The first Premier League weekend produced 31 goals with the first two televised matches of the season giving the viewers a treat with no fewer than thirteen goals, while us Baggies fans saw just the one goal but it was at the right end meaning that Albion won on the opening day in successive seasons for the first time since Ossie Ardiles was in charge.
Of course, the high number of goals last weekend was more a case of thud and blunder, rather than blood and thunder, with some scandalous defending up and down the country, perhaps most notably by Arsenal and Liverpool. While neither of those sides actually lost, thanks to their array of attacking talent, that free flowing style of football cannot be guaranteed to always get results (indeed, Liverpool did throw away a winning position late on) and it certainly wouldn’t work at a club with the resources of West Bromwich Albion.
Much as I have lamented Tony Pulis’s tactics at length on this site, one thing he knows is how to set up a team to defend, a fact that was aptly demonstrated last Saturday against Bournemouth. Despite having just 29% of possession, there can be little doubt that Albion deserved the three points. They had 16 shots to Bournemouth’s 9, of which 6 were on target compared to the visitors’ 2 and also won the corner count 8-2. The 1-0 scoreline did not reflect the hosts’ superiority on the day, despite Eddie Howe’s men dominating possession. The site of the Cherries’ players endlessly passing across the front of the Albion defence reminded me of a victory at the Stadium of Light back in 2004 when a certain Gary Megson ruled the Throstles’ roost, and perhaps it is no surprise that such a thought would occur to me after the Ginger One’s return.
It’s not that Megson’s return has made be long for the defensive style that he used to turn this club’s fortunes around, but the sight of so many Premier League sides failing to do even the basics in defence does make you appreciate how Pulis, Megson and their ilk are able to drum in such an effective defensive structure. Radio 5 Live picked up on the defensive frailties in the Monday Night Club this week, and who did they call to discuss the subject but none other than the recently retired Dave Kemp. He had some interesting thoughts, one of which being that the FA’s new approach to coaching means that academies are producing ball-playing defenders who are comfortable in possession, but lacking defensive skills – John Stones, anyone?
The topic of centre backs is one at the forefront of Albion fans this week of course. Not only did Egyptian debutant, Ahmed Hegazi, impress last weekend and score the winner, but Manchester City’s pursuit of Jonny Evans and Albion’s interest in Kevin Wimmer both point to a change of the guard in the well-drilled Pulis back line. At the time of writing, rumours suggest that City are willing to bid in excess of £20m for the Ulsterman and it has the air of inevitability about it, although Pulis has spoken out defiantly this morning. Evans, who faces a late fitness test ahead of Saturday’s match, will almost certainly want to take the opportunity for a massive pay rise and the chance to win further major honours, and the money seems generous for a 29-year-old. However, this transfer window has seen fees beyond all comprehension, ably demonstrated by the figure of £15m talked about for Kevin Wimmer, who has played just 31 times for Spurs in his two seasons at White Hart Lane. At 24, he has the ability to improve and increase in value, but Jonny Evans is arguably at his peak and the valuations, while both incredible, do not seem to sit well together.
Pulis has been able to add to his squad this week with the signing of Gareth Barry for a reported £1m. At 36, the former England international is in the twilight of his career but the reaction from Everton fans, and the fact that the Toffees offered him a 2-year-contract, suggests that the blue half of Merseyside still think there is plenty left in the tank. Albion are, of course, no strangers to players in their mid-30s with Gareth McAuley still going strong at 37, and Barry’s experience and tenacity will certainly add something to the squad, and more than just the yellow card count. Barry already has the record for the most number of Premier League yellow cards and he will no doubt pass Ryan Giggs’s Premier League appearance record in the next couple of months although an ankle injury is likely to keep him from making his debut at Turf Moor.
Burnley approach their first home game of the season knowing that they already have as many away wins as they managed in the whole of the last campaign, having shocked champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend. In fact, Chelsea are the first champions to lose at home on the opening day of the following season since 1981 when our near neighbours, Aston Villa, were beaten 1-0 by Notts County.
Last season, the Clarets registered 33 of their 40 points at home and they will see Albion’s visit as a chance to get that record going in the new campaign. Sam Vokes, who scored twice last Saturday, also grabbed a brace against the Baggies in the corresponding fixture in May. Vokes’s late equaliser extended Albion’s winless run-in to the season although the point they earned was the only one they managed in the last eight games and Rondón’s strike to make it 1-1 ended a run of more than five and a half games without a goal.
Sean Dyche has seen two key members of his squad depart over the summer with André Gray moving to Watford and Michael Keane to Everton. That has brought in almost £50m allowing the signings of one-time Albion target, Charlie Taylor, from Leeds, Jon Walters from Stoke, Jack Cork from Swansea and goalkeeper, Adam Legzdins, from Birmingham. Cork was the only one to start at the Bridge last week, although Taylor and Walters were both on the bench with the latter replacing Guðmundsson with a quarter of an hour to go. I’m sure the rest of the Gray/Keane money is burning a hole in Dyche’s pocket so I would expect a few more new additions before the month is out.
In the fixture between the clubs at the Hawthorns last season, both clubs went in to the match having had less than 50% possession in every game up to that point. It was Burnley who came out with the higher possession statistics, but Albion won the game 4-0 leading the Clarets boss to describe his players as having been “drunk on possession”, surely one of the quotes of the season. With Albion only managing 29% possession last weekend, Burnley must have been getting a little tipsy with 38% at the home of the champions! At Turf Moor in May, Burnley were once again on top of the stats with 55% but managed to avoid defeat.
I expect similar possession figures this time, but Albion will be much fresher than they were in May and with a new weapon up front in the shape of Jay Rodriguez, I think Burnley will find it tougher. Their tails may be up from their win at the Bridge, but I think that was a freak result given Chelsea’s first half capitulation, and let’s not forget that Burnley conceded twice in the second half against ten and then nine men.
Based on their performance last weekend, I can’t see Albion losing this one, and if they can take their chances, I see the Baggies opening a Premier League season with back-to-back victories for the very first time which would be Albion’s first win at Turf Moor for 15 years.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
6 May 2017 – Premier League
Burnley 2 (Vokes (2))
West Brom 2 (Rondón, Dawson)
21 Nov 2016 – Premier League
West Brom 4 (Phillips, Morrison, Fletcher, Rondón)
Last win at Burnley
3 Feb 2002 – League Division 1
West Brom 2 (Roberts (2))
Albion’s Record against Burnley
|Premier League Record|