I’m not really sure what to make of that game. Nobody can deny that on the balance of play over 90 minutes and on chances created West Brom deserved to win more than we did. But getting nothing would have been hard on us after a performance which was lacking in cohesion – trying to play football in a howling gale interspersed with thunderstorms can’t have been easy, so both teams deserve a pat on the back for making the effort and for what was generally a keenly-contested but fair game – but not in effort and commitment.
The team was actually the same as the one for the away game against Burnley, so there was consistency of sorts. Thatcher and Halford as the full-backs, Semedo partnering Holland in central midfield. So there wasn’t much anticipation of us driving forward in numbers. Up front Gray was back to partner Lita, while Thomas and Ambrose provided the width. I’m not sure it’s a set-up for the team which inspires, especially at home, looking something like a compromise between playing football and knocking it long, with a shortage of real pace and a defensive feel about it. But quite frankly with so many possible combinations (Varney and Sinclair didn’t even make the bench), so little time left to get it right, and after three straight defeats and with confidence low I’m just not in the mood to carp.
Given the conditions both teams played well enough in the first half, without the game every really catching fire. After some cat and mouse stuff in the first 29 minutes (the time is important as Suzanne put a couple of quid on the first goal being scored in 21-30 minutes – at 9/2 – so we need to establish that) a set-piece was swung over to the far post. Halford met it and I thought headed it back across goal. But it went in and we had the advantage. A couple of half-chances were to follow but the finishing was not up to scratch (although nothing was to match Thomas’ early effort which not only failed to make Deano work but also didn’t make it out of play for a throw-in). And in the end two moments shortly before half-time were to decide the outcome.
First, Ambrose gave away a free kick in a risky position, not for the first time. After the delivery in was contested by just about everyone the ball fell to Phillips, somehow on his own just inside the area. There was still a lot to do, with Weaver and defenders on the line. But the little git struck it sweetly and in off the bar, giving those waiting for the shot no chance. Very soon after from another set piece suddenly Sodje (I think) found himself unmarked in the box with the ball. His shot blazed over the bar.
At the break it was still anyone’s game. We were playing OK given the conditions, with Thomas putting in the best 45 minutes I’ve seen from him this season (not just threatening but putting in some committed tackles too). The defence was looking reasonably solid against a team we know scores for fun. Two West Brom players booked, Semedo joining them (the only complaint here was that the ref was not going to show a card until the WBA player showed him the effect of the challenge). How Ambrose avoided being booked was a mystery given repeated fouls and talkings to. The only other incident that sticks in my mind was Thomas delivering the worst attempt at getting a penalty I have seen for a while. He had clearly lost the ball before deciding as an afterthought to take a tumble.
With the two teams back to parity much of the second half was as cagey as the first. But to the credit of both as the game progressed substitutions were made with the intention of getting the winner – and as the game opened up in the last 20 minutes it was once more the opposition which looked the more likely. One rasping shot of theirs hit the top of the bar and their passing and movement seemed to improve as they chased the game. We weren’t shy of throwing players forward either, but there was more of an air of desperation about our attacks in comparison with theirs. But we continued to defend well, with McCarthy marshalling those around him and with plenty of tackles and blocks. It’s just a pity that the abiding memory of our defending was a Keystone Cops moment when a poor backpass saw Weaver scramble to get to the ball to prevent a corner, only to keep it in play for them.
In the conditions any set piece could cause problems for either defence, so there was always hope. We brought on Zheng for Semedo, then Iwelumo for Lita and Cook for Ambrose. Zheng looked a little rusty and, with West Brom getting a grip on the game it was a gamble which nearly backfired. When Big Chris was warming up I assumed he would come on for Gray, as Lita was the most likely to benefit from scraps in the box. Cook coming on saw Thomas switch to the right, where he seemed generally less effective.
There was always the chance of a goal but when the final whistle blew we had to accept that we had created very little from open play (again, the conditions did play a big part), with no indication that Gray and Lita could play together. In the last half an hour we got in plenty of crosses, but when Kiely comes out and gathers them all comfortably you know that the quality of the ball in was not good enough. Whether a point is good enough for either team is doubtful, but West Brom probably had the better case to feel more aggrieved at not getting all three.
I usually like a couple of days to ponder before drawing any conclusions. But my main feeling after the game was that we were/are still in danger of falling between stools in terms of style of play. With Thatcher and Halford as the full-backs there is precious little support for the wide men going forward, which of course makes them less effective. Equally, Semedo and Holland is not a partnership to produce driving runs forward. Up front, Gray and Lita did not look like a natural partnership. I thought Lita was looking threatening before he was substituted (OK, let’s be honest, I thought it was crazy to bring on Iwelumo and throw in crosses but at the same time take off the player most likely to nick a goal in the box). A player like Gray requires more fluidity and forward movement than our line-up afforded. Maybe our game plan was to get in front and then have the weapons to keep it tight at the back. If we could have made it to half-time in front and/or got a second it might have worked. And maybe on the day not being beaten was enough.
Weaver: 6/10. No chance with the goal and dealt with other shots and crosses, but has to be marked down for a couple of crazy moments in the second half.
Halford: 8/10. Defensively sound enough and scored the goal. But whether or not under instructions there was nothing from him going forward in open play.
Thatcher: 7/10. As with Halford without the extra point for the goal.
McCarthy: 9/10. My man-of-the-match. Leadership and commitment. Excellent display.
Sodje: 8/10. Not far behind. I don’t know what happened regarding marking for their goal, but today defensively we could not really be faulted.
Holland: 8/10. Put in so much work, with some stirring tackles. Just questionable whether a partnership with Semedo is a central midfield to either control a game or to support the attack.
Semedo: 7/10. If Holland wasn’t around he would do the job splendidly, as he did earlier this season. It’s not his fault that together it’s not ideal.
Thomas: 8/10. Loses a point for the penalty effort, but was our main attacking threat through the game. Often had no support.
Ambrose: 6/10. Not his best game. Lucky not to be booked in the first half, wasted a free kick in a good position in the second. But no lack of effort and the crosses did cause some problems.
Gray: 6/10. It wasn’t a day for playing through the middle and he’s not one for the longer ball.
Lita: 7/10. Still not really convincing, but was proving something of a handful before being taken off.
Subs: Cook (looked less impressive than when he came on against Watford); Zheng (difficult to come on against West Brom’s midfield and impress); Iwelumo (tried hard but he and Gray is not the partnership we’re looking for).
The officials: They came in for a lot of stick. But from where I was sitting there was only one decision – a foul given against Halford contesting a ball in their box, which was down to the linesman – that was poor. Some were questionable, but the howls of derision from the stands were just not justified.