Eight games into the season, and Albion fans who have been to every league fixture so far will have witnessed an average of four goals a game, twenty of which have been scored by the Baggies something that hasn’t been bettered by any Albion side since the 1950s. But they will have also watched some of it through their fingers as some of the Baggies defending has left much to be desired.
The Baggies’ 4-2 over Bristol City was, in some ways, representative of their season – hugely impressive in attack but decidedly shaky in defence. A more clinical side that the Robins might have scored two or three before Albion took the lead as the hosts’ ability to pass the ball to each other seemed to have deserted them, but one fast efficient attacking move and Jay Rodriguez had the opportunity to put the Baggies ahead from the spot, which he duly did. City fell apart a little after that and Albion were three up by the break, but further defensive frailties were exposed as the visitors once more pressed forward in the second half, and no Baggies fan would have been entirely sure of the three points until the final whistle blew.
For that reason, there continues to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth on social media groups and fans’ forums, with such ludicrous statements as “Moore must go” and “Bartley is the worst defender I’ve ever seen”, but what everyone needs to remember is that we are still in the early stages of the season with a new management team trying to change the ethos of the entire squad.
Firstly, the relatively established first eleven contains four players who are new to the club and that is not an insignificant proportion. Two of them, Barnes and Gayle, have been universally praised while Sam Johnstone continues to be criticised despite having faced three penalties unbeaten and was probably single-handedly responsible for keeping the game on Tuesday at 0-0 until Albion scored. Kyle Bartley seems to be coming in for the most criticism of new boys, alongside his defensive partners, Hegazi and Dawson.
Secondly, Moore and Jones are trying to change the way Albion play. After three years of Tony Pulis and a half year of turmoil, relegation means that the Baggies have to approach games differently, and that means a different style of play. No longer can the side be happy to keep a clean sheet and take a point away from home, they now need to go out and try to win every game and to do that, they need to score goals. This is a complete change in philosophy to the likes of Dawson, Hegazi, Brunt and Livermore and the rest of the players who were at the club under Pulis, and it will take them all time to adjust.
Big Dave’s success at the end of last season was built on not changing too much in terms of tactics, but making the right changes in terms of man management and motivation. For this season, he and Graeme Jones, a massively important appointment, are implementing a new set of tactics, tempo and approach that is needed for a team expected to win games and challenge for promotion. Some may argue that the personnel aren’t suited to that style of play, but is it really fair to do that at this stage of the season? And particularly when this flawed team is sitting in fourth place in the table with no Albion side having bettered their goal tally at this stage since Vic Buckingham’s team of 1958.
Another important thing to remember is that this change in style is the responsibility of the whole team, not just the defence. The back three might be misplacing passes, but how many of those are down to a lack of options in front of them? The midfield and the forward players all need to understand how to provide the right options, and different game situations will present different challenges – to get this right takes time and it’s still never going to be perfect. As they become more familiar with the approach, the players will improve and the mistakes should, hopefully, reduce. It took Pep a season to get it right at Man City, remember, and while it’s not really fair to make that comparison given the different levels of the players and coaches involved, it does demonstrate how hard it can be to properly implement a new philosophy on a group of players.
Some may advocate that we need to change the style, but how? Should we really stop this transition just because they haven’t perfected it in six weeks? Should we be that short-sighted? Let’s face it, it’s hardly been a complete disaster.
Moreover, let’s not forget why we go and watch football. While the sense of belonging and the desire to see the boys win are high on the list of reasons, ultimately we want to be entertained. I have enjoyed the first six weeks of this season far more than I did any of the last three seasons in the Premier League. Yes, it’s been a bit hairy at times, but that’s part of the fun – sure, we’d like to see the Baggies win 5-0 every week playing sparkling football, but I’d always take a 4-2 over a Pulisball 1-0 and I’d probably prefer a ding-dong 3-3 with the team playing the way they are than watching a dull defensive smash’n’grab victory.
While we all think West Bromwich Albion should be a Premier League side, let’s remember where they are in today’s footballing landscape. The club might be owned by a Chinese billionaire, but it has become clear that he will run the club to live entirely within its means financially, which means that without another change of ownership, Albion will never compete at the top end of the Premier League. The best we can hope for is to be a solid mid table team in the top flight that might win the odd cup, or maybe get a season or two of European football, and more realistically, we are in that group of teams that should finish between 10th and 30th in the league system. Eight successive seasons in the Premier League was probably a slight over-achievement.
Tony Pulis’s approach to maintain top-flight status was to play defensive safety-first football, dull to watch, initially successful but ultimately it failed. Roy Hodgson may be regarded as having a similar view, but I’m sure we’d all prefer it if he had remained in charge. His Albion side were defensively robust without being overly negative, and his season and a half in charge was probably the most entertaining period in Albion’s Premier League history.
That must be the ultimate aim – to be entertaining and yet defensively robust enough to maintain that mid-table position. It doesn’t sound that exciting really, and I, for one, am determined to enjoy the ride of trying to get back to the top flight. Wolves and Fulham did it last season playing entertaining football, and I hope Albion can do it as well – if not this season, then next, or whenever. There is the risk that it might not happen again, but let’s enjoy whatever happens.
Like many, I watched Albion throughout the “dark” days of the late eighties and nineties and, while some of the football was dreadful, I was always determined to enjoy the experience. I still maintain that some of the football I saw under Pulis was the worst I have witnessed by an Albion side – they players might have technically been some of the best to wear the famous blue and white in the last 20 years, but the way they were instructed to play sucked the enjoyment from this beautiful game.
For me, this season has been a breath of fresh air and, while I, too, am pulling my hair out at some of the mistakes the boys are making, I’ve seen enough to know that you just need to take a step back, hang on tight and enjoy the ride!