It’s been more that 51 years since West Bromwich Albion last completed a top-flight league double over Aston Villa, and the Baggies will probably never have a better chance to end that wait than they did on Saturday. Their nearest neighbours were rock bottom of the table, lacking in confidence and surely on the way to their first relegation from the Premier League, and yet by the end of the game, it was Albion that were glad to escape with a point.
Having been encouraged by many of the performances since Christmas, Tony Pulis’s team seemed to have returned to the dull autumnal days of uninspiring defensive football. What happened to the attacking football we saw against Newcastle, Stoke and Chelsea? Are Albion old-timers James Morrison and Chris Brunt that important to the tempo of the team?
In his post-match comments, Pulis blamed a tough few weeks but, if he was concerned about the amount of football his players had played, why not use the squad a little more. After an impressive performance off the bench in mid-week, and Chris Brunt injured, it was surely a perfect opportunity to give Sébastien Pocognoli his first Premier League start of the season? Jonny Evans, like James Chester has done at right back in previous games, looked less than comfortable on the left side of defence and offered James McClean little help from an attacking point of view, as would be expected from a centre back.
As for Morrison’s replacement, Pulis opted for the man that seems to be his solution to any problem, Craig Gardner. The reality is that Gardner has rarely been the solution to any problem this season. It says much about the player that he is not even Pulis’s first choice in any position, apart from first substitute, but he continues to pick him in almost any position for which the usual occupant is missing. Gardner is a willing runner, a tough tackler, good with dead balls and has a reasonable shot, but he is a defensive midfielder and rarely looks comfortable in any other position. A central midfield three of Gardner, Fletcher and Yacob is exactly what it seems – very defensive. With the front six completed by Rondón, Sessègnon and McClean, it was no surprise that Albion’s attacking play was limited. Rondón tried hard as usual but it was largely left to Sessègnon to create chances and, to be fair the the Benin international, having been impressive since his return to the team, he was not on top form against Villa.
To be fair to Pulis, he doesn’t have too many attacking midfielders to choose from, but then again he seems to have done precious little about it in this transfer window, or the previous one for that matter. He wasn’t out of options, however – Berahino could have played in a midfield role, McManamanan could’ve started or he could even have gone with two up front! But perhaps that was too ambitious a choice at home to the Premier League’s bottom side.
Just as against Bournemouth before Christmas and, to a degree, against Bristol City at the Hawthorns two weeks ago, Albion lacked a spark and surrendered possession and the initiative early in the game and never looked like retrieving it. For what is probably the first time this season, Aston Villa looked like the better side throughout and, had they taken their chances, they would have left the Hawthorns with all three points. Thankfully for the Baggies, Villa are still a poor side and they were unable to take advantage of a very poor effort from the hosts.
To me, it looked like a side that was sent out not to lose rather than to win, something that we have seen far too many times this season. I had hoped that Pulis had finally turned the corner after the attacking performances against Newcastle, Stoke and Chelsea and, while I was disappointed with the performance at home to Bristol City, I put it down to an experimental line-up and a rare bout of complacency in the second half. I didn’t see the game at St Mary’s, but I thought the performance in the replay with Bristol City was professional, if uninspiring, and certainly far more forward looking than against Villa.
Pulis cannot be entirely to blame for the performance, however, as too many of the players were off colour. I have already said that Sessègnon was not up to his usual standard, and Evans looked unusually out of sorts even given the fact that he was being played out of position. McClean was also lacking his usual spark and all three substitutes, Berahino, Anichebe and McManaman, failed to sparkle with the want-away striker, in particular, looking way short of his £25 million price tag. To be fair to all three substitutes, however, they received little service with McManaman’s only touch in his first ten minutes on the field coming when he took a corner.
Having said that, given that 10 players have started 16 or more of Albion’s 23 Premier League players this season, is it any wonder that they look tired and put in a below par display, particularly given that the average age of those ten players is over 29.
There was one positive to be taken from the game, and that was the performance of Ben Foster. While his distribution remains his Achilles heel, his command of the area is superior to that of Boaz Myhill and his performance meant that there were few nervous moments in the Albion penalty area.
It was, all in all, an embarrassing performance from Albion. They conceded possession all game and seemed content to allow Villa the ball. I know these players are better than that – we’ve seen it in recent weeks – they only reason they play that way is under instruction. I can’t emphasise enough that Aston Villa are by far and away the worst team in the Premier League this season, and seeing them live at the Hawthorns has done nothing to change my opinion. Had Albion played like that against any other Premier League team, I have no doubt that they would have lost the game, and probably by three or four goals.
For all Albion fans, it’s incredibly disappointing that Albion failed to break that 51 year wait for a top flight league double over their nearest neighbours, or the 42 year wait since the last in any division, the Division Two double in 1973/4, particularly given that it could be a few seasons before we get the opportunity to have another go if Villa end up playing Championship football for a few seasons. Had this been against any other team, it would’ve still been disappointing, but as with all local rivalries, the desire to get the better of your neighbours is incredibly strong, and doing the double to help send Villa down would’ve been very sweet.
But back to the rest of the season. As long as Pulis continues to play a team with no pace and so little attacking outlook, Albion will continue to disappoint and be at risk of such dire performances. Next up is another game that Albion are expected to win, the cup tie at home to Peterborough United, and Albion fans will not settle for another lacklustre performance or an injury-time escape.
Pulis was complaining about eight games in four weeks but there is little rest on the horizon. After a week without a game, the cup game is followed by another mid-week fixture as Swansea City visit the Hawthorns and a trip to another struggling side, Newcastle. Based on their league positions, those two matches are potentially more important than the Villa match as defeat would give points to teams much closer to Albion in the table.
More importantly, perhaps, the transfer window closes in a little over a week and there has been nothing but a stony silence on that front from the Hawthorns, bar the departure of Adil Nabi to this Saturday’s opponents. Given the number of players in the squad that Pulis seems unwilling to play, Albion need some more players, preferably with some pace.
Pulis is not using much of the squad, mainly because he appears not to rate or trust them, and there seems to be little interest from any other clubs for the likes of little-used Gamboa, Pocognoli, Chester or Anichebe. I personally think that there is little chance of Berahino moving on in this window given the asking price and his current form, so to give Pulis a few more options, the chairman needs to allow some flexibility to swell the ranks without having to sell first.
Last January was the first time he really opened his cheque book in the mid-season window, and there has been little sign so far of him repeating the gesture. If that continues, it could be a mistake – I still don’t think Albion will go down this season, but without a few additions, it could be closer than any Baggie would like it to be.
The coming week could shape the remainder of Albion’s season, not only given the transfer window, but also the potential for another cup run to keep interest in the season going.