The line coming out of the club when Pepe Mel was first introduced to the media last week was that it was more ‘evolution, rather than revolution’ at The Hawthorns.
Mel himself said before kick off not to expect drastic changes – after all, he’d only been working with the player. He did hint however that fans making their way to The Shrine on Monday night would witness some changes in Albion’s playing style.
Much has been made of Albion overlooking British coaches in favour of appointing a Spaniard. Yet it was a very English 4-4-2 that Mel selected for his first game in charge. Foster in goal was accompanied by Reid, Olsson, Lugano – in for the injured McAuley – and Ridgewell in defence. Morrison and Yacob were selected in the middle with Gera and Brunt either side. Up front, Albion stuck to their guns and selected Nicolas Anelka with Matej Vydra.
Mel’s tactics of a high-pressing, high tempo approach were evident early on. Even the cumbersome Anelka chased down defenders stopping Distan and Jagielka playing out from the back.
But it was a returning hero who almost opened the scoring. Lukaku – minus his trademark dreadlocks – raced into space and lifted the ball over Ben Foster. Fortunately his lobbed effort fell the wrong side of the post.
Albion were moving the ball quicker and with James Morrison pushing on from midfield, had extra options going forward. Anelka found Vydra with an excellent pass with the outside of his boot, the ball was squared to Morrison whose cross was tipped out of the path of the on-rushing Zoltan Gera at the back post.
Back came Everton with Oviedo having two good chances, Mirallas fired at Foster and Brunt had to block Coleman’s shot. Albion were playing okay, but it was Everton who were creating the chances.
The visitors took the lead just before half time. Lukaku flicked the ball into Mirallas path, Lugano failed to track his run and the forward passed the ball past Foster to give Everton the lead.
It could’ve been two moments later. Reid was caught out of position as Lukaku raced clear. But somehow Morrison caught the giant forward and made an excellent saving tackle. It was more impressive when you consider the midfielder had been booked minutes earlier.
After the break
The forever-injured Victor Anichebe warmed up during the break signalling Mel’s first substitution. Off went Matej Vydra, who was a little unfortunate to be subbed.
Morrison had Albion’s first chance of the second half but his shot lacked any power to trouble Howard.
Albion toiled away to find an equaliser but too often crosses into the box were misplaced. On two occasions, the ball was looped to the far post with Anelka standing on the edge of the area.
Mel had seen enough. Gera – who was disappointing – was replaced by Mulumbu. Anelka moved to the right as Albion adopted a 4-5-1 formation with Anichebe spearheading the attack.
The move worked. Mulumbu brought energy to Albion’s attacks and Anelka tracked Leighton Baines when required. Morrison fired a left foot volley into the Birmingham Road End as another chance went missing.
Anelka and Anichebe then linked up well. Morrison found the maligned Anelka down the right. He crossed low for his strike partner but Anichebe’s effort was directed at Howard at the near post. It was excellent movement from the former Everton man.
Albion were on top and an equaliser came from an unlikely source. Uruguay captain Diego Lugano stayed forward from a corner. Morrison did well to fire over a cross and the defender made up for his earlier mistake by placing a bullet header into the top corner from six yards.
The wind was in Albion’s sails. But it was Everton who almost stole a winner. In the fourth minute of injury time, Distin turned the ball into Albion’s net after the Baggies had failed to clear a free kick. Thankfully the defender was rightfully flagged offside. Mel’s first game ended in an encouraging draw.
Albion were unfortunate not to get a victory in Mel’s first game in charge. The first impressions look good. The side seemed to have energy about it. The strikers linked up well together and were supported by Morrison from midfield. Albion’s wide men also did well to supply their strikers. Chris Brunt in particular fired over several trademark crosses – especially after the break. Albion’s captain looked like the player he did under Tony Mowbray – where he was instructed to get the ball across on every occasion.
There were other impressive performances. Olsson was excellent in containing Lukaku. The defender made two excellent tackles in the first half and was strong in the air when Everton went more direct. Morrison and Yacob played well in the centre and Anelka was hard working up front. Anichebe also did well in the second half and brought others into the game with his hold-up play.
Mel has only had a handful of training sessions with his squad. Let’s hope they continue to improve ahead of Albion’s next game away at the Villa.
COME ON YOU BAGGIES!
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