After weeks of waiting the day finally came: the first day of the season. It’s a day etched in calendars from the moment the fixtures are released in June. This season Albion were selected at home against Southampton – a game many Albion fans believed would result in three points... how wrong we were.
Before the game in the overcrowded The Sportsman, many of believed the game would be similar to last season’s curtain raiser – where we swept Liverpool aside during an accomplished 3-0 victory. Despite the club’s inability to sign any wide-men during pre-season, this was, after all, almost the same side that had beaten the Saints 2-0 at home and then 3-0 away.
One of Albion’s few signings of the summer Nicolas Anelka was given his full debut by Clarke as the Baggies lined up in a 4-4-2 formation. Foster in goal, Jones, McAuley, Olsson and Ridgewell at the back. Mulumbu and Yacob in the middle with Dorrans and Morrison being asked to play out wide. Shane Long partnered new-boy Anelka up front.
During the last few seasons, Albion’s better performances have been when they have played a five man midfield with two wide men supporting a lone striker. Our strength, in my opinion, is with our midfield. When Mulumbu and Yacob are shielding the defence, it gives other the opportunity to attack. This formation also allows Albion to break quickly and counter. It was a strange decision to play 4-4-2 by Clarke.
The decision quickly backfired. Southampton played with purpose and intent from the first kick. Their forwards pressed our defenders high up the pitch giving Mulumbu and Yacob no time on the ball. Albion were unable to set any sort of tempo as Southampton hustled at every opportunity. Victor Wanyama, a £12m summer signing, provided a real presence in the middle for the visitors and ensured neither Mulumbu or Yacob settled into any sort of rhythm – spending money isn’t always a gamble!
Albion’s first opportunity came from a corner. Graham Dorrans curled in and found Gareth McAuley unmarked at the far post. But he could only steer his header into the Smethwick end.
The game was scrappy as both teams fought for possession. Albion were disjoined and lacked any sort of coherence. Southampton were not much better, but had a greater threat going forward. Rickie Lambert looked likely to score in the 20th minute but Albion’s defenders threw their bodies in the way of the ball before a goal-mouth scramble.
Minutes later the visitors had the ball in the net after Lambert had headed back across goal. But Albion were fortunate to see the linesman’s flag raised. Replays later showed the goal probably should’ve stood.
It took Clarke 35 minutes until he changed the shape of the side. Dorrans – who has having a poor game – remained out wide on the left, Long was forced out to the right and Anelka – who was starved of service – played up front alone.
The move almost had an immediate effect as swift passing resulted in a Graham Dorrans free kick curling inches over and on to the top of the net.
After the break
With little options on the break due to the club’s lack of activity in the transfer market, Clarke was forced to stick with the same side which finished the half – although the change in shape continued. Albion were slightly better after the break, but the side still lacked creativity and imagination. The side was crying out for width.
Albion were reduced to half chances. First, Long flicked Ridgewell’s cross wide before Anelka was denied by an excellent tackle, before he could get his shot away. But at least Albion were creating chances.
It looked as if the Baggies were to take the lead after the hour mark. Jones did well down the right before finding Morrison in the middle. Just as the Scot seemed destined to score, a Southampton defender flung his body in the way to block the ball.
Clarke brought on Vydra for his home debut and Markus Rosenberg in an attempt to snatch a late goal. A goal did come – but at the other end! The impressive youngster Shaw collected the ball down the left. He cut inside Dorrans too easily and Mulumbu made a clumsy challenge as he strode into the area. It was a clear penalty.
Rickie Lambert stepped up to cap a memorable week for the England striker after he netted on his debut in the week against Scotland. Foster went the right way, but the penalty was too well placed and powerful.
The fourth official signalled a further four minutes of time added on. Albion threw men forward and Billy Jones almost scored an unlikely equaliser with a header. Artur Boruc made a fantastic save to deny the right back, and Albion, a share of the spoils.
What an anti-climax. After weeks of looking forward to the start of the season Albion serve up utter dross. This isn’t an over-reaction, it’s an honest assessment of yesterday’s performance. Albion simply didn’t show up. Clarke’s strange decision to start in an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation didn’t help, but neither did too many of Albion’s players underperforming.
The back four did okay, but Mulumbu, Yacob, Dorrans and Morrison all struggled yesterday. Morrison looked jaded after his mid-week performance against England and Dorrans had a stinker. I’ve always been sceptical Dorrans can perform at the highest level. Yesterday again failed to convince me he can. But he wasn’t the only one who had an off day. Anelka and Long were poor up front. Both gave the ball away easy at times and failed to bring others in to play.
I was really looking forward to seeing Anelka play. He’s always been an excellent player. But yesterday he looked like a tired 34-year-old – albeit one without any service from his midfield team mates.
Chris Brunt is wrongly criticised by many Albion fans. Yesterday his absence was highlighted. Albion struggled to keep hold of the ball and had zero creativity. Worst still, there was no leadership, no drive and no willingness to get the three points. I’m not saying Brunt would’ve been the answer yesterday, but he wouldn’t have done any worse out wide than Dorrans or Morrison.
I honestly believe the performance yesterday reflected the mood around the camp. Clarke can’t be happy with the reluctance of the board to spend any money on new recruits. The fans certainly aren’t happy other sides have spent heavily and we’ve been sold short again by the Board. Out have gone Fortune, Lukaku and Thomas. Odemwingie is in the wilderness. We don’t have anybody who can do something different. Gera signed a new contract this week but is still two months away from fitness. We desperately need some pace and creativity. Get that cheque book out Jeremy.
Let’s hope we’ve got at least one new player in by next week.
COME ON YOU BAGGIES!
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