Newcastle United 2 West Brom 1
At St James’s Park on Saturday, Albion’s first Saturday 3pm kick off since the trip to Blackburn Rovers in July, Slaven Bilić’s team were in the game for long periods, let themselves down at key moments and ultimately came up short. It has been the story of the season so far and, while there is always that feeling that a little bit of luck could make a massive difference, it has to be said that the Baggies are looking well short of the levels required to stay in the Premier League.
To concede within 20 seconds was a devastating start and so utterly preventable – it was incredibly disappointing that a player as experienced as Branislav Ivanović would commit himself so unnecessarily initially, and Matt Phillips’ getting drawn infield to leave Almirón unmarked at the back post. It is easy to blame Bilić for his pursuit of the Serb who doesn’t look anything like the player he was, and for his decision to play Phillips at right wing back, but both players should really have done better. Gibbs may not have made the same error, but the position that Phillips found himself in is not unusual for a winger with defensive responsibilities and after years working for Pulis, he cannot use his usual position as an excuse.
For much of the first half, the game was even although Albion rarely threatened Darlow in the Newcastle goal while Joelinton should have done better with the hosts’ best chance to double their lead and Johnstone was able to save.
The second half was a different game and Albion dominated but, once again, lacked the quality to turn that into a winning position. They had the perfect start when Darnell Furlong volleyed in Phillips’ cross with a finish that his striker father, Paul, would have been proud of, but couldn’t capitalise on it.
Steve Bruce uncharacteristically decided to go for it in the last fifteen minutes and two of his substitutes, two that had been on loan at the Hawthorns two seasons ago, combined to produce the winner. It was a great cross and header, but any defensive coach will tell you that Grosicki and Ivanović should have done better.
An average of 0.5 points per game is way off what is required to achieve Premier League safety. The Baggies still hold the record for the fewest points earned to avoid relegation with 34 in 2005, an average of 0.89, although a point per game will normally be required. With four teams looking to be cut adrift as they were in 2004/05, it could well be a low total again this season, but Albion need to improve significantly if they are to have any sort of chance.
While the squad always looked to be short of Premier League experience, I had optimism that a number of our players would make the necessary step up. Unfortunately, few have done so. Diangana has looked way off the pace this season, Pereira has shown glimpses of quality but hasn’t been the dominant creative influence we hoped he would be and it is, perhaps, only Sam Johnstone and, more surprisingly, Conor Townsend that have really made that step up. Gallagher is evidently a quality player, and Furlong, Robinson and Ajayi have provided evidence that they could eventually make the grade, but too many of this squad are learning on the job for them to be successful.
That situation is, of course, down to a lack of investment in the summer and the two “big money” players in Diangana and Grant have not yet delivered. While Bilić was obviously involved in every transfer decision, I wouldn’t blame him too much for the state of the squad – yes, Ivanović and Krovinović were primarily his signings, but the remainder were a joint effort and I still think that Dowling, Bilić et al didn’t do a bad job given the financial constraints within which they were working. The question on many fans’ lips now, of course, is whether a change of head coach would have an impact.
The simple answer is that it might. However, unless there is significant investment in January, it would take a miracle worker to keep this squad in the Premier League and, given such an investment, I would give Bilić as much of a chance as anyone else.
The results are obviously not good enough and performances have been patchy at best, but the quality of the squad needs to be taken into account. Other factors such as the atmosphere at the training ground and the views of senior players should also be considered and I would be surprised if there was too much negativity on that front, but only those involved will know the truth.
From my point of view on the outside, I don’t see too many compelling reasons to replace Bilić. Yes, he has made mistakes but I don’t believe those have been decisive in the outcome of games. He achieved promotion early and the squad is way short of what is required – why make a change that would be necessarily short-term and have limited chance of success? While Bilić’s contract is up at the end of the season, if Albion do go down, I would back him to get us promoted again if he was offered, and accepted, an extension.
However, it is not me making the decision assuming, of course, a decision is being considered. There has been lots of speculation but very little of substance to suggest the club are actively discussing his future. For me, January is Albion’s only hope and it remains to be seen whether those in control of the purse strings prepared to give Bilić, or any other head coach, a chance.
The flip side is that if no money is made available, the Croat may well walk anyway, albeit he may wait until the end of the season.
For me, January is the last chance for the owners to prove that they are interested in West Bromwich Albion. I’m not hopeful, but I’m equally sceptical of a sale being agreed anytime soon.