I’m always hesitant to describe a game as a “must win” when there are so many games left in a season, but Saturday’s visit of Fulham is certainly one that Albion cannot afford to lose.
It is the first in a series of seven games in five weeks when the Baggies will meet all five of the other teams in the bottom six plus Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. Having averaged a little over 0.5 points per game for the first half of the season, Albion need to push that up towards 1.5 for the remainder of the season if they are to have any chance of staying up, and that means winning eleven points from those seven games. However, given that the need to take points off the teams around us is paramount, the more taken in those five specific games, the better.
Those of you that read my report on the City game will know that I felt that Allardyce got it wrong on Tuesday night, although that does not absolve the players from criticism as some of the social media comments suggested. I just felt that his team selection made it more difficult for the players, but the level of performance produced was well below the minimum expected and Big Sam was right to read the riot act in the dressing room afterwards.
There have been suggestions since that the decisions to leave out Kyle Bartley and Conor Gallagher, the two players that I think would have made a difference on Tuesday, was more about saving them for this more important fixture, although there has been no explanation as to why Karlan Grant was played on the wing.
Steve Madeley in The Athletic not only indicated that Gallagher and Bartley would come into the side against Fulham, but that Sam Field is in contention as well. He also suggested that Allardyce was attempting to form a “fire break” between the City game and what came before, and the remainder of the season by having the post-match “debrief” on Tuesday evening and letting the players spend Wednesday with their families.
There certainly needs to be a reset and we can hope that it has the desired impact on Saturday. But Albion cannot afford any more false dawns – encouraging displays against Liverpool and Wolves promised much but were followed by successive defeats and this run of games needs a series of consistent performances and, of course, results.
As the author of a blog, I will offer my opinion on players’ abilities and performances, but I try to avoid personal criticism as I do not feel that any player is deliberately trying to play badly and, just because someone earns a lot of money as Premier League footballers do, it does not make them immune to the pressures both on and off the field that affect performance. Unfortunately, there are many that are happy to subject players to personal criticism via social media and at least one individual took that to the next level and decided to racially abuse Romaine Sawyers on Twitter during the City game on Tuesday evening. I’m sure that any genuine Albion fan would agree with me in the belief that such views have no place in society let alone in following a club that has a history of promoting racial equality. I hope that the individual can be identified and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and I also agree with Sam Allardyce’s comments that social media platforms need to do more to prevent this type of abuse.
Back to the football, one of Big Sam’s constant gripes this month has been his inability to bring new players in, and he is laying the blame firmly at the hands of those above him at the club. Andy Lonergan and Robert Snodgrass remain the only new faces at the time of writing, although hopes are high that striker, Mbaye Diagne, will join on loan from Galatasaray but perhaps not in time to play against Fulham. Having wanted several more new players a couple of weeks ago, it looks like Allardyce will have to settle for Diagne and one more, probably a defensive midfielder.
As for Saturday’s opponents, Fulham have become harder to beat in recent weeks but are currently on a run of nine Premier League games without a win since they surprisingly beat Leicester City at the end of November. They have, however, picked up six points from those nine games and remain two points ahead of the Baggies. That does mean, of course, that a win for Albion would move them out of the bottom two for the first time since early December.
Scott Parker’s side have managed to do what Albion haven’t, and stop conceding buckets of goals. Since conceding ten in their opening three Premier League games, they have only conceded more than two on one occasion since then. Indeed, they have only let in six goals in their last eight league games, a stat that Sam Allardyce could only dream about. Only Burnley and Sheffield United have scored fewer goals, however, although their tally of 15 in the “for” column is the same as Albion’s.
Parker will be without long-term absentee, Tom Cairney, and defender Terence Kongolo for Saturday’s game, while Antonee Robinson, the full back that Albion were interested in over the summer, will serve the last of his three match ban for a red card against Chelsea a fortnight ago.
Allardyce could have Grady Diangana and Conor Townsend available after injury. Townsend is yet to feature under Big Sam having picked up his injury in the 1-0 win over Sheffield United in November while Diangana is looking for his first action since the 4-0 defeat to Arsenal at the beginning of the month.
This game will be historic in that it is to be televised on the BBC at 3pm on a Saturday, and I suspect the last time that happened for to a Baggies match was in May 1968. I’d take the same result but whoever is the modern day Jeff Astle for the day needs to find the net before the 90 minutes is up!