West Bromwich Albion 2 Birmingham City 3
The evening started with a poignant and well-observed tribute to the late Queen but ended with a very different feel in the stadium as Albion succumbed to their first home defeat of the season. It leaves Steve Bruce’s team in a lowly 20th place with only goal difference keeping them out of the bottom three.
Once again, an encouraging performance is followed by an abject one. Up front, Albion struggled to break down a well-organised defence but it was at the back where the alarm bells rang most loudly. While Blues broke well when given the opportunity, simple basic errors contributed significantly to all three of their goals with Kyle Bartley particularly culpable. He was withdrawn to loud boos shortly after the visitors’ third goal and you do wonder whether we will see him an Albion shirt again.
Others cannot escape their part in the defeat, however. David Button was certainly at fault for the third goal and Conor Townsend has been struggling for a while. Okay was well below his best while Karlan Grant was virtually anonymous. With Diangana and Swift also below par, of the starting eleven, only Molumby, Wallace and, to a lesser extent, TGH came away with any credit.
BTA came off the bench and instantly looked more lively than anything else we had up front. He won the penalty (fortuitously as it was outside the area) and converted it to give the Baggies a little late hope, and he must start at Norwich on Saturday.
Focus is inevitably turning to the manager and plenty, at least a growing minority, are of the opinion that he must go. His overall record is not great – seven wins and ten draws from twenty-six league games since he took over, 31 points from a possible 78, is well below where Albion should be. With the Baggies only averaging one point per game, his record this season is statistically worse than his time in charge during the last campaign, but it would be wrong to ignore the strides that have been made in improving most of the team’s performances this season.
If the club were going to get rid of Bruce, they would have done it in the summer. I would be very surprised if he were to be dispensed with just yet, not least because of the financial implications. I think they will at least give him the time to fully integrate all of his summer signings into the squad.
I have always been prepared to give Bruce time and, while I still think it is too early to pull the plug, there are some increasingly concerning signs. While most would accept that the squad is thin and that, given the evident financial constraints, Bruce and Gourlay have made a decent start at refreshing the squad, the fact that the players there are continuing to make elementary mistakes can only reflect badly on the coaching staff. Yes, there is an argument that there is hardly a wealth of options at Bruce’s disposal should he wish to take some players out of the squad, it does seem as if some players have been given too many opportunities.
Most will agree that Bartley would not be in the side if Ajayi had not been injured and, with Pieters and Kelly now on board, I would be surprised to see him again. It took a long time before Bruce eventually conceded that Livermore was not worthy of his place, and the same could be said of Furlong, although I wasn’t particularly calling for him to be dropped. With Dike injured and Zohore evidently a lost cause, Grant has been the only striker available until BTA joined, and hopefully we will see him given an opportunity from the start on Saturday. Conor Townsend is probably the next in line for scrutiny but, with Pieters potentially more likely to start in the centre of defence until Kelly is fully up to speed, young Zac Ashworth is the next in line and Bruce has shown little indication that he is prepared to give him another opportunity – perhaps he should.
Reading between the lines, I get the feeling that Bruce believes that the players have the ability, but they lack consistency and perhaps the hunger that comes with a strong squad where every player knows there is someone waiting to take their place. For too long, there has been a lack of strength in depth in the squad – I believe Bruce understands this and is trying to change it, but he also believes it will take a few more windows.
However, what he has been unable to do is to improve the players he has, bar one exception in Grady Diangana. He has been Bruce’s biggest, if perhaps only, success story in that he has been able to rediscover the player we had two years ago. Unfortunately, it is an isolated case and I’m not sure that, when you look at the players who have been at the club for a few years, I’m not sure any of them give any sign that there is a better player to be found.
So what next? It’s difficult to be positive after this defeat, but there have been plenty of positive signs in most of the games this season. Had Albion picked up two or three more wins, as their performances more than deserved, the sense of panic would not be there. Bruce really needed a good start if he were to win over the significant number of doubters in the fan base at the end of last season, but instead Albion have produced their worst start to a second tier season, at least in terms of results, since 1994. It is no surprise, therefore, that calls for his head are rising.
I’m not yet ready to join them – we’ve not yet seen what could turn out to be his best signing of the season in Tom Rogic, and we’ve also not seen this side with a proper number nine to lead them. I’ve said before that promotion is probably a long shot, although I have been encouraged by how the team have played for the most part. I’m still thinking, as I said in April, that keeping Bruce for this season to take the flack for what could be an underwhelming season while continuing to work on rooting out the dead wood with a view to replacing him with a younger coach next summer could be the right approach. However, for that to work, Albion at least need to be challenging for a play-off place, and the results are way below where they need to be at the moment.
An improvement in both performance and attitude is needed at Norwich on Saturday, and I think we’ll get it – the issue is stringing performances together.