After Tuesday’s drab bore draw against Port Vale, a similar side lined up to take on Mark Hughes’ Stoke City at an ever windy Britannia.
Hughes’ side have had a dramatic change in fortunes since the Welshman took over from our current manager Tony Pulis. It’s well documented in West Brom folklore that Stoke are our bogey team and at the start of the day, it didn’t feel that the game would overturn that tradition.
I have never enjoyed playing Stoke City. Our current manager always set up a side that was tough tackling, organised and could score goals. The Britannia is a wet, windy noise box where Charlie Adam rules the roost. Saturday’s line up was uninspiring and it seemed that Albion fans would go home disappointed.
The selection of two CB’s; the departing Lescott in his unsteady left back role and Dawson who is now right back elect, left me drained. Stoke have strengthen this summer with former Champions League winners Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdan Shaqiri, both of who are pacey, tricky wingers who proved themselves at Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively. With this, I thought Lescott and Dawson would be turned inside out. Glen Johnson started at right back for Stoke, a player I was surprised that was not tracked by Pulis and his backroom staff in June.
Salomon Rondon started his second game for the club and seemed the right choice to battle and cause havoc for a well organised back four including Geoff Cameron and Marc Muniesa. The main casualty from mid-week was the dropping of Callum McManaman to the bench in place of Craig Gardner.
I rarely cast doubts over a player, but Gardner is the one man that I don’t believe is cut out for this division. As Rondon proved midweek, he needs the ball to come in from the wings or in front of him to run onto. Gardner is definitely not a winger and his passing is often misjudged and panicky.
There was two main talking points from the first half, and we all know what they are. I’ll leave them for the minute. Eleven against eleven is where we begin. Stoke ran the opening ten minutes but created very little. A header from Diouf which went straight at Myhill was the only real talking point that would have raised the potteries to its feet.
Rondon, the lone striker is place of a well-known absentee didn’t have his first touch until the twelfth minute of the game, a worrying statistic for a team who currently look like they’ve forgot that they need to score to win games.
Swiss star Shaqiri, England international Johnson and former Man Utd player Mama Biram Diouf, caused havoc for the back four, who currently look low on confidence and low on form. I’m hoping that Evans will tighten up the backline, but am unsure why Lescott is rumoured to be leaving. If a centre back is going to leave, Olsson would surely be the man in the firing line. The big Swede has certainly been a great servant for West Bromwich Albion, but is now immobile and can’t play out from the back, cutting out the midfield. He played well today, but if Shaqiri was better than the form he showed today, Olsson would have been torn to pieces. I feel Stoke fans would be disappointed by the former Bayern man’s performance, his final ball was lacking slightly after the first twenty minutes. I think he knew it too, as he trudged off later in the game.
An 18 yard Morrison strike in the 23rd minute stung the hands of future England number one Jack Butland who pulled off a great save to his right, however, the game was turned on its head moments later. A clip of the heels from Gardner on Ibrahim Afellay saw the Dutchman react childishly and softly slap the face of the player who’d tackled him moments earlier. I say slap, it was more of a slow-motion caress of the former Sunderland man’s cheek, however the tackle didn’t provoke such a silly reaction. As such, Stoke were left in the lurch as Michael Oliver sent off Afellay. I felt this was harsh, however as the saying goes ‘You can’t react like that in the modern game.’
Stoke quickly reverted to Stoke. A long ball from Charlie Adam, was headed on by Diouf who chased his own flick, dinked the ball over the oncoming Myhill until Gareth McCauley headed the ball over the bar. This was to be Adam’s last contribution to a game. As Dawson powered (can a centre back playing right back power?) down the wing, he was tackled by Adam who seemingly left his foot in, ‘stamping’ on Dawson’s thigh. From replays, I felt this was harsh. Michael Oliver himself was unsure and spent a fair amount of time consulting with his linesman, who gave the decision instantly following the incident. Adam could have been booked earlier for a crunching late tackle on fellow Scotland international, Darren Fletcher and if this was a second yellow offence, then I’d understand. However, a straight red killed the game for me (if a game can ever be killed off by a West Brom side.) Of course, I want West Brom to get all advantages they can to win games, however this red card meant the game was a meaningless task.
A quick fact! The last time 2 red cards were shown to one side in the Premier League was Boxing Day 2013. To who I hear you cry? Stoke City of course!
Holding midfieler Claudio Yacob was deemed unnecessary against nine men and was bought off for Rickie Lambert, who looked a little rusty midweek. I was unsure about his contribution against Stoke’s rivals Port Vale as I felt his passing was a little off piece, but his long distance shooting was and always has been tough for goalkeepers. However, his whipped cross in the 47th minute caused Geoff Cameron trouble and Salomon Rondon delicately headed the ball past Jack Butland. His movement had finally proved tough and his workrate had paid off.
Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a great era for the Venezuelan and the opening of a large goals account. Rondon scored 20 goals in 37 games last season for Zenit, we’re all hoping he can do the same again. I’d actually begun to write my half time notes, when the ball went in and felt a little silly, but was happy to see the side lead. The whistle went and Hughes understandably fired daggers at Michael Oliver. The side looked nervous in the first half but had eventually scored. As Pulis said, eleven against eleven ‘Stoke edged it’ which I’d certainly agree with but even against nine men, I was worried!
A rare half time substitution in the Premier League as Craig Gardner was subbed off, for Callum Mcmanaman. Most, myself included, would have thought this would have invigorated Albion to kick on and score two or three more, killing off the game and giving Lambert and Rondon some much need confidence. The half started quickly. A Morrison ball from deep to Rondon, bamboozled Geoff Cameron. Rondon’s movement proved tricky again. The mixture of workrate and movement will make Rondon a tricky customer, especially later on in games, despite putting this chance over the bar.
Albion could have added to their late first half goal as the ball bobbled out to captain Darren Fletcher that took a wicked deflection and trickled wide, leaving Jack Butland rooted. This would have killed off the game, but as always, West Brom struggled to kill the game off. I feel this season will be similar to the end of Steve Clarke’s reign, if we don’t start wrapping up games. Although Pulis sides tend to stay tight, this back four hasn’t filled me with confidence in the opening three games.
This chance from Fletcher lead to a quick Stoke break from the resulting corner and Albion were let off the hook as a miss control from Stoke’s Senegalese striker allowed the team to regroup and attack again. The play around this period was patient, but lacked end product. We seemingly played with Stoke City, but tested their young England goalkeeper very little. Stoke were made to wait for the ball, but both sides did very little and the game became stale and slow. The introduction (at long last) of missing man Cristian Gamboa, prompted the Albion faithful to sing the Costa Rican’s name.
Little happened from here on, Stoke looking not to concede in fear of a goal glut and Albion wanted to keep hold of three points. A five minute spell of Stoke pressure, ended with a speculative Erik Pieters striker from 35 that was straight down Boaz Myhill's line of sight and ended in an easy catch.
As Stoke began to push on to nick a point, Albion were uninspring, uncreative and boring in possession of the ball. A typical Pulis side, sat back and soaked up pressure in the hope that Stoke would run out of steam. It's all well and good grinding out a result, but sitting back and leaving nine men to attack freely is ridiculous. I feel a newly promoted Stoke or newly invigorated Aston Villa would have pushed on and killed the game off after 70 minutes, but not West Brom.
The final 10 minutes were nail biting as Austrian Marko Arnautovic hit a few speculative effort to our Welsh keeper, but Albion won 1-0. I don't really know what else to say about the second half of the game. Nothing really happened. No honestly, nothing!
After the game
Three points! I'm looking for positives, because I can't see a lot that I can take from the game. Lescott kept Shaqiri quiet, but whether that was on his part or the fact he was off the pace is yet to be seen.
Albion were once again, uninspiring. With Stoke down to nine men, Albion should have and easily could have kicked on and won 3,4,5 nil. But Albion were slow to the races and continued to be slow throughout. The most worrying thing for me was when Stoke went down to nine men, Albion still had eleven men in the area. I don't know whether its the fault or Pulis, or the players he picks, but he/they seem to struggle with any plan B.
I also can't see where the creativity to get goals will come from. Clear chances are few and far between at the moment. Tuesday's window is now vital. Pulis has no clear wing backs (that he likes or plays or even puts on the bench), no great attacking midfielder and five strikers; one who's new to the English game, three who've stumbled into the season, and Berahino. We all know his situation. On the other hand, we now have 7 centre backs. But we still don't look sured up at the back.
Albion need confidence and wins under their belt. This will help but the performance what I'd expected after mid weeks awful performance. Things haven't really changed and they really need to and quickly.