A late Graham Dorrans strike against Stoke gave West Brom their seventh win of the season but, while there were positives to draw from the match, Roy Hodgson’s side are right in the mire that is the Premier League relegation battle.
The Baggies have missed the creativity of Zoltan Gera this season, who picked up a knee injury in November, and have looked one-dimensional and one-paced for the last few months. They are not particularly pleasant on the eye for any fan of the passing game; this, of course, isn’t necessarily a major problem, as long their style is effective.
Four wins since November and only 20 goals scored in the league this season would suggest that West Brom are struggling this season. While they might not be favourites to go down, this is perhaps only because of the astoundingly poor quality below them: it would be a quite astonishing fall from grace if a mid-table team became worse than Blackburn, Bolton or Wigan in the space of six months.
The most worrying thing for West Brom fans in recent weeks, though, has been that Hodgson has seemed incredibly reluctant to change things. He’s been reliant to an almost stubborn level on the 4-4-2 formation, a set-up which has failed to get the best out of certain players, including Peter Odemwingie, who has only scored four goals in 17 games, a poor return from a player who starred last season.
The Nigerian hasn’t been able to forge a cohesive partnership with top scorer Shane Long (6 in 17 games), but both were left on the bench for the away trip to Stoke, with Hodgson reverting to an almostfluid 4-5-1 formation. Marc-Antoine Fortune was given his first start of the season in a move that was surely designed to battle against the physical features of Stoke’s defence. Simon Cox played out on the wing but came inside to play as a kind of second striker.
A central midfield three of Graham Dorrans, James Morrison and Youssuf Mulumbu worked well as a unit, attacking well and defending resolutely when needed. Jerome Thomas was lively on the left wing.
Both Stoke and West Brom looked to power the ball forward as soon as possible, with Nicky Shorey in particular desperate to hit a sometimes isolated Fortune, whether there were better options on or not. This contented refusal with possession football was always going to be problematic with the wind causing both sides problems, most notably playing a part in Morrison’s poor shot dribbling past a hapless Thomas Sorensen into the net.
That goal was only West Brom’s 21st of the season in what was their 22ndgame, but while they’ve struggled to score goals this term, they’ve been impressively tight in defence. Jonas Olsson, unyielding against the Potters, marshals the defence well and has become West Brom’s version of what Christopher Samba is at Blackburn – dominant, omnipresent and consistently leading by example (although Olsson looks to actually be committed to his club). And behind him, the excellent Ben Foster is a reassuring presence.
The fact remains, though, that the team who finished 11th last season now find themselves amongst relegation candidates and are in a similar situation to QPR and Wolves, both in terms of league position – hovering dangerously above the bottom three, their situation far from safe – and playing quality.
Many fans have now started to ask if owner Jeremy Peace needs to start investing more money into the playing squad or whether a new owner needs to come in to give Hodgson more to work with.
There has to be criticism for Hodgson, though, and, while today’s performance against Stoke was promising and gave them a much-needed three points, the problems are still there. The offensive play is predictable and, with that lack of cutting edge, WBA struggle to open teams up. Almost half (49%) of West Brom’s shots this season have come from outside the box; their best chance today and the two goals were strikes from range, Morrison hitting the post in the second half with a volley and Dorrans’ free-kick, which Stoke should have dealt with better.
Of course, this is not to say that Hodgson is failing as such. This is certainly not a call for his head – for one, it is difficult to imagine who would come in and be an improvement on the Englishman. Hodgson needs more time to build and there maybe has been a lack of investment, but that doesn’t mean he’s without fault.