For the second time in a week, this weekend’s Premier League fixture list pitches sides that met just a few short weeks ago as the reverse fixtures from 28th December see Albion visit Newcastle United. Albion were victorious five weeks ago thanks to a goal from Darren Fletcher and have lost just once in the eight games since in all competitions.
That statistic suggests that Albion are doing OK and, when you consider that they have lost just three games in the last fifteen, the feelings of discontent amongst many Baggies fans seem misplaced. However, read another way, that run of fifteen games has resulted in just four wins and only 18 goals, and those matches include five against teams below Albion in the Premier League and three against lower league opposition.
Lies, damn lies and statistics. Supporters and opponents of Pulis will find a set of numbers to support their case, and it may be just as simple as an argument between style and results but, in my opinion, it is somewhat more subtle than that.
Tuesday’s game against Swansea was, to me, almost encapsulated Albion’s entire season – there was certainly a set of familiar feelings.
Firstly, there was the disappointment in the starting line-up. Three defensive midfielders in the centre, just one striker up front, Berahino on the bench again despite scoring a brace at the weekend and Sébastien Pocognoli not in the squad.
Secondly, there was the optimism from a promising start coupled with the feeling that, with different players on the pitch, it could have been so much better. Albion played much better than they had against Villa, but it was almost impossible not to, and with Darren Fletcher playing at the front of the midfield three, he found himself in some great positions in support of Rondón – had Berahino played in that position, would he have not made more of the opportunities? Would he not have worked just as hard? With Sandro and Yacob behind, would there not have been enough defensive cover?
Then there were the disappointing, if not baffling substitutions. The injury to Jonny Evans made the omission of Pocognoli from the bench seem neglectful. The decision to bring on Gardner, Pulis’s default first substitution, lead to a bizarre reshuffling with Gardner going to right back and Dawson switching to the left. But the substitution that brought the most distaste from the fans was that of Berahino for Sessègnon just before Swansea scored. The fans had been calling for Berahino’s introduction, but to remove Sessègnon was just simply incomprehensible. It left the side incredibly unbalanced with no width on the right side at all, which eventually led Pulis to switching Dawson back to the right to act as a makeshift right winger as Albion chased the equaliser.
Finally, there was the result, not disastrous but with the feeling that Albion should have done better.
And it is that statement that is the source of my frustration with Tony Pulis.
I never wanted Pulis to come to the Albion but I have never called for him to be sacked. The results he has achieved warrant him staying in place for the time being, but with the squad we have, I can’t help but think that we could be doing much better. When you watch the likes of Watford and West Ham, not to mention Leicester, playing attacking football and being successful, it is with the green eyes of envy not just of the results, but of the football their fans are watching. A visit from Pulis’s Stoke City was the game none of us looked forward to, and it is now a struggle to get excited for any trip to the Hawthorns. If Pulis remains in place after the summer, I do wonder how many season ticket holders will opt not to renew.
And so to Saturday’s game. St James’s Park has not been a happy hunting ground in the Premier League for the Baggies, having lost six of the nine fixtures with their only win coming four seasons ago when Paul Scharner scored the winner with five minutes left.
The Toon were this January’s big spenders signing Jonjo Shelvey, Andros Townsend and Henri Saivet for a combined total of almost £30 million with Seydou Doumbia joining on loan from CSKA Moscow. They were, of course, prepared to spend more having bid in excess of £20 million for Saido Berahino, but even if Jeremy Peace had been prepared to sell to a rival, I’d be surprised if Newcastle would’ve been too attractive for the player himself.
So far, the signings have had little impact although it is still early days. Newcastle have won just once in the last nine games in all competitions although they have lost just once in their last five at home. Perhaps one sign for optimism is that they have tended to save their best performances for televised games, or particularly those against the big teams. Like Albion, Newcastle have struggled for goals this season scoring just 25 in the league, 2 more than Albion, although nine of those came in two games at home to Norwich and Manchester United.
Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to Everton was somewhat harsh with the two of the goals coming very late on from the penalty spot, but it leaves them in the bottom three two points behind 17th-placed Norwich and eight behind Albion. Most Baggies fans would be happy with a draw and, given Albion’s record on Tyneside, it would be a good result.
Albion’s biggest win at St James’s Park came more than 60 years ago in September 1953. England international, Johnny Nicholls, grabbed a hat-trick with Ronnie Allen scoring twice in a remarkable 7-3 win. That came just eight months after a 5-3 win at the same venue.
Newcastle’s record win over Albion is 5-1 which they have done on three occasions, the most recent back in November 1949 when Geordie legend, Jackie Milburn, grabbed a brace.
Although the Baggies have won twice on Tyneside in the League Cup in the last 40 years, the win in 2011 is Albion’s only league victory at Newcastle since September 1977 when Albion legends Regis, Cunningham and Robson all scored in a 3-0 win.
Albion are suffering their worst injury crisis of the season with four players ruled out for a few weeks at least. The trio of Brunt, Morrison and McManaman were joined this week by Jonny Evans who suffered a hamstring injury on Tuesday evening. If Pocognoli doesn’t get a start on Saturday, he may as well hang his boots up until the transfer window re-opens.
The hosts have a mini-crisis in defence with injury victims Mbemba and Dummett joined on the absentee list by Jamaal Lascelles who is suspended following his sending off at Everton on Wednesday. There are a further eight players on Newcastle’s crowded treatment table including Krul, Colback, Anita, Haidara and Obertan.
I’ve not done too well with predictions recently with my last correct call being in the home game against Newcastle in the last game of 2015. Albion’s record on Tyneside suggests that an away win is unlikely, but I think it will be a dull game, last on Match of the Day and a fourth successive draw for the Baggies.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
28 Dec 2015 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Fletcher)
Newcastle United 0
Last meeting at Newcastle United
9 May 2015 – Premier League
Newcastle United 1 (Perez)
West Brom 1 (Anichebe)
Last win at Newcastle United
21 Dec 2011 – Premier League
Newcastle United 2 (Ba (2))
West Brom 3 (Odemwingie, McAuley, Scharner)
Albion’s Record against Newcastle United
|Premier League Record|