I write this report at 11.53pm. Seven minutes until the 4th March 2015 rolls around and the evening of the 3rd will haunt many an Albion fan for a long, long time.
I went to Villa Park last season, after late heartache that day in a 4-3 defeat I expected nothing of the same this time around. A more solid Albion side came up against a confidence ridden Villa team that were searching for their first win in eight.
No changes were produced by Pulis – whether that was the correct decision or not was left for after match debate but after sweating on the fitness of Brown Ideye and Saido Berahino both were ruled to be fit to face the near neighbours.
Tim Sherwood obviously knew the importance of the game. A win would pull Albion back into the mire a little and ultimately give them something to think about for Saturday’s FA Cup tie which both sides had an eye on I’m sure.
I called a dull 0-0 before the game; a defensive side away from home coming up against a side with a fruitless attack. It was all set for a bore draw and that result would have suited many a fan in the Doug Ellis – with the Holte End certainly more desperate for the three points.
The start didn’t promise much from an Albion point of view. Everyone looked drained. The movement wasn’t there and the shape was disorganised to an extent. Villa set their stall out early, against a side with little pace or acceleration they would utilise the physicality of Benteke and the pace of Agbonlahor.
I used to fear Agbonlahor every time we faced Villa. He could terrorise us with speed and make our defence look foolish. Unfortunately for him he suddenly found champagne and became less of a concern for me. He did however give Ben Foster something to worry over when a simple shot managed to find a way through his legs, a quick reaction later and the ball was off the line, just.
Having watched Foster warm up I have to say he didn’t look confident or ready for the challenge ahead. He made the simple stuff look difficult and pushed a few into the net, some he didn’t even get near. Coaches talk a lot about preparation I can’t believe Foster was anywhere near ready for the work he had to do tonight.
As the game wore on you could see the momentum swinging in one direction, the North Stand. The ball wasn’t sticking with Berahino or Ideye and the midfield were hiding, the shirking of responsibility from Gardner and Yacob tonight with the ball was a huge issue. They didn’t want the ball forcing Albion to play hopeless air, space and channel balls for our two unfit forwards to half run after.
It was, as they say, just a matter of time. Brunt was a target for Benteke in the air. The Belgium was drifting wide to win the flick and influencing the game heavily with Agbonlahor running beyond. That combination was lethal. For the third time Benteke found joy against Brunt and the header inside to Agbonlahor saw his pace beat Lescott, from there a low finish through Foster’s legs (again) gave Villa the lead.
The goal was awful, a long ball from Guzan and the back four didn’t drop deep enough to pick up anything behind. Lescott did close the angle for the shot meaning I think Foster could have done better, but ultimately it was the rewards of a side that kept knocking on the door. Meanwhile Albion were treating anything past half way as lava.
The goal hurt many, unfortunately that was only in the stands, Agbonlahor nearly made it 2 when he got free again and used his pace to get another chance against a ropey Ben Foster. The England ‘keeper was once again beaten by the striker but Pulis played his get out jail free card as Joleon Lescott raced back to just stop the ball crossing the line.
Agbonlahor was inches away from scoring a hat trick for a side who have netted just 13 league goals this season.
Half time arrived and the chat was about a possible golden glove winner. That’s still key to remember this backline is helping a lot but Foster is in pole position to win the accolade this season. That would be a credit to himself and the staff who have set Albion up to defend with determination.
However, if you’re willing to play a defensive game and allow opposition on to you I think you’re also going to have to accept a couple of things. Firstly you won’t be attacking much and as much as it pains me to see a side of Albion’s history and tradition relying on set plays I can also understand that in this day and age the need not to lose with often outweigh the desire to win.
Secondly, you will have to have some poor halves, even games, and there will be moments where you make errors that cost goals. For many though it’s happened on the wrong night at the wrong place and most certainly at the wrong time. What’s important is during those spells that Albion hang on to the match, they don’t get blown away and they get to the break in the match. We most certainly did that and gave ourselves an opportunity to regroup for the second half. 1-0 was a blessing for WBA.
After the break
Not much different, we looked a little more lively but still didn’t feel other than Fletcher and Morrison at times that the midfield wanted the ball. They were all admiring, standing, hoping someone else would do their running; and I know Chris Brunt will get hounded yet again for some poor passes but what I will say in defence of the man is that he always showed for the ball, he never shirked his responsibilities and always offered something to the team. When he had the ball though how many were willing to take it off him and move forward? It’s a team game and there weren’t enough out there playing for the team.
Chances, they were few and far between. The excitement level had dropped massively and the game was becoming more even. Morrison was driving at Lowton and Dawson was bombing on, clearly Albion were giving it more of a go but the gambles taken weren’t huge.
Dawson headed a Brunt free kick over the crossbar when he should have hit the target, it was a real chance and in a game when you’re struggling to retain possession you sort of felt that was a key moment.
It’s at times like this fans were looking towards the bench. But this was the most defensive bench I have seen at a West Brom game and with two forwards up front that could barely run it was looking bleak for Albion. BUT, under Pulis you always know one corner, a free kick in a crossing position and that’s your chance.
Brunt walked over to the away fans to deliver a corner into a box that I thought looked pretty empty from the upper tier, however that gave the space for Lescott to head back across goal for Berahino to nod in. A perfect example of a Pulis set play. It worked, it’s a string to Albion’s bow and one that I’m astounded more clubs don’t work on.
The game opened a little more after that, Villa needing the victory threw more bodies forward, in a controlled manner it has to be said but they didn’t trouble Ben Foster, thankfully.
Albion didn’t really get near Guzan but broke up momentum where possible and a big moment would arrive when on the far side to me Alan Hutton attempted to ‘tackle’ Berahino. The Scot went in with his studs making a clear connection in the stomach of Saido, the extension of the leg made sure the England U21 felt it. After a brief altercation between the two, referee Jon Moss decided to book both, why I’m not sure. Maybe The FA could have a look and if Hutton wasn’t booked for the ‘challenge’ they could hand out a suitable punishment. Protecting players is of the upmost importance in this game and studs into the midriff of any player is a dangerous act.
Anyway, the game continued, it was all heading out for evens and a fair result in honesty but there was one more opportunity. As Fabian Delph lined up an effort from 40 yards I distinctly remember my feeling of satisfaction knowing 2 of the 3 added minutes had been up. It’s never that easy with WBA though.
The shot was scooped away by Foster, the rebound jumped upon and denied (quite well) by the Englishman. Clearing the danger though would be a downfall as Craig Gardner smashed the ball to Alan Hutton, yes, him. He crossed into the area, after a couple of headers later it was falling to Chris Baird to finish the game all until Foster decided to sprint and call for the bouncing ball. The script was written, in came Matt Lowton and wallop, Foster took him out and it was a penalty. Thinking back even Ben knew what he’s done was daft, knocking himself on the head as he walked back to his goal line.
Up stepped Benteke and the rest was simple enough a cool run and low finish wrong footing Foster who’d had a mare of an evening. In honesty it’s the kind of performance that got fans wondering if Marton Fulop was involved in match fixing.
Fletcher tried to rally the troops but it too late. Villa went home like they’d won a league title throwing bottles across to the away fans, clearly beating such a “good little club” had made them delighted. They close the gap on Albion to five points and have a massive boost ahead of Saturday.
Were both strikers fit? Not for me, they both looked half paced and the rest of the side looked half baked. A reality check for a side that had been flying high? For all the talk of complacency inside the football club it seems we thought it was a given today, it most certainly wasn’t and many players may have a lot to answer for in the coming days.
Away day tactics from Pulis seems to be to defend deep and win a set play. I understand that logic but then not dropping deep from long balls is a concoction that will only aid a side aiming to use their physical attributes.
The lack of Darren Fletcher will be a massive loss on Saturday, I think we all know that so I won’t say anymore on the matter, he has been a real asset to the club.
I won’t spend too long on here, now, this has gone on enough but Saturday is now a little bit bigger for both sides, they need to keep that momentum up and Albion have a point to prove, all the apologies in the world on social media cannot make up for a derby day defeat, these set of players have the opportunity to put things right within 4 days, if they don’t take it there will be many questions asked, even more so with a place at Wembley on the line at the weekend.
Here’s to hoping it was a one off and Tony will either kick their backside or give them a rest some looked like they needed.
Come on you Baggies!
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