Blackpool 2 West Brom 2 (a.e.t., pens 3-2)
We were all hoping that the cup could bring a little light relief, but it was closer to torture for Baggies fans as Sam Allardyce’s much-changed team put in another lacklustre performance and ultimately went out on penalties.
There have been plenty of posts on social media criticising the players, and it is difficult to argue that too many of them have put in a performance anything near their best in the last few weeks, but I think it is symptomatic of a club that has badly lost its way. The players are lacking confidence and the change of head coach appears to have had a negative effect rather than a positive one, not that they were anywhere near their best under Bilić.
It is easy to forget that players are human beings and affected by their environment as much as any of us are. In the first half of last season, this group of players were performing well above expectations thanks to the positive atmosphere in the dressing room, and in the stands. Just over twelve months later, everything is very different and this group of players are struggling to produce those same level of performances.
Are the players any worse? Is the jump up to the Premier League big enough to explain the difference? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is ‘no’. Players’ form will drop off for a number of reasons, but for so so many of the squad to decline so markedly, you have to look at the environment. Be it the pandemic, Bilić’s evident frustration over the summer or the decision to dispense with the Croat a few weeks ago, all these factors will have had some sort of impact, but the overall atmosphere at the club has declined.
The rate of decline seems to have increased since Allardyce joined the club, or at least the level of performances have been consistently poor. Under Bilić in the Premier League, the real poor performances seemed to be the exception rather than the norm – that has switched in recent weeks.
It’s early to judge Big Sam, but there are no real positive signs so far. At Blackpool, it looked like a game between two teams in the same division rather than two separated by two divisions. Albion were fortunate to take the game to extra time, although they did have some great chances in the additional half hour that could have seen them through. The less said about the three penalties that were missed the better.
As expected, a few fringe players did get an opportunity. I thought Grosicki showed that he can offer an outlet and, with his pace, he may be more suited to the more direct approach that Allardyce favours while Kyle Edwards showed one moment of quality to bring a good save out of the Blackpool ‘keeper, Maxwell. Pereira showed some nice skills at times but, like Edwards, let his teammates down in the penalty shoot out.
Allardyce’s team selection was strange without a recognised striker in the squad, which suggests to me that Callum Robinson was one of the two unnamed players who had tested positive for COVID. Hard to say that it worked, although I thought Ajayi looked OK in the middle of the park and it may be an option that Allardyce may turn to, particularly with Gallagher suspended next weekend.
Ultimately, the FA Cup is not a priority this season but we all hoped to see some level of progress from our new head coach. With a Black Country Derby up next, the faithful are inevitably apprehensive of another embarrassment against local rivals, but it does represent an opportunity for Big Sam to get some sort of credit with the fans, albeit the hopes seem slim.
It is a change of atmosphere that is needed more than anything else. I still believe that, at their best, the squad is capable of competing in the Premier League, but they have been nothing like their best since football returned in June.
So far, Allardyce has failed to have an impact and the transfer window seems to be his last hope – whether the right type of player can galvanise the dressing room remains to be seen but, at the moment, Albion seem destined for a return to the Championship.