The fallout from Wednesday’s defeat has been predictably critical from a vocal minority of the Baggies’ “twitterati” although the more sanguine commentators are a little more understanding of the issues that Darren Moore faced.
It’s easy to criticise Moore’s team selection and substitutions, particularly in hindsight. Ultimately, Albion lost and, therefore, he got it wrong.
However, had he played broadly the same eleven who played against Middlesbrough, he would have got just as much if not more criticism, particularly if one of the key players had been injured. No matter that an injury can happen in any game, if it happened in a game that the player “didn’t need to play in”, it would have been the manager’s fault.
That remains one of the “unfathomables” of football, or of any sport, for that matter. Coaches and players make decisions, which inevitably influence the outcome to one degree or another, but there will always be a series of chance or unintended events that lead to the ultimate outcome and rarely is one decision or action completely responsible. The successful coach or player will exert enough influence to ensure most things go their way, but no one is immune to the vagaries of chance. However you dress it up, coaches often end up being criticised, or even sacked, for being unlucky.
Albion probably had more than their fair share of bad luck on Wednesday night, and the fact that Andone has now been charged with violent conduct does not change the fact that had he been sent off on 27 minutes as he should have been, it may well have been a different result.
So, let’s hypothesise – if Andone had been sent off, and Albion had gone on to win the game as a result, would that have meant that Big Dave had got it right? Would he have been praised for giving the kids experience and still managing to get a result? His decisions would have been the same, but the outcome different.
Whether Moore’s selection is tantamount to “disrespecting” the FA Cup is debatable. While I, too, hark back to the seventies and eighties when the world’s oldest cup competition was every bit as important as the league, if not more so, football is very different these days.
The financial realities of football, particularly in the top two divisions means that the cup competitions are not a priority for the clubs and, therefore, not a priority for managers. In contrast, lower down the league, the cups probably represent the best financial rewards – the money earned from a cup run may barely dents the finances of a Premier League club but it can make a massive impact to the income of a League Two club.
Managers in the Premier League and Championship will not be judged on a cup run, but on their performance in the league. The only managers that can prioritise the cup are those in safe mid-table positions, but even those cannot be sure until the fifth or even sixth round comes around, and they will most likely have tried to squeeze through the early rounds with weakened teams.
In some ways, the fact that League One and Two teams will prioritise the cups means the chances of upsets in the earlier rounds are probably more likely, and we have seen plenty this season.
The other consideration is that every club in the top two divisions do have a squad of 25 to 30 players and many of them will not get the chance to play much league football. A lot of managers, like Darren Moore, will pretty much stick to a core squad of 15 or 16 players and the remainder will not get much football other than with the U23s.
In recent years, therefore, the cup competitions have become the opportunity for managers to play their fringe players and, as Moore has done, give their academy players some much needed experience of first team football.
Reserve football from thirty years ago no longer exists. Central League games would often get large attendances because it was a genuinely competitive league, but the general opinion is that U23 football is not very competitive even for the younger players.
Rekeem Harper is a real beneficiary of this approach in that his performances in the Carabao Cup in the autumn, and the FA Cup this year, have propelled him into the first team squad as a starter for the last three league games.
Sam Field has also advanced as a result of his performances, while Rayhaan Tulloch and Morgan Rogers will have been delighted to get their first team debuts in the FA Cup this month.
Ultimately, I think Darren Moore was doing what he thought was best for the squad overall and, with a little better luck, Albion could easily have gone through.
On the substitutions, his thinking was understandable even if you disagree with the overall aim. Reading between the lines, I believe he wanted to give the youngsters some time, while giving them the support of the first team but did not want any of the team in his mind for the weekend longer than 45 minutes.
J-Rod was only ever going to get 45 minutes, and he brought Dawson on to make a tactical switch. He probably planned to give Tulloch and Rogers some time, and it’s important to note that Rogers came one when Albion were winning, so he probably wasn’t expecting extra time. Once it was a draw, Moore didn’t want Dawson to play any more than 45, and hence the fourth sub.
Overall, however, I look back on the night as generally positive in that the academy graduates did extremely well and the first team escaped uninjured, apart from Hal Robson-Kanu of course, and are ready for the run-in, but I am also disappointed that our involvement in the cup is at an end.
I consider myself to be a traditionalist, and I love the FA Cup. I should be one of those claiming that Moore has “disrespected the competition”, but I’m also a realist. I would have loved a cup run, and would not have complained had he played a much stronger side, and would have accepted the risk of an injury to a key player. However, I wonder how many of those criticising him for playing a weakened side would have been supportive had Gayle played but suffered an injury and missed a month or two as a result.
In my opinion, there was no way that Moore could have avoided criticism no matter what team he picked unless Albion had won and it not affected our promotion push. Every decision he makes has an element of risk and he must weigh up the pros and cons while remembering that the vagaries of chance will often have the final say.