As a new Head Coach, the early relationship with the fans can have a significant impact on your chances of success but, for Sam Allardyce, the challenge is somewhat different given the absence of supporters in the stadium.
After his first match against Aston Villa, he may have been happy to avoid the cacophony of boos that would have undoubtedly accompanied the final whistle but, while he will not have won over all the doubters with the team’s performance at Anfield, it will have raised hopes with many supporters and, in normal times, there would have been plenty of vociferous backing at the Hawthorns on Tuesday night. Without the help of the home crowd, Big Sam will have to rely on his own motivational skills to get the team up for the visit of Leeds United, although it is obviously a situation that his players, if not Allardyce himself, are very used to.
When you look at the performances at Manchester City and Liverpool, motivation would not appear to be a problem, but a succession of poor performances against lesser teams tell a different story, with Allardyce’s first game the latest example.
Red cards in the games against Villa and Palace offer some mitigation, but the truth remains that Albion started both games extremely poorly and it is something that has happened far too often for the Baggies since football returned from lockdown.
In the 24 league games since football returned in June, Albion have opened the scoring in only seven of those games (29%), with three of those coming during this campaign. Of those seven opening goals, only four of those (17% of matches) have been scored in the opening half an hour of the game and only one of those matches, at Everton in September, has ended in defeat. It have a little harsh to compare with Albion in the Championship pre-lockdown, but in the 37 games before lockdown, the Baggies scored in opening goal on 24 occasions (65%), 14 times (38%) in the opening 30 minutes. Furthermore, the Baggies had an average points haul of 2.39 in games when scoring first last season, and didn’t lose once.
Whether it is a result of the absence of fans or some other factor, there is no doubt that the statistics suggest that Albion’s start to games has been worse since lockdown, and I think it is something that most regular watchers of the Baggies will not find surprising.
It is not something that Allardyce has got to grips with as yet given that Albion have conceded inside the first 15 minutes of both of his matches so far, but it is something that he needs to address if he is to guide his new charges to Premier League safety. It is also something that he needs to be aware of for Tuesday evening’s match.
Leeds United have scored first in seven of their fifteen Premier League games so far and have gone on to win five of those matches. Four of those seven opening goals have been scored in the first 15 minutes. We all know what a Bielsa team is like and they will be looking to attack from the first whistle. There may be a case to keep things tight in those early exchanges, but Albion cannot afford to invite pressure and, most importantly, they cannot afford the lapses of concentration that saw them concede the opening goals against Villa and Liverpool.
It will be an intriguing tactical battle between two coaches whose styles could hardly be more different. Allardyce with his organised approach looking to exploit the positions of maximum opportunity against Bielsa with his high press free-flowing open style.
Leeds will inevitably leave gaps at the back and Albion will need to be able to exploit them while remaining defensively organised. I would expect Big Sam to use the pace of Grant and Robinson up front once again, although hopefully not as deep as they were in the first half at Anfield, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the same starting line up as that match, assuming all have recovered well. Pereira will undoubtedly be pushing for a start and, given the pace that he can offer, we may see some game time for Kamil Grosicki, but it’s difficult to look beyond Sunday’s starting line-up should they all be fit and raring to go.
The short time between games could be a decisive factor. Bielsa’s team are notoriously high energy and they only won one of the four festive fixtures last season, a 5-4 win over Birmingham City, albeit the fourth of those was a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns.
If nothing else, that point at Anfield has given us hope and a sense of anticipation rather than dread as we look to the next fixture. The question is, can Big Sam keep that flame of hope flickering long into the New Year?