After a wonderful and moving tribute to the legend that is Cyrille Regis, it was back to the stark reality that, currently, the non-footballing side of the club is doing a far better job than the footballing side. Alan Pardew has probably his toughest test on his hands, and his current record of eight points from a possible 39 is frankly dreadful.
After this defeat, Albion are in a whole heap of trouble stranded four points adrift at the bottom of the table and in need of another Great Escape. Form and results in recent weeks have suggested that such an escape might be possible, but those hopes took a massive blow yesterday as Southampton deservedly took all three points at the Hawthorns with their first league win since November and their first on the road since September.
It was a performance from the visitors that was completely at odds with their recent form, with Mario Lemina the star of the show as he dominated the middle of the park as the pair of Claudio Yacob and Gareth Barry were completely outplayed. As I said in my preview, I thought we would miss Krychowiak massively, and the partnership that he and Barry had struck up has been key to the Baggies’ recent good form. Much as we all love Claudio Yacob, he is no longer mobile enough to play in a two in the middle, particularly alongside an equally pedestrian Barry, and while he has taken a lot of stick recently, Jake Livermore would have been a better option yesterday had he been fit.
The absences of Evans and Gibbs were also key to the result. McAuley is on his last legs and, while Nyom did OK at left back, he just hasn’t got Gibbs’ ability both as a defender or in attack. I’m also not sure why new signing Ali Gabr didn’t make the bench in the absence of any other first team defenders, although as it turned out, it was attacking options we needed in the second half.
It was easy to criticise the decision not to start with Rodriguez, the man in form, but if you had decided to give Sturridge a start, Rondón was the only man to put alongside him in my opinion. It was clear that the man on loan from Liverpool was planned to play only an hour as he was headed to the touchline before his number came up. The struggles in midfield meant that Sturridge didn’t get on the ball often enough, but his class and ability shone through when he did, and I feel sure he will be a great signing.
However, this game was not lost because of who was up front, it was lost in midfield. Southampton produced a surprisingly good performance, but Albion’s lack of pressure and mobility in the middle of the park allowed Lemina and Romeu to play the ball around. Not only were Albion missing key guys, Phillips had a very poor game and even Brunt gave the ball away far too many times in the first half, although his excellent second half display almost earned the Baggies a point. The ball for Rondón’s goal was just sublime, although the Venezuelan got a little lucky with the finish.
In short, it was a desperate day and I’ve seen many comments from Baggies fans that they have now lost hope. I’ve even heard calls for Pardew’s head which I can’t come close to agreeing with – not only would it be suicide to try looking for a new manager now, I maintain that he has improved the team. Had Pulis stayed, I feel certain our position would’ve been much worse and, while the results haven’t been good, I’m a lot more hopeful that Albion can get out of trouble playing the way we have under Pardew than if we were still employing Pulisball.
It may be the hope that kills you, but the opportunities remain for Albion to get out of trouble, if they can get their best team on the pitch. The next four league games at the Hawthorns are Huddersfield, Leicester, Burnley and Swansea – those are the games that will probably decide the Baggies’ fate, although let’s not forget that Swansea’s two wins recently came over Liverpool and Arsenal, and there will still be a few surprise results before the end of the season – let’s just hope that the Baggies can be on the right end of one or two.