West Brom have been a stubborn thorn in our side in recent meetings between the clubs. In 2 of the last 3 meetings they have stopped us from scoring, with the most recent occasion in Martinez first game in charge on Goodison soil – a 0-0 stalemate. Indeed, with 17 draws between us this fixture ominously pitted together the two most prolific draw specialists in the division.
Possession has usually been plentiful for us in each of these 3 games however there hasn’t been a correlation into us creating genuine goal scoring opportunities. This has been due largely to ‘The Baggies’ rigid defensive shape with their back four one of the league’s most settled defences along with our own.
Given this fact, it was a big loss to lose chief creative spark Steven Pienaar to injury with the South African ‘schemer’ replaced by Bryan Oviedo who moved to the right flank. Leon Osman duly came over to the left side to enable both to tuck in on their better feet to deliver better passing angles into the forwards. Sylvain Distin also returned for the Blues in place of Stones. Our hosts went 4-4-2 making 4 changes in Pepe Mel’s first game in charge, with Lugano, Yacob, Gera and Vydra coming in for McAuley, Mulumbu, Amalfitano and Long.
Prior to the game Mel implied there would be subtle changes to the approach of the rather rigid setup preferred by onion headed predecessor Steve Clarke, speaking of a ‘more aggressive approach’ with more focus on ‘creating goalscoring chances’ which would imply less emphasis on shape and higher pressure in the final third.
For the first half we controlled the game although created minimal in front of goal. Like Norwich last week, West Brom went with two strikers to press us high up and forcing us to go long. Indeed, our 3 best openings of the first half all came from long Distin punts downfield in behind Lugano, who wasn’t having an A1 day. Firstly on 5mins Distin teed up Lukaku with a ball over the top for a decent opening before again on 11 mins finding the Belgian who this time played in Oviedo to fire wide. The third time the Blues finally made it pay with Lukaku heading down Distin’s pass for Mirallas to nip in behind the lumbering Lugano to smash home. In Martinez post match press conference he mentioned that his knowledge of Mel’s strategy led him to rightly believe he would press high up – thus giving us a chance in behind, and so it proved.
West Brom’s best opportunities came from Anelka who was making decent gains by first pulling out wide onto the left flank in behind pockets of space vacated by Coleman and then dropping off centrally to play passes through the our centre backs for Vydra.
In terms of final third control we dominated, making double the amount of passes in West Brom’s defensive third than they did in ours, and we deservedly left the field at half time 1-0 up.
After the interval Everton simply didn’t turn up and it was a dreadful and disjointed second half display.
Martinez mentioned the state of the pitch being a contributing factor and this combined with West Brom’s pressure from the front to led to us playing 21% of our passes long – that’s close to double the season average of 13%. The loss of Barkley was particularly crucial here and without his ability to receive in tight areas, turn and drive through midfield and commit defenders meant we had little coming from the middle of the pitch.
We certainly struggled to find any rhythm on the ball with pass completion dipping from 79% in the first half to 75% in the second- way down on the season average of 83.6%.
In the final third it was even more depressing with just 2 chances created in open play after the break and no shots on target in the entire half. Lukaku’s display was particularly insipid both on and off the ball. West Brom got touch tight on him which he doesn’t like and between them arch grocs Olsson and Lugano to put it bluntly ‘had him off’ in every 50-50. Sometimes the ability to ‘buy’ a foul to enable teammates to move up the pitch by 20 yards can be crucial when under pressure, and he won none. On the ball, he constantly failed to make the ball stick and bring in attacking midfielders with his pass completion down from a season average of 65% to Anichebe levels of 46%.
On the subject of Anichebe, the misfiring forward was by now in the thick of the action and quickly looked to execute his signature and perhaps only manoeuvre of sticking his backside into the opposition centre back and pressing reverse until one of them falls over. The introduction of the former boo boy favourite did make an impact – he was much better than Vydra – and to be fair he did more damage than in 45mins than Lukaku did in 90. West Brom were by far the better team after the interval and turned the tables on us in terms of attacking third passes making double our figure and also having more possession, territory and chances created from open play. They deservedly pulled level when some powder puff defending from Baines and McCarthy allowed the ball to come in from the flank for the comically bad Lugano to bury an Andy Gray style header past Howard.
This was a fairly crud games for the Blues which got worse as it went on. After initially having the upper hand in the first half, we appeared to have done the hard work by getting our noses in front against a stubborn opponent. The thought heading into the second half was that next steps would be all about us dominating the ball in our half, drawing them onto us and then hitting them on the break with some dynamic counter attacks. Unfortunately our three most dynamic midfielders messrs Barkley, Pienaar and Deulofeu were all unavailable and whilst Mirallas had some decent moments the two flank players Osman and Oviedo began the game on the periphery and got gradually worse. With each injury the levels of fluency and arrogance in our forward play has waned in recent weeks and we desperately need to get the trio back soon if we are to do more than merely hold our own and actually be able to force the issue - as we have done all season – in the upcoming games against our key rivals.