistically, five points from the three games would probably be a decent return for their efforts.

to be fair, the baggies were second best on the day. while the teams were fairly even in overall performance, numbers would suggest that it was albion who created the better scoring chances. however, the londoners held a much higher percentage of possession but did not make the most of their superiority in time with the football. similarly, the baggies were no better at taking advantage of their opportunities than rangers were at creating them.

the problem that west brom are facing right now is that they are going to have to figure out what to do now that zoltan gera is out for the season. gera was exactly what was missing in the team, given the way in which the season started, and his inclusion in the side was immediate and obvious. the hungarian was superb at linking the midfield and striker(s) and his going out injured has left a massive gap, which will call for roy hodgson to rethink both how the baggies need to play, as well as putting his mind to making at least one significant incoming deal during the january transfer window.

while an away draw is never a bad result, it puts pressure on the baggies to win when wigan athletic come to the hawthorns next week. nontheless, this was a tactically good game where the albion were able to dominate in a lot of statistical categories (shots on goal, corner kicks etc.) while having less of the football then their opponent. one of the hallmarks of a roy hodgson side is the quality of economy. he gets his teams to perform well through good defending and concise movement going into attack without a lot of over elaboration.

coming off the successful run at the end of last season the gaffer was very focussed on improving the albion defensively going into the season. he managed to improve the goalkeeping position by bringing in ben foster from birmingham city, and gareth mcauley has certainly been one of the few stand-out centre-halfs to play at the hawthorns in the last few years.

the secret of success for the baggies is going to be in how well their strikers do. so far, only shane long had been scoring regularly and this lack of goals has somewhat negated the improvements that have been made to the team's defence. however, the albion goal suggested that the long/odemwingie partnership might be starting to gel and how well the pair do over the next few weeks will be crucial in both the development of the team and how it will affect results on the season.

whatever else, this was a well organized performance by the baggies, and would suggest that both rangers and the albion will be among the survivors of this competition when the final whistle is blown on the 13th of may, 2012.

Friday, December 2, 2011

WBA 1-3 Tottenham Hotspur F.C.

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this match represented the extent to which the barclay's premier league can be cruel for those who have yet to establish themselves as regulars in the competition. while the final scoreline was testament to the individual skills in the tottenham side, it was flattering to the londoners and left me feeling much like i did after last season's early 1-0 loss at anfield. how can a team play this well and still get beaten?

so far this season, the baggies have made a habit of scoring goals before the game has had any chance to settle, and this encounter with spurs was no different. on pretty much the first attack of the match, youssouf mulumbu opened his account for the season with a goal just on 9 minutes. finding space between two tottenham central defenders - and directly in front of goal - the congolese midfielder rose to meet stephen reid's brilliantly placed cross from deep on the right wing and headed the albion into the lead with spurs keeper, brad friedel, left with no chance.

with 21 minutes of the match gone, disaster struck for the albion as zoltan gera, who had been instrumental in the first goal, turned awkwardly while chasing a ball deep in spurs' half and badly injured his knee. subsequent tests showed that it was serious enough an injury that the hungarian international won't be back this season, to the huge disappointment of baggies supporters everywhere. over the three games he had played since returning to the hawthorns, he has formed the best partnership of anyone yet with striker shane long, and will have to be considered a catastrophic miss to the team.

despite being the better side right through the first half there were at least two game changing decisions that went against the baggies in the first half hour. the first, and perhaps most important of these decisions, was a penalty call that helped put spurs on even terms at 1-1.

i'm not sure how much there was in the challenge, but nicky shorey was adjudged to have brought down aaron lennon in the box. emmanuel adabayor stepped up and delivered what was a really poor spot-kick which was initially saved by ben foster. however, the albion goalie wasn't able to get up quickly enough, nor get quite enough of the ball, to keep out adabayor's follow up.

it was harsh not only on the baggies, but i found it hard to tell if the foul was for a high arm or for an incidental trip. in fact, after having viewed the replay, it was hard to tell whether shorey had committed a foul at all. in addition, there was precious little difference between this incident and jerome thomas going down in the spurs' penalty area on a run that had tottenham defender, kyle walker, similarly turned and beaten ten minutes later, but which wasn't called.

perhaps the most contentious moment of the match, for me, was when brad friedel, after having pulled down a high looping ball coming in at goal - appeared to have turned in and walked the ball over the line. the referee signalled that it was a goal and a slow buzz started to mount around the hawthorns, as it was pretty obvious that the spurs' keeper, while trying to avoid the challenge of gareth mcauley, had indeed taken the ball over the line. for a moment everyone thought that the baggies had gone back into the lead. but the score was chalked off and the breaking cheers died down quickly when the ref deferred to the linesman who had signalled for a foul by mcauley on friedel. however, it wasn't apparent that the american keeper had been fouled, and the linesman's call seemed late in coming.

what i found interesting was how this passage of play - and its obvious controversy - was left out of any highlights that i encountered both on TV and online. nor was it mentioned on any of the radio news i listened to or any of the text reports i read.

while the baggies were the better team over the first 50 minutes, and simon cox probably should have scored in around the 51st minute from a free header in front of goal, tottenham responded immediately and dominated the attacking play from then on out.

jermain defoe made the first of a pair of dazzling solo runs from the middle of the park to cause havoc for the albion backline. despite having to take the ball to the bi-line after being driven wide and away from goal by the albion defenders, the diminutive striker's pace and skill pulled ben foster completely out of position, and if he'd been able to pull the ball back for a team-mate inside the box, tottenham would've almost certainly scored.

to their credit, the baggies defended well and with 9 minutes left to go, it was distinctly beginning to feel like a draw.

however, in the 81st minute jermain defoe made a second solo run out of midfield and with jonas olsson backing off, trying not to give the tottenham striker any room to shoot, defoe found the extra yard he needed by cutting a step to the inside just at the top of the box. the pacey striker finished with a low and accurate long-range strike which went just beyond the reach of ben foster to score what would ultimately be the winning goal.

emmanuel adabayor scored a somewhat scruffy late goal on the counter-attack to give the scoreline its gloss.

one of the troubles with playing in the premier league is that the albion can play as well as this and still not get a result. this is the third match of the season against top 5 opposition where it could be said that the baggies will probably play worse than this in a few matches this season and still manage to take all 3 points. it's all too common a feature of life in the top-flight for west bromwich albion.

i am anxious to see how roy hadgson manages the situation with zoltan gera gone - and especially with a critical run of three matches coming up, starting with a visit to loftus road on saturday. once again, the veteran manager has both need and opportunity to show that he knows how to earn his money.