It become an almost weekly occurrence throughout the season.
After each and every defeat Tony Mowbray, West Brom’s beleaguered manager, has been forced to batter away suggestions from the baying press that his side should change their style of play in order to compete in the division.
You can see where the journos are coming from. Every week the Baggies are praised for their pretty passing but with no end product they have nearly always ended up on the losing side.
They appear to be stuck in a kind of footballing purgatory. Too good for the Championship, they sauntered to the League title last year, but consistently get found out at the top level.
The success of Stoke in particular has only increased the pressure on Mowbray to swallow his pride and change tactics. Pre-season favourites for relegation, Tony Pulis’ side have comfortably staved off the drop with a bruising and direct style of play. This is despite appearing to have a weaker squad on paper and finishing below West Brom in the Championship last year.
Similarly the success of Bolton, who have been in the Premier League for seven years, has led to a number of sides in the bottom half of the league adopting their direct, set-piece heavy (but ultimately successful) style of play.
At first I believed Mowbray’s stubbornness was cutting his nose of to spite his face – his refusal to buckle under the pressure and sticking to his guns was also condemning his side to the drop.
But on the occasions I have watched his side this season I have begun to share his belief that his team are close to being a very good side. They actually pass the ball better than most of the sides in the division but that fateful combination of failing to convert chances at one end and poor defending at the other has consistently let them down.
The game at Spurs last weekend was a microcosm of their entire campaign. Pretty on the eye, West Brom carved out half a dozen chances but couldn’t stick the ball in the net. Spurs’ Jermaine Jenas, however, showed the extra composure and quality required at this level to break Baggie’s hearts yet again.
Who knows what difference Kevin Phillips would have made this year? The former Sunderland man grabbed 24 goals for Albion last term and won Championship Player of the Year. But The Baggies’ refusal to offer him a new contract saw him jump ship to Birmingham, who will replace West Brom in the Premier League next season. It is clear a predatory striker in Phillips’ mould is needed to feed off Mowbray’s industrious midfield.
It is also obvious that in the defence naivety, poor organisation and individual errors have cost them dear. Keeper Scott Carson’s confidence appears to be shot and clearly hasn’t recovered from his horror show for England against Croatia in November 2007.
The likes of Leon Barnett and Gianni Zuiverloon are not of Premier League standard while the lack of organisation is surprising considering it was one of the characteristics Mowbray was renowned for as a player.
Sadly the writing is on the wall for West Brom this season; only a miracle can save them now. But I hope Mowbray sticks to his guns and can bring them back up with a flourish; it would be just rewards for his bravery and single-mindedness.
By choosing to play such an expansive style of football his side were always leaving themselves open and exposed. With the financial oblivion of relegation proving to be a recurring nightmare for many a Premier League club’s board, it is perhaps not a surprise that so many teams now set out first and foremost to avoid defeat, playing direct and narrow, rather than to pass a team to death.
Anyhow a change in style would sit uncomfortably with the players and fans, who expect a certain brand of football. The fact that the majority of supporters are backing Mowbray, despite the inevitable drop down a division, points to that.
Roy Hodgson at Fulham has shown how Premier League success can be achieved without sacrificing your style of play – albeit with considerable investment. If the club can somehow supply Mowbray with the funds to purchase a goal-scorer and a reliable centre-back pairing (admittedly something that is easier said than done) I believe the Baggies can return to the top table of English football and prosper.
If not, then the Baggies will be boinging up and down the divisions for some years to come.