Well what a difference a year makes. Twelve months after the brave-new dawn of the Steve Clarke area, where Zoltan Gera’s wonder strike and two other goals confidently brushed aside a Liverpool team, we went to The Hawthorns on Saturday in confident mood. Sadly the weather should have given an indication that things were going to be a little different.
A damp, dreary grey Black Country day greeted us as opposed to the beautiful day that our Scouse counterparts enjoyed while travelling down the M6 last August. As soon as I put my ‘key to the shrine’ (our cringe worthy slogan on our Stile Card) and heard the team sheet, doubts surfaced on how this game was going to go.
Now I’m no football manager, but I like to think I am reasonably aware to know how visiting teams are going to play. I enjoyed watching Southampton last season, their cultured easy-on-the-eye passing game, playing out from the back and trying to dominate possession in midfield would be their game plan. They wouldn’t change from last year, surely.
From the very first moments of the game, it was clear to everyone in the ground we got our tactics badly wrong. The impressive Wanayama (their £12.5million signing from Celtic), Schneiderlin and Ward Prowse dominated and out-numbered Yacob and Mulumbu, with Morrison and Dorrans trying to be a square peg in a round hole out wide, leaving Anelka and Long trying to feed on the very few scraps on offer.
The lack of numbers in our midfield meant that possession was gained and then lost very quickly, with the defence having no option but to play hopeful balls into the channels for Long to chase.
37% possession in the first half of the opening game at home was not the start we wanted. Granted, last year, there were very few times that we had the ball more than our opponents. The big difference 12 months ago was when we did have it we looked a threat. This time we didn’t.
After 35 minutes, finally Steve Clarke saw what we all saw and moved Morrison into his rightful position and Long moved wide.
This improved us slightly and we were definitely better after half-time. In fact the game was petering out until Mulumbu had one of his blood rush moments and inexplicably decided to challenge the very impressive Luke Shaw in the box when he wasn’t really going anywhere and the penalty was given. Lambert was never going to miss after the week he had. I think a draw would have been about right, but fair play to Southampton, they stuck to a game plan and came away with three points.
As I came home, I began to reminisce about last year and how different the feeling was. I remembered the Monday Night football game where we battered a Southampton team with no cohesion or formation.
Gary Neville was full of praise for our side and the way that everyone knew their jobs in a 4-5-1 formation, both attacking and defensively and criticised our visitors, sometimes poking fun.
How things change in football.
This game was a complete role reversal. Our players had no cohesion, no tactical nous. No one knew their jobs and were being pulled all around the pitch.
I know that one game doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scale of things, but the style of play was worrying. Most Albion fans know that our squad doesn’t lend itself to a 4-4-2 formation.
We have, using Tony Mowbray’s analogy two soldiers in central midfield (Mulumbu and Yacob). We need to have an artist in front to play the likes of Anelka in.
While I think both Mulumbu and Yacob should start every game, form and injury permitting, you simply cannot play them in a two-man central midfield. I checked out our stats last season in an attempt to prove my point.
In the first half of the season leading up to Christmas, our nine home games resulted in seven wins and two defeats.
After Christmas where Steve Clarke started experimenting in playing 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations, we won two of team league games. I know that our dip in form is not solely down to a formation change, but surely this has in some way got a something to do with it.
In my opinion, our current squad feels most comfortable in that way, breaking play up in midfield and releasing Morrison and two wide men to break with pace.
Vydra and Sinclair (if he comes) can easily fulfil those roles, leaving Anelka and Long to fight out for the striking role.
I still think we’ll be fine, but we do need to address the way we play extremely quickly otherwise we could well have a season of struggle on our hands.