As the national media focuses on the latest media darling in his new post at Liverpool, the Premier League’s other new manager takes his side back to his very own Black Country.
Sam Allardyce was born a copper’s son in Dudley and, while he was a Wolves fan as a child, Albion are the only side he has been associated with in the Black Country having made one substitute appearance for the club in his time as a player-coach under Brian Talbot from 1989 to 1991. He will bring his new side, Sunderland, to the Hawthorns on Saturday for what could be classed as an early-season basement battle although the five points separating Sunderland and Albion is the same as the gap between Albion and 7th-placed Everton.
It’s a big game for Big Sam as he will look to demonstrate what effect he has had in a week, with a further week to go before the Tyne-Wear Derby, but this fixture is also vitally important for Tony Pulis. The last two results have left many Albion fans questioning his tactics and the style of football he employs – anything other than a convincing win will add further fuel to those complaints.
The Baggies last outing at Crystal Palace was not only a dreadful result, it was an awful performance. Albion may have held out for more than an hour, but from midway through the first half, it seemed that it was a matter of when, and not if, Palace would get a goal. Defensively, Pulis has been unlucky with injuries losing Olsson, Evans and McAuley at various times in recent weeks, but the weakest part of the defence at Palace was the one man who should not be playing there. Chris Brunt has performed admirably as a left back over the past year or so, so much so that he has even started playing there for Northern Ireland, but he was hopelessly exposed at Selhurst Park against the pace and trickery of Wilfred Zaha and it was a miracle that Albion kept a clean sheet in the first half, so often was Brunt beaten. When there is a specialist, much quicker left back in the squad, it makes Pulis’s decision to persist with Brunt in that position all the more frustrating.
A knock on effect of Brunt playing at left back is that he is therefore unable to play on the left side of midfield, and Pulis cannot seem to decide who should play there. In recent weeks, we have had James McClean, Craig Gardner and Saido Berahino all playing on the left side of midfield, of which only McClean could be said to be anything like in his natural position. One of the criticisms aimed at Brendan Rodgers was that he was playing players out of position, an accusation that can be fairly levelled at Pulis. Rodgers had the excuse that he was trying to fit in all his attacking and creative players – Pulis has no such excuse as he tends to leave his creative players on the bench.
Another example is James Chester. A regular member of the successful Welsh side and a player that Pulis saw fit to pay something like £8 million for. It would come as a shock to anyone who had only seen Chester play for Albion, but he’s a centre back. When Olsson was unfortunately injured against Everton, Chester came on and took his place – good for him, maybe he’ll get a chance to show what he can do in the middle of defence. He got 17 minutes until half time when Pulis decided to switch him with Dawson, the guy who is now used to playing right back.
Personally, I have no issue with a manager setting his side out to be difficult to beat, particularly away from home. In fact, the majority of sides in the Premier League play that way on the road, but those who do it successfully have one thing in common – pace. What football coaches call the “transition” between defence and attack is vitally important for a side that sets out to play on the break. What it needs is pacey forward players to make intelligent runs as soon as the ball is won back, and midfield players with the ability to see the pass that will put his team on the attack. And then, the guy with the ball needs options as he gets to the box, which means multiple quick players who can get up alongside him in time.
Look at the Albion squad and the one thing that stands out is the lack of pace. Moreover, those players who do have pace are rarely in the starting line up. Saido Berahino is the only player with pace that gets a regular start, and Pulis’s decision to withdraw him against Palace was baffling. While I understand that, as he was the left-sided midfielder he was not giving Brunt sufficient support, but by removing him from the field it left Albion with absolutely no outlet for the few occasions when they did regain possession. Salamón Rondón is not quick and, to be kind, is taking his time to adjust to the Premier League – switching Berahino up front and withdrawing Rondón was a much more sensible ploy!
But what of Callum McManamanan? He was man of the match against Chelsea, but it seems that one indifferent performance from him sees him dropped from the starting line-up, while Craig Gardner has failed to produce one acceptable performance all season in my opinion, but he always seems to get on the field at some point.
And then there is Serge Gnabry, the guy that is apparently quicker than Theo Walcott. I was excited to see him come on loan to the Hawthorns, and enjoyed his opening roulette against Chelsea, but that’s all we’ve seen in the Premier League. Maybe his goal for the German U21 side in the week will remind Pulis that he exists. It’s probably not worth mentioning Pocognoli and Gamboa who, while not exactly lightning, certainly have a bit more pace than the rest of the back line.
I’m not calling for Pulis to be sacked, but we need to see a change in the way we play. Pulis pointed out that the same side who won at Villa put in that performance at Palace. Well, if he hadn’t noticed, our nearest neighbours are a very poor side at the moment and Palace are flying high in the league. A side that got a sneaky 1-0 win against a frankly dreadful Villa team was always going to struggle at Palace.
If we’re going to play on the break, we need players in the side who are quick. Pulis has always liked wingers but he seems unwilling to give McManaman or Gnabry a run in the side for them to prove what they can do – play them. Chester is a centre back – I’m not sure whether he is any good as a centre back because I’ve only seen 17 minutes of him playing there. Olsson, McAuley and Evans may be ahead of him in the pecking order, but don’t put Dawson there as well and push Chester to right back – it just doesn’t make sense.
Albion have become a bit of a bogey side for Sunderland in recent years with the Black Cats recording just one win over the Baggies in the last eleven meetings with seven of those ending in defeat for the Wearsiders. In Premier League terms, Albion have gained more points against Sunderland than any other team with 29 (Villa are second in that list with 20).
Sunderland have only won at the Hawthorns once in the Premier League, a 1-0 win in January 2006 thanks to a Steve Watson own goal, although their last win at the Shrine was 2-1 in the Championship in March 2007.
Albion have injury doubts over both James Morrison and Jonny Evans, while Rondón’s fitness will be assessed after his trip to South America. Berahino and Olsson could also miss out through injury.
Toivenen, M’Villa and Kaboul are all doubts for the visitors.
It will be interesting to see what affect Big Sam has had on Sunderland, but if Albion can get an early goal, the Black Cats’ lack of confidence is likely to manifest itself. It’s unlikely to be pretty, but I’m predicting a home win.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
21 Feb 2015 – Premier League
West Brom 0
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
16 Aug 2014 – Premier League
West Brom 2 (Berahino (2, 1 pen))
Sunderland 2 (Cattermole, Larsson)
21 Sep 2013 – Premier League
West Brom 3 (Sessègnon, Ridgewell, Amalfitano)
Albion’s Record against Sunderland
|Premier League Record|