As good as Manchester City were at the Hawthorns on Monday night, Tony Pulis’s team selection made their task far easier than it should’ve been. The decision to omit Claudio Yacob from the starting line-up was the stand-out mistake, although it was by no means the only questionable decision that the Baggies’ manager made when he picked his first eleven. Having said that, I remain optimistic about Albion’s chances this season providing there are one or two more additions to the squad.
Let’s face it, City’s performance was excellent and Albion are unlikely to face too many teams on that sort of form at the Hawthorns this season. David Silva was outstanding, and Yaya Touré looked to be back to his swashbuckling best as the two of them ran rings around the Baggies midfield. Had Claudio Yacob been in the starting line up, even with a 4-4-2 formation, I think it would have been much more difficult – you only had to watch Yacob in the second half as he positioned himself in front of the two central defenders, blocking, intercepting, harrying, forcing City’s twinkle-toed starlets into the odd mistake. I’m not saying we would’ve kept City at bay for the ninety minutes, but we would’ve had a much better chance with the Argentine in the middle.
As it was, a borderline offside decision here and a scuffed shot there and Albion could well have got back into the game from being 2-0 down thanks to a strong 30 minute spell just before and after half time. City were by far the better footballing side, but that doesn’t mean that they will always roll over a Tony Pulis team. Rarely has one of his teams looked so naive, and that’s what makes it all the more frustrating. At least he was honest enough to admit he’d got it wrong in his post-match interview.
It’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but having seen Pulis put out ultra-defensive line-ups last season, even at places such as Sunderland, it seems bizarre that he would go with two strikers in front of a two-man central midfield of Fletcher and Morrison. Don’t get me wrong, I think those two did as well as they could, but did Pulis really expect 33-year-old Rickie Lambert to get back into midfield and help out? Fletch has got a bit of bite about him, but he needed Yacob alongside him. Pulis brought the Argentine back in from a virtual exile under Alan Irvine and made him one of the first names on the teamsheet. He played in just four Premier League games under Irvine – the only games he missed for Pulis were when he was suspended following his red card against Villa.
I must also comment on the defence. I’ve previously made my feelings know about Tony Pulis’s propensity to play anyone other than a natural full back in that position, and despite how well Brunt and Dawson did as stand-ins last season, I’ve not changed my mind. Having said that, I would’ve much preferred to see Craig Dawson at right back last night rather than James Chester. This is not a criticism of Chester, I hasten to add, but at least Craig Dawson has had the best part of half a season playing at right back while our new signing from Hull City has had just a couple of run outs in pre-season. Why pay somewhere north of £5m for a highly-rated international centre back and play him out of position? Chester looked uncomfortable, but that’s no surprise when you’re facing Kolorov and Sterling in your first serious match at full back.
More importantly, why, with less than three weeks of the transfer window left, have we not signed any full backs? With Davidson having been released and Wisdom having returned to Liverpool (and gone out on loan to Norwich), Albion are down to two full backs, neither of which Pulis apparently rates. It has been suggested that he won’t consider any full back under six feet tall – Gamboa, at 5’8″ has little chance and it seems clear that he is available for transfer, but it would seem a bit harsh on Pocognoli at 5’11½”! Nonetheless, if neither feature in Pulis’s plans, why have we brought in no alternatives? And let’s make no bones about it, Pulis is calling the shots now – with Burton and Day both gone, it’s the Welshman who is having the final say on everything bar the finances. However, in the last day or so, rumour is abound that José Enrique could join Albion on loan from Liverpool, which would at least provide an option at left back (he’s half an inch taller than Pocognoli, after all) but it would still leave us short on the right (about four inches!).
But back to the game. The first goal was unfortunate, although I was incredulous like many in the stadium that Myhill appeared to stand and watch as the ball trickled in; perhaps he was a little unsighted, but he could’ve still made an effort to get there. The second was sublime and the third, while a great run and leap by Kompany, it could well have been prevented by having a man on the post and it was a little fortunate in that it came off the Belgian’s shoulder. Between goals two and three, however, Albion played some good stuff and coud’ve easily got one back. In the first half, Berahino was only marginally off-side when his neat finish was chalked off, and just after half time, he just failed to get the right connection on James Morrison’s exquisite pass (although he was probably just off-side then as well).
I’ve heard some general appreciation for Lambert’s debut performance and he got a standing ovation when he went off but, for me, I wasn’t that impressed. I thought he didn’t offer enough movement, and wasn’t that great at holding the ball up. He didn’t get much service and I’m sure he will impress more against less excellent opposition, but I can’t quite get on board with the Rickie fan club just yet. As for the other debutants, Chester, as I’ve said before, was unsurprisingly uncomfortable at right back and it’s difficult to judge him on that game and McClean was fairly anonymous in the 45 minutes in which he played.
In summary, losing to Man City was not unexpected and, despite the scoreline, there were a few positives to take from the game. With Chelsea to come next at the Hawthorns, however, next week’s trip to Vicarage Road takes on added significance.