THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

15 December ~ With a series of apparently winnable fixtures, December was supposed to be the month West Bromwich Albion opened up a gap between themselves and the real Premier League stragglers. As a result, they wouldn't be talked of as relegation candidates when spring came round, but would finally be thought of as a credible and established top-flight outfit. It isn't working out that way just yet. Instead, a draw away to QPR and defeat at home to Wigan have ensured that fans' anxiety levels will remain high in the run-up to Christmas.

There is no crisis at The Hawthorns. In fact, there is little doubt that Albion currently have their best squad for nearly 30 years, with certain players – notably Youssuf Mulumbu, James Morrison and Shane Long – enhancing their reputations by the week. Although recent results have been disappointing, the team are not playing particularly badly. They looked the more likely winners as the game at Loftus Road entered its final stages. And Wigan players were unable to hide their own surprise at last Saturday's result.

Yet there are a few worrying signs. They keep throwing away points from winning positions. Penalties continue to be conceded – Wigan were the fourth successive visitors to The Hawthorns to be awarded a spot-kick. And Chris Brunt and Peter Odemwingie appear to be going though moody phases. Even the normally level-headed Roy Hodgson is showing his frustration.

Whether optimism can be drawn from the far greater problems Saturday's opponents Blackburn are going through is, at best, debatable. For a start, Ewood Park does not have the happiest associations for Albion fans. You have to go back to February 1991 for the club's last victory there. That win was followed, three months later, by a first ever relegation to the third division.

While the sort of cliches that surround Blackburn – "dark December days at Ewood Park" and the like – are tedious, there remains a sense that this Albion team does not consistently produce the sort of physical and mental resilience necessary to prevail in this type of fixture.

Hodgson arrived at the club with a reputation for sound defensive organisation. But that idea is being challenged by the lack of clean sheets and regular frittering away of leads. The kind of striker most likely to enjoy himself against the Albion defence is one who is big, muscular and good in the air. In other words, someone just like Blackburn’s Yakubu.

One tenuous link between Saturday's game and a previous visit to Ewood Park is the issue of refereeing. At the end of the 2002-03 season – Albion's first in the top division for 16 years – thousands of fans travelled to Lancashire dressed as match officials, bearing whistles, flags, and red and yellow cards. It was a tongue-in-cheek protest at the number of decisions that seemed to go the "wrong" way during the campaign. No one at The Hawthorns is yet blaming referees for this season's misfortunes, but there would be few complaints if a controversial penalty helped the team overcome Blackburn on Saturday – even if it is a little too early in the season to use yet another cliche and describe the match as a "six-pointer". James Baxter

Comments (4)
Comment by Peter_Bateman 2011-12-15 13:46:38

I'm not panicking yet but.......it is a worry that Woy does still not know his best lineup and the right formation. It was, admittedly, unfortunate that Zoltan Gera got injured when he was proving to be the man to play behind Shane Long in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Long is proving an excellent signingbut as for Odemwingie I am starting to think he might be the latest in a series of cheap and cheerful overseas signings who played well for half a season or so and then faded, like Jara, Tamas, Zuiverloon, etc. Still we've beaten Villa twice this year so it's not all gloomis it?

Comment by ian.64 2011-12-15 15:08:17

I have this horrible feeling that Blackburn may get all the spoils of the game. The ability of the West Brom forward line to grab a few goals this season is rarely in doubt (provided they can actually shoot at the actual bloody net when in good scoring positions). The ability of the defence to undo all that good work and - like Hodgson himself - be gentlemanly and accommodating is not doubted at all.

Comment by JimDavis 2011-12-16 14:00:22

I think we are slowly getting to grips with 4-4-2, and I expect the two banks of 4 to play with much better interaction in the new year. (We seem to know what to do for 15 minutes or so then it slowly drains away each half). My current issue is not with the dynamics of the Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long partnership, but with the effect having Shane Long up front is having on Chris Brunt. It sounds obvious that having 2 up front instead of 1 means everyone - attackers and defenders - are positioned differently. But put simply; I don't think Brunt has worked out what delivery he needs to provide for the two up front to be as successful as we were last year. Against Wigan all his movement just lead to him being mostly front and centre and passing slowly sideway and that didn't work. Hopefully Zoltan Gera can impart some wisdom from the side lines as he proved in his couple of game that he knew how to work the 4-4-2 system as good as anyone.

Comment by Peter_Bateman 2011-12-17 19:28:02

Maybe I spoke too soon about Odemwingie. I certainly hope so. A good win against a side who for all their problems are no mugs and I hope that Odemwingie can take some confidence from this. I should also say that, in the light of the problems so many clubs, such as our hosts today,are having with clueless owners, we should appreciate what Jeremy Peace has done for the club. We have come a long way since our original promotion in 2002 and his cautious financial approach allied to shrewd managerial appointments (Bryan Robson excepted!)has played a majot role in that.

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