“Oh good” you think. “He’s doing another match report of a game he didn’t attend.”
No. Not this time. Not really. A point away at Huddersfield, taken in isolation, is a good result. Taken in the context of the whole season it is not. We are 20th with over a quarter of the season gone. We are a point off relegation. We are below Rotherham and Brentford. We have not won since people were wearing shorts, drinking rosé and grilling dead things outdoors. This always makes me ranty, worse in the immediate aftermath, whether I’ve been there or not. I’ve largely resisted the urge to vent on Twitter up to the last games. Last night I vented quite publically. Different opinions were offered as to the cause, however, by different respected Albion fans. So this morning it’s time for some solid analysis. Where are we going wrong? And, just as importantly, where are we going right?
Let’s look at the squad, top to bottom.
David Stockdale may be maligned by many Albion fans but let’s take a minute to remember TK’s last season. Poor distribution, individual errors and public, on field spats with other players. This may not be a popular view but I really don’t think we are worse off in this department.
At right back we are seemingly unchanged. However Calde and Bruno are not getting any younger and are now being asked to do jobs that require pace and fitness. At left back there has been a gradual deterioration with each season. Bridge was better than Ward who was better than Bennett. At centre back Greer and Dunk have done an awful lot of covering and scored most of the goals this season so it’s hard to criticise but neither has the Premier League gravitas and reading of the game that Upson had. Hughes seems to have been bought to warm the bench. Overall we are much weaker here than two seasons ago and it’s showing in the number of times we go behind first.
Lots of bodies but more quality? Ok, it really doesn’t help having Crofts and Stephens out. Holla looks a box to box player and a vast improvement on Andrews. Gardner is, well, ok, but I’m not convinced his heart’s in it. Toko and Agustien continue to be paid to not even warm the bench. JFC is improving all the time and I really don’t understand his detractors. A fine passer of the ball who keeps us ticking over. Ince is being under used, reason unknown.
Wingers / Attacking Midfielders / Flair Players / In the hole
The fact that I don’t even know how to categorise this next set tells you all you need to know about how our players are being replaced and then used. McCourt can light up a ground with individual skill but can’t last more than 45 minutes. Lua Lua looks wasted in the middle and is easily marked out of games. Teixeira finds space effortlessly but is too selfish for someone who gets knocked off the ball too easily. Have we strengthened adequately in this area? For McCourt read Vicente. After that think of Buckley in his prime, Barnes chasing all round the field and chipping in with goals. Conway’s excellent crossing. Think of THAT goal against Forest, Lua Lua out wide to CMS out wide, a prefect cross smashed home by a target man’s head. Then think of now.
Last season we did not have enough strikers. It’s no good putting on the rose tinted specs, if Ulloa had got injured again we’d have dropped like a stone. This season we have the numbers but we have not replaced Ullloa, nor do we have a different option or a target man, COG looks to have been a rushed buy to get numbers in.
From the above it looks like we are weaker. David Burke famously does SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) so here’s mine on the players.
Strength – cover in every position. Good mix of youth and experience
Weakness – too many similar players and too many stars not replaced adequately. Squad strength on a continuous downward curve.
Opportunity – the loan market and the January window
Threat – if we stay where we are it will be our rivals poaching our players in January. Could we attract someone from Charlton this winter?
Now take most of the above and throw it in the bin. Put Holla and Gardner in as fullbacks. Put Bruno or Calde, Bennett and one of our strikers in to the “Wingers / Attacking Midfielders / Flair Players / In the hole” category. THAT is our tactics or, at least, that is how our players currently interpret them. Or, put another way, we have taken a mixture of players from when we thought Garcia would stay, to when we were searching for a manager, to when he was confirmed, and asked them to play a system that no one else in the Championship uses. Players who, thanks to our operating losses, are necessarily weaker than two seasons ago.
But, you’ll remember I also asked where it was going right. There have been improvements in certain areas, even allowing for the above. Our set pieces are FAR better under Sami (under Oscar it looked like we didn’t bother practicing them at all and a corner might as well have been a goal kick). We are attacking more and when it comes off (Cardiff but for their keeper, big bits of the Charlton game) it is exciting to watch and creates chances. It is this that needs building on. Should we continue, instead, to concede first and early, to make glaring individual errors and to try to play total football with a hastily assembled and physically weak squad we will continue to struggle. Lose to Rotherham and we could be looking for a new builder to work on those strengths – and this time round Russell Slade’s not available.