Monday, 15 August 2011

Albion 1 - 2 Manchester United - A brief round-up

This game signalled the return of competitive football to The Hawthorns after exactly three months away, with Albion starting their campaign against the previous year's Premier League champions for the second successive season.

Manchester United impressed football fans up and down the country during their 3-2 Community Shield victory over Manchester City seven days before the start of the season, with Albion struggling to a 1-1 draw at home to Parma after a flat performance in their final pre-season friendly. These results and performances led to some Albion supporters justifiably predicting a rather heavy defeat, a pessimism not helped by our 6-0 opening-day defeat at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea last season. However, what was to follow was a very close game and a performance which certainly gives Albion fans plenty of reasons for optimism.

The game itself
The main surprise in the starting line-up was that Roy Hodgson appeared to go with what was almost an orthodox 4-4-2 formation, with the unpredictable Somen Tchoyi partnering debutant Shane Long up front. The rest of the team was fairly predictable, although I was disappointed to see Graham Dorrans left on the bench after predicting big things from him this season. There are still plenty of games left though, I suppose!

The first ten or 15 minutes of the game were totally dominated by United, and they took the lead during this period when Wayne Rooney received a pass from Ashley Young inside the penalty, was given time to turn and sent a powerful low shot across Ben Foster and into the bottom corner to give the champions a deserved lead.

It is fair to say that this goal woke us up a bit and as we began to see more of the ball, the noise levels inside The Hawthorns rose noticeably.

We equalised after 37 minutes, when Long received a pass from Chris Brunt after the impressive Tchoyi had held off Fabio with ease and sent a low shot under David De Gea and into the bottom corner to bring Albion back on level terms.

Shane Long celebrates a goal on his debut and bringing Albion back on level terms.

The general consensus of opinion at half-time was that we had played very well and deserved to be on level terms, but that United had a number of quality players at their disposal and so would be able to up their game if they needed too.

However, if anything, we had more of the play in the second half. We didn't really create any clear-cut chances, but had a lot of the ball and looked comfortable at the back, which is an unusual scenario for the Albion!

Despite this, as is often the case against the better sides in the Premier League, United were still able to find a winner with nine minutes remaining.

The fact that the winner was an own-goal by Steven Reid created by a former Aston Villa player in Young made it even worse for Albion fans, especially when it just seemed as though we would be able to do enough to hold on to what would have been an excellent point.

As much as we tried to find an equaliser during the closing stages of the game, United have got years of experience when it comes to scoring important late goals and then holding on to the draw a victory they have been able to salvage. Even Foster's presence at the far post for a last-minute Brunt free-kick was not enough to see us score a late equaliser, meaning that our season started with a defeat.

There were plenty of positives to take from the game, such as:
  • The performance of Ben Foster, whose confidence was brilliant to see.
  • Our defensive performance in general was more solid than it was during most of last season.
  • Youssouf Mulumbu produced another outstanding individual display.
  • Somen Tchoyi and Shane Long seemed to form a very good understanding up front in the first game they have played alongside each other.
  • Most importantly, at no point were we outclassed by the side many people are tipping to win the Premier League.
Somen Tchoyi was a constant threat to the Manchester United back four.

However, there were one or two aspects of the performance which need a bit of work:
  • Steven Reid struggled to cope with the pace and trickery of Ashley Young all afternoon.
  • If we are being really critical, the defence could have done more to stop Wayne Rooney turning and shooting in the penalty area.
  • James Morrison struggled to have any influence on the game, whereas Graham Dorrans might have been more effective.
  • To concede such an unlucky goal so late on to lose when we deserved a draw was very difficult to take, and is a negative in itself. 
Overall, though, there were far more positives than negatives to take from this performance and Albion fans will certainly not be too disheartened going into next weekend's match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

West Bromwich Albion season preview - 2011/12

For the first time in many years, there appears to be a genuine mood of optimism among Albion fans as we are about to embark on a second successive campaign in the Premier League for only the second time in our history. There are undoubtedly a number of factors contributing to this cautious optimism, but I would say the main one is that, for the first time in the Premier League, we are starting the season with an experienced manager in charge.

Roy Hodgson turned our season around last time out after his arrival midway through February, and his tactical nous could be crucial to us building on what we achieved last season and consolidating in the Premier League. If we are to believe what he said in an interview a couple of days ago, the club have secured the three players who Hodgson wanted to bring to the club above all others in Ben Foster, Zoltan Gera and Shane Long.

Having Roy Hodgson in charge is one of the main reasons for the level of optimism at The Hawthorns this season

The two signings which have created the most excitement among Albion fans are probably that of Foster on a season-long loan deal from Birmingham City and the return of Gera after his contract expired at Fulham, with the Hungarian international captain being a favourite among The Hawthorns faithful following his previous four-year spell at the club. The main attribute which these two players have in common and which our four other signings don't really have is a wealth of Premier League experience, something which Hodgson seems to value very highly.

Here is a round-up of our transfer activity:
Ben Foster (season-long loan, Birmingham City)
Marton Fulop (free transfer, Ipswich Town)
Billy Jones (free transfer, Preston North End)
Gareth McAuley (free transfer, Ipswich Town)
Zoltan Gera (free transfer, Fulham)
Shane Long (undisclosed fee, Reading)

Scott Carson (undisclosed fee, Bursaspor)
Boaz Myhill (season-long loan, Birmingham City)
Gianni Zuiverloon (released, now with Real Mallorca)
Abdoulaye Meite (released, now with Dijon)
Giles Barnes (released, now with Doncaster Rovers)
Marcus Haber (released, now with St Johnstone)
Chris Wood (28-day youth loan, Birmingham City)

Key player
I think our key player this season will, once again, be Youssouf Mulumbu in midfield. Peter Odemwingie's goals effectively kept us up towards the end of last season, but Mulumbu was consistent throughout the season and played with the kind of passion and commitment which has made him a real favourite with the fans. Mulumbu is the kind of player who you might not always notice when he is producing one of his typically solid performances, but you definitely notice if he is slightly below-par or is absent from the team due to injury or suspension. Most of the time, if Mulumbu plays well, the rest of the team plays well.

Youssouf Mulumbu's form is crucial if Albion are to repeat their success of last season

One to watch
I think there are two players to look our for this season from an Albion perspective - Graham Dorrans and George Thorne. Dorrans spent most of last season out of the team, due to personal problems at the start of the season and a number of injuries. However, during the few games where he was given an opportunity to impress, he showed glimpses of the ability which saw him perform so well in The Championship during the previous season. If he is given more of a chance this season, I can see him being a big player for us.

Graham Dorrans could be a big player for Albion this season if given the chance

Thorne has emerged from the youth team and Reserves over the last 12 months or so as a player who can genuinely challenge for a first-team place this season. Despite only making two competitive appearances for the senior side, his performances in these matches and in training have led to suggestions that he could well force his way into the first team at some point this season. Thorne is unfortunate that the strongest area of our squad is arguably central midfield, which is where he plays, but time is on his side and if he impresses when he undoubtedly gets an opportunity in the Carling Cup, he may well leave Hodgson with a tough decision to make.

George Thorne has emerged as a player who can challenge for a first-team place this season

Expectations for this season
Premier League - 14th
I have seen a number of people suggest that we should look to at least match our 11th-placed finish last season, and maybe even push towards the top half of the table. However, I think remaining realistic is incredibly important and so I would be happy if we finished lower mid-table and were able to go into the last three or four games of the season with our Premier League status secured. Although there is still the best part of three weeks left until the transfer window closes, I think there are at least four or five squads who, on paper, are not as good as ours. With this in mind, if our key players have good seasons and avoid injuries, I don't see any reason why we cannot avoid relegation again.

FA Cup - Quarter-finals
Everyone likes a good cup run and one of the main disappointments of last season was that we were knocked out in the third round of the FA Cup after a lacklustre performance at Reading. We now have a greater number of options throughout the side than we did last season, so I think we should be looking at trying to reach the latter stages of the FA Cup if the draw is kind to us.

Carling Cup - Quarter-finals
This is the competition where, in the early rounds at least, some of the young players from our newly-established Development Squad will probably be given the opportunity to impress Hodgson and the rest of the first team coaches. When you add to these young players some of the experienced players who may not start the Premier League season in the starting line-up, such as Marton Fulop, Somen Tchoyi and Simon Cox, it is clear that we have the potential to go on a decent run in this competition if we avoid some of the bigger clubs in the draw. This is often the competition which clubs sacrifice to allow them to focus on their respective league or the FA Cup, but the reaction of Albion fans to our exit at the hands of Ipswich Town in the quarter-finals last season after naming a weakened side shows that if you are able to reach the latter stages of the Carling Cup, it is still a competition which supporters would like to see their side win.

Overall, I think we have a lot to look forward to this season. There is always a certain sense of optimism going into the first week of any new season, but there is plenty of reason for it on this occasion, with an experienced manager at the helm and a number of quality additions joining a squad who performed very well in the Premier League last season for much of the campaign.

Despite this, I'm sure most Albion fans (myself included) would settle for a lower mid-table finish without having to worry about relegation going into the final few games of the season, and maybe even a cup run as well!

Thanks for reading, please feel free to leave a comment with your expectations for the season or speak to me on Twitter @tomharper94.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Albion's transfer activity - Part two

Since my last blog post about our transfer activity, it is fair to say that we have been one of the more active clubs in the Premier League, confirming the signing of four players and being linked with countless others.

The first new addition to be confirmed was Ben Foster, who has joined us on a season-long loan deal from Birmingham City. Some concern was expressed by a number of Albion fans at the fact that there is no option to sign Foster permanently at the end of the season, although I'm sure they club will make an offer if Foster plays as well as he did for Birmingham City in the Premier League last season. In my opinion, Foster is among the top five or six best goalkeepers in the league, so to attract him to the Albion is a real coup for the club and definitely a cause for optimism ahead of the new season. As part of the deal which saw Foster join us, Boaz Myhill went the other way in an identical deal, meaning that we do have a Plan B should we not be able to sign Foster next summer. Below is a video showing what we can hopefully expect from Foster next season.

To provide back-up for Foster this season, we also signed Marton Fulop from Ipswich Town. Fulop is an experienced goalkeeper, who can include the likes of Sunderland and Manchester City (albeit briefly) among his former clubs. He has spent the last seven years in England playing for a number of clubs, so will provide good competition for Foster in an area of the squad which is looking significantly stronger compared to the end of last season.

I mentioned in my last blog about our transfer activity that we were close to re-signing Zoltan Gera after his contract expired at Fulham. This deal took a little longer than expected to go through due to Gera needing surgery on an ankle injury, with the club wanting to wait until he had made a sufficient recovery before confirming his return. He seems to have made a good recovery and should be available for selection by mid-September, which is also around the time when a suspension he incurred after being sent off on the final day of last season will have been served. The big question among most Albion supporters is, quite simply, how will Gera fit into our side once he is fully fit? Roy Hodgson has described him in a recent interview as one of his main targets this summer, which suggests that he will be in the starting line-up during most games. With this in mind, I believe his versatility could be his greatest strength, as he is capable of playing on either wing and can also play just behind one or two strikers, depending on the formation we play. This is where Hodgson will earn his money this season, as we have a lot of talented midfielders who we need to try and accommodate in the side!

The most recent signing we have made is that of striker Shane Long, who has been a player we have been linked with all summer since Reading lost to Swansea in the Championship play-off final back in May. His record of 25 goals in 51 starts last season is incredibly impressive, which is why a number of Premier League clubs have been linked with him this summer, as well as arguably the two promotion favourites in The Championship, Leicester City and West Ham United. Some Albion fans have expressed concern that we have signed a player with very little Premier League experience, but I have been impressed every time I have seen him play live (admittedly only once or twice when we have played Reading) and I definitely trust a manager with 36 years of experience in the game to have signed a player who is good enough to make a big impact in the Premier League. Below is a video showing some of Long's highlights from last season, which should hopefully persuade the doubters that he is potentially a very good signing.


When you add these four signings to the two we had already completed this summer (Gareth McAuley and Billy Jones), I think our squad is undoubtedly stronger than it was this time last year. We have replaced players who were far too inconsistent with players whose greatest attribute is their consistency and reliability (albeit at a lower level up until this point), so I would like to think that most of the individual errors which cost us so dearly last season can be eradicated this season.

Roy Hodgson has hinted in his most recent interview that he would still like to sign a centre-back and I think that if we are able to add one more player to our squad in this position, we will have made all the signings we need to this summer.

Keep checking my blog over the next few days, as later in the week, I will be posting an Albion preview for the forthcoming season.