West Bromwich Albion 1 Blackpool 0
Since Slaven Bilić’s Albion stumbled over the line to secure promotion in July 2020, there have been a number of what could be termed false dawns, although most of them were mere isolated good results. Albion cannot afford Tuesday evening’s victory to fall into either camp – it needs to be the start of a turnaround of form that will lift Albion away from the bottom three.
Regular readers will know that Albion have only won back-to-back games twice since September 2021 while their longest in-season unbeaten run in this calendar year is just four matches and was ended by what was probably the worst game of professional football I have witnessed at St Andrew’s in April. Since the ten-game unbeaten run that marked the start of Ismaël’s tenure, Albion have failed to build any sort of momentum as confidence has been smashed by each individual defeat. That needs to change.
Obviously, with the next match being away to in-form QPR who haven’t lost at home since August (ironically, to Blackpool), recording another victory might be asking too much, but if Albion can get a result or at least show the same levels of energy and desire as we saw at the Hawthorns on Tuesday evening, it will be another big step in the right direction.
It is difficult to properly compare the games against Sheffield United and Blackpool as the quality of the opposition is so different, but I felt that the performance against Blackpool was a definite improvement. The statistics tell part of the story with 64% possession, 11 shots to 4, 5 shots on target to nil, but there was a distinct step change in energy and pressing and, as the game went on, a little more confidence on the ball.
There was no doubt that Albion deserved the points but it looked as if they were not going to get them until Okay prodded home the winner with five minutes to go. There were nervous glances towards the assistant referee during the celebrations with the Blackpool players arguing for an offside, but they were quickly dismissed – when I watched the replay on the big screen, I did think they might have a point with Tom Rogic looking like he might be off when he deflected the ball back to his Turkish teammate, but having watched it back since, he was just about onside.
Corberán opted to make a few changes from his first game in charge switching to a back four with Kyle Bartley coming back into the side. As I said after the Millwall game, some fans will struggle to forgive him for a myriad of poor errors over the years, but the Spaniard gave him a chance and he grabbed it with both hands putting in a very decent display. Another much-maligned player, Matt Phillips, followed up his decent showing from Saturday with another good performance with his versatility coming to the fore. Having started the Blades game as right wing back and ended it as a number ten, he started Tuesday’s game on the left of the attacking midfield three and ended up as centre forward! He didn’t get everything right against Blackpool, but he was one of Albion’s most creative outlets. Phillips definitely seems to have responded well to the new head coach, but we have seen such behaviour before only for his form to tail off – only time will tell.
One player whose confidence does seem to be low at the moment is Jed Wallace. Corberán has opted to switch his wingers for a period of both his games in charge, and Wallace hasn’t shown yet that he has the game to operate on the left. Against the Tangerines, I thought he was not direct enough – there were a few occasions when the space opened up in front of him only for him to look for the pass – that, to me, is a sign of low confidence and, having been one of Albion’s most consistent performers for much of this season, he looks to be one yet to get going under the new head coach.
Perhaps the most important change that Corberán made was the recall of Okay Yokuşlu to midfield. Not only did the Turk score the winner, his first goal in an Albion shirt, he was man-of-the-match putting in what was easily his best display since re-joining the club in the summer. His tally of 79 touches was bettered only by John Swift and Dara O’Shea while his 89.8% pass completion rate was the best of any of the 22 starting players. He was the heartbeat of the team, attempting 59 passes, a number bettered only by Albion’s centre backs who started almost every attack with a multiple-pass exchange. More than the statistics, however, you could see him dominating the middle of the park looking to get Albion going whenever he was in possession and demanding the ball when he wasn’t. This was the player we thought we had re-signed.
A few other players also stepped up – John Swift looked far happier in his familiar number ten role while both full backs also put in their best displays for some time. Dara O’Shea was another that looked to have shaken off his recent troubles, although I do feel that, when playing on the left of a two, his right-footedness does limit him when starting attacks. Corberán obviously wants to play out from the back, and the team did this much better on Tuesday albeit the press from the opposition was not as effective. With O’Shea uncomfortable in playing the ball forwards first time with his left foot, it did tend to restrict the options to escape the press. With Kean Bryan injured, Erik Pieters is the only other left-footed option and Carlos evidently prefers O’Shea for the time being, naming him as captain against Blackpool.
The switch to a back four did work, but Michael Appleton’s side weren’t the most adventurous and I’m not convinced that it will necessarily be a permanent switch. I think Corberán will probably continue to be flexible as he was when at Huddersfield – he used a back three more often last season but switched to a four more than 30% of the time.
One thing that fans will need to accept is that, when playing a possession-based game as is Corberán’s philosophy, the frequent passing along the back line is going to happen a lot, particularly in this learning period as the players are building up their confidence and understanding of the playing patterns. While it might look negative, the principle behind it is to continually move the opposition around, and move the focus of attacking, probing for an opening. As Corberán’s coaching becomes more ingrained, the movement of Albion’s players will improve and those openings should occur earlier in the process, but when they don’t, the method is to recycle possession and start again. I heard plenty of “get it forward” shouts last night – just as with the Corberán impact as a whole, when in possession, patience is a virtue!
Having said that, I can understand the frustration particularly when time is running out and the goal hasn’t come, but I actually felt the players did step up in the last half hour and were a little braver in possession. That was a big positive for me.
Another popular frustration from the game was that Brandon Thomas-Asante was not introduced until the last ten minutes. Karlan Grant is another in the “much-maligned” bucket, and I have been clear in my assessment that he is not a natural striker. Last night, he did put in a good shift although whether his frequent forays into his own half to pick up the ball was an instruction or his own innovation, I’m not sure. He fluffed his big chance in the first half, although it was a decent save by Maxwell, but it was one of his better displays. I felt BTA deserved a chance, however, but when Grant was withdrawn, it was Matt Phillips that moved into the centre-forward position and the youngster had to wait until the 83rd minute to get his chance.
While it seemed strange from the stands, but I’m guessing that CC has his reasons. While Thomas-Asante is popular, principally by virtue of his stoppage-time equaliser against Burnley and his penalty against Blues, he hasn’t found the net since (few have) and maybe the head coach feels he is not yet where he wants him to be. I’m far more trusting of Corberán’s decisions at this stage than I was with Bruce’s as I feel there will be a well-thought-out process behind them rather than a gut feel.
Ultimately, though, the result was all important and the performance was definitely a step in the right direction. QPR represents a much tougher test this weekend but, with the same application as we saw on Tuesday, there is no reason why Albion cannot get some sort of result.