Our first game of the season is home to Manchester United, so what better way to preview the upcoming campaign then with a look at last year’s fixture between the two.
It may seem odd to pick such a game, coming as it did, in the midst of Di Matteo’s barren Christmas spell, a five-match losing streak unlikely to give any Baggie a reason to be cheerful. Perhaps the away day at Arsenal or the home game to Blues was more deserving of analysis; but following the Baggies you get a penchant for plucky games that ultimately prove unsuccessful. And in hindsight, the 2-1 defeat to the eventual Champions encapsulated our whole season, the good and the bad, in 90 minutes.
It was up and down, it was eventful, and it was bonkers. I don’t need to remind you of Gary Neville’s ‘get out of jail free card’ that he must have presented to referee Chris Foy after bringing Dorrans down in the area when he was through on goal. I probably don’t need to remind you either of Morrison’s superb first-time volley that levelled the game up 14 minutes in. And I bet I don’t need to remind you about Odemwingie’s untimely decision to heel the ball four yards wide from the penalty spot at 1-1.
Our defensive frailties in the air won’t be news to fans, and this game provided two apt examples. Although only Hernandez’s winner was from a set-piece, Rooney’s opener two minutes in was just as infuriating. Gabriel Obertan, world-class winger that he isn’t, pranced around Steven Reid on the edge of the area without actually getting anywhere, and then laid off Patrice Evra to cross. Which he did. Towards Wayne Rooney, all 5ft 9 inches of him, and towards Paul Scharner, all 6ft 3 inches of him. Rooney kept his eye on the ball, despite the kamikaze efforts of Marek Cech jumping around in front of him, and in the end stooped to head pass Carson. Scharner looked on, a few yards away, static.
Although the cross wasn’t from a set-piece, we defended it as if it was. But what is just as alarming is our inability to utilise our own corners. West Brom won 191 corners last season, an average of 5 a game, but throughout the whole season, only 3 assists originated from any set-piece. This statistic includes free-kicks and corners that led to a goal, but does not include any that went directly in. So unless Artim Sakiri temporarily re-joined the club while I wasn’t looking, we scored at most, 3 goals from 191 corners – a truly shocking return.
Man United didn’t have such problems, and in the 75th minute on New Years Day, Rooney turned provider, taking the corner that led to Hernandez’s winner. Hernandez is no giant himself, but you don’t need to be tall when you stand three yards out and not one defender picks you up, so the Mexican simply headed the ball in, probably with his ear. Cue mass gesticulating and pointing from Carson, Scharner, Dorrans et al., and a nonchalant wave in the general direction of the melee from Somen Tchoyi, to look as if he’s joining in. As the co-commentator could have or could not have said: ‘You better call Quincy, because there’s an autopsy going on in this West Brom defence.’
High and Wide
For the 72 minutes in between the Man Utd goals, and for the 10 minutes before the final whistle, we battered the mighty reds. We had 21 shots, to Man Utd’s paltry 6.
As you can see from the chalkboards though, despite having significantly less shots, if you include their goals the visitors actually managed 4 shots on target, one more towards the net than our lads. Whether this conversion rate is higher because of superior decision-making, quality build-up play, or just better shooting boots is unsure, but again it is alarming. Of course, these are statistics for just one game, and that in itself was quite an anomaly. Rarely do teams dominate as much as we did that day and lose.
Five in midfield
And dominate we did. In between the unsure defending in the box, and the off-target shooting, there was a display of beauty and class from Di Matteo’s men, particularly the midfield.
Jerome Thomas was electric down the left wing, not content merking Rio Ferdinand for the penalty, his display was the final nail in the coffin of Neville’s long and impressive career. Mulumbu did what he did all season, patrolling the central third and turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye. The interchangeable and excitable trio of Brunt, Morrison and Dorrans ahead of him were full of energy, full of shots, and full of class. Odemwingie, despite missing the penalty and not playing to the high standards we’ve come to expect, showed how adept he is playing as a lone striker.
This was the modern 4-5-1 system down to a tee. Ten men behind the ball in defence, but in attack a fluid 4-1-5, and Man Utd were stunned with the proficiency it was executed. Of course, they still won the game, because after all, they’re Manchester Utd, and God supports them. But that game, more than the draw at Old Trafford, suggested we could mix it with the big boys. (Although granted, the two games against Arsenal were as suggestive as a late-night Nigella Lawson cookery show.)
After the match, emotions were bitter sweet. I never expect anything when we play the big seven, (United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Spurs, Stoke), so the loss wasn’t too heart-breaking. Retrospectively, it appears to sum up our season. Terrible at defending set-pieces and glaring misses in front of goal, but a midfield capable of creating a bundle of chances with rapid passing.
As for the first match of this season, depending on your inclinations, this has provided you with reasons to be either optimistic of pessimistic. Whatever happens, it couldn’t be worse than last year’s start could it?