Hard-working players regularly picked over creative types
10 February ~ Tonight’s FA Cup fourth round replay between Peterborough United and West Bromwich Albion could well be one of those where neutrals would prefer to see both sides lose. Posh manager Graham Westley has long been someone who would figure highly in any footballing unpopularity contest. Tony Pulis’s Albion, meanwhile, are increasingly unloved by their own supporters, let alone the uncommitted.
Pulis was never going to be a manager Albion fans would warm to readily, in part because their side was always particularly vulnerable to the tactics he employed when in charge of Stoke. But recent criticism of him is mainly due to the direction in which he seems to be taking Albion. It sometimes appears that Pulis regards a good attacking performance from his players as an aberration.
The 2-2 draw at Chelsea last month was a fine display, which showed little respect for the opposition. Three days later at Southampton, Pulis abandoned the pressing game used at Stamford Bridge in favour of a deep-lying defence. Albion lost 3-0 and didn’t have a single shot on target, a failing they’ve repeated in two of their three subsequent league games.
Then there’s the question of who Pulis puts on the pitch and where. Often, particularly when Chris Brunt is unavailable at left-back, the defence is composed entirely of centre-backs. There have been attempts to play striker Victor Anichebe in midfield and Darren Fletcher, at his best alongside a holding player, just behind a lone forward. Craig Gardner and James McClean, both of whose main attributes are their high workrate, are regularly deployed in the wide midfield positions at the expense of trickier types such as Calum McManaman and Stéphane Sessègnon.
Finally, there’s the ongoing saga surrounding Saido Berahino. Given Pulis’s preferences in other areas of his side, some Albion fans – probably unfairly – suspect that the manager bears the main responsibility for the sidelining of the club’s biggest talent. Berahino was the scorer of Albion’s two goals in the draw that led to tonight’s replay, and must have a chance of starting at London Road.
That apart, Pulis could well find himself fielding a weakened team out of necessity. At the time of writing James Chester, Cristian Gamboa and Sebastien Pocognoli were the only defenders definitely fit. Midfielder James Morrison, a creative player who remains very much a first-choice selection, is definitely out.
The injuries are a worry for the manager, who probably needs a good Cup-run to salvage what goodwill he has left among Albion supporters. Premier League survival alone would be unsatisfactory, given the strength of the squad and that this is the club’s sixth successive top-flight season. Defeat to Westley’s side could lead to louder calls for a change of coach at The Hawthorns. James Baxter