A Case For The Defence
Before the May encounter with Everton, Albion had set a Premier League record for most consecutive games without a clean sheet having conceded in their last 34 games since the early 1-0 win over Sunderland at The Hawthorns. The saving grace was how good The Throstles were going forward, and the ability to bounce back from losing positions. They gained 26 points from losing positions, the highest in the division, scoring 56 goals in the process. I will attempt to explore the reasons why there was such an inability to defend this past season, and whether there is hope for improvement in the season ready to start in just over a weeks time.
It may come as no surprise that the Albion backline conceded the most goals from set pieces last season, a whopping total of 30 which averages at 0.8 per game. As a fan, it`s hard to pinpoint a reason as to why this happens. Given their tendency to gift goals from corners and free kicks surely this would be something worked on in training a lot in the week? Well, in the hope that they did you could argue that during Di Matteo`s Premier League reign there was never a settled centre-back partnership in place for more than 4 games at a time. In terms of organisation this is detrimental, but is necessarily bad luck that caused this chopping and changing of defenders?
Well there is nothing you can do about injuries to players but with the exception of Jonas Olsson, which we`ll go into later, this didn`t really prove a problem for the Baggies. Suspension is unfortunate but in a lot of cases the blame falls squarely on the player themselves. Gabriel Tamas and Gonzalo Jara were both given red cards in the season for reckless challenges as well as key figure Youssouf Mulumbu being sent off twice needlessly in 3 weeks in November. Only Lee Cattermole, Ryan Shawcross, Craig Gardner and Laurent Koscielny saw red twice during the season.
This brings us on to another weakness of the past campaign with West Brom notching up more Red Cards than anyone else with 7. Any fool can see it is likely to be harder to win a game of football once you have fewer players than the opposition, so cutting out on unnecessary bookings and red cards is a must.
Are the defenders themselves good enough? Well it isn`t really questionable that Albion`s best defender last year was the impressive Swede Jonas Olsson. Not really noticed by pundits and neutrals, it is not by chance that the poor mid season form that led to Di Matteo`s dismissal coincided with Olsson`s 3 moth absence with injury. It was decided that Pablo Ibanez would come in for Olsson on Albion`s opening day trip to Stamford Bridge where Chelsea subsequently put six goals with no reply past him and Gabriel Tamas at the back. Olsson was immediately reinstated for the home game against Sunderland where the Baggies kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 win. He played in every game up until the 2-1 win against Fulham where he was taken off injured, and would not return in the league until late January. During that spell of games however, he and Albion played 8 times, losing just once on the way to 15 points whilst conceding 9 goals. Compare this to the 3 months he was injured and in the 13 Premier League matches played and Albion racked up 10 points conceding 26 goals, an average of 2 per game plummeting them to the bottom of the form table. Upon his return from the 2-0 loss at Ewood Park in January, form picked up tremendously coinciding with the arrival of manager Roy Hodgson, who finally settled on a partnership of Olsson alongside Abdoulaye Meite who had previously been banished from first team duty by Di Matteo inexplicably , for 9 games coming towards the end of the season. However, while this can be used as an excuse for defensive failings, the harsh reality which we cannot hide from is that a Premier League team should have the strength in depth to deal with the loss of one central defender. Albion didn`t which raises the question once again, were the remaining centre halves good enough? Using average goals conceded per defender we can try and see who was most effective, if at all in the heart of the Baggies defence.
Defender - Games Started - Goals Conceded - Average per game
Jonas Olsson - 24 - 40 - 1.6
Gabriel Tamas - 22 -37 - 1.7
Abdoulaye Meite - 10 - 19 - 1.9
Paul Scharner - 10 - 21 - 2.1-(as a defender)
Pablo Ibanez - 8 - 20 - 2.5
This shows us that despite none of these figures being particularly impressive, Olsson as expected had the best average narrowly edging Gabriel Tamas. Incidentally in the two clean sheets Albion held both times the partnership was Tamas and Olsson. So in answer to the question, 'are they good enough?` the answer would be maybe but definite room for improvement. Having released Meite, and with Scharner being deployed in his favourite defensive midfield role only 3 of those defenders remain.
Whether Tamas will stay is uncertain but Hodgson acted quickly in swooping for Ipswich defender Gareth McAuley and Preston`s Billy Jones on free transfers, while keeping youngster Craig Dawson from going on loan again pre-season to get a good look at him.
It is not just the defence`s fault though, the role of Goalkeeper Scott Carson was often highlighted throughout the season, but was he actually as much of a liability as made out?
Well one thing is for certain, he did not deserve persistent ironic cheers and boo`s from a minority of The Hawthorns` faithful, and if they thought it was going to do anything but damage his confidence they were very, very wrong.
In 32 Premier League appearances last season, Carson conceded 58 goals whilst making 5 mistakes leading directly to goals. Now this is poor, there is no hiding from it, but he`s not alone in that respect. England keeper Rob Green and Tottenham`s impressive Heurelho Gomes make errors and are known for it, but what sets them apart is that they keep their respective sides in games in the way that Carson rarely did. Scott Carson is not a bad goalkeeper, he is decent, but crippled confidence led to West Brom needed better in order to progress and he left to Bursaspor this summer with the best wishes of fans and the hope he can rebuild his career and reputation.
The other 6 games were filled by deputy Boaz Myhill who conceded 13 goals which is a worse average than Carson`s. Myhill has now departed on loan to Birmingham in part of the deal that has brought highly rated stopper Ben Foster to The Hawthorns, and the former Manchester United and England player comes off the back of an impressive season for relegated Birmingham City.
Rumours circulating suggest that Chris Kirkland and Martin Fulop are on Hodgson and Ashworth`s radar for a back-up to Foster who I personally believe would both be more than good enough, but the question is whether they`ll settle to transfer for an inevitable place on the bench.
There is room for improvement in the Albion back-line, even the most ardent Baggie cannot argue with this, but with Roy Hodgson at the helm there has already been a vast progression since February that has made West Brom much more difficult to beat. Hodgson implemented the simple things well, such as shape. It sounds easy enough but the improvement in the first game against Wolves was for all to see. Boaz Myhill was not forced into a save all game, it took a great strike from a well worked free kick from Jamie O`Hara to breach to the Albion defence. It was followed up by a well deserved point at Stoke City, renowned a horrible place to go and with The Baggies having a incredibly poor record against The Potters to claim a point that could have so easily been 3 was a great achievement. From when Hodgson took over after the West Ham United match at The Hawthorns, until the end of the season, the Premier League table for that period makes interesting reading.
6-West Bromwich Albion-12-5-5-2-1-0-22-20-+2-20-1.67
19-West Ham United-11-2-2-7-2-4-13-22--9-8-0.73
Albion sit in 6th place in terms of points per game, having only lost twice in 12 games under Hodgson. The 20 goals conceded still wasn`t convincing, but it was without doubt an improvement.
From next season you can expect Albion not to gift as many goals away, and for them to be a harder unit to beat. Defenders will not play the ball out of defence in a Mowbray and Di Matteo-esque fashion, but the boot of not so cultured centre half McAuley is likely to get the ball out of trouble first before deciding how to start his team on the counter.
It is difficult to guess the back four that will line up against United in the season opener. Will Hodgson stick with reliable Steven Reid at right back or opt for new boy Billy Jones? Who will partner Jonas Olsson in defence?
Either way, expect to see a tougher Albion side this year who will know full well the weight of expectations following a great campaign, and the nature of second-season syndrome.
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