West Brom's much improved performance in the 1-1 draw with Everton showed that new manager Pepe Mel is already starting to put his own stamp on Albion, but that has been marred by the continued controversy over Nicolas Anelka.
Let's start with the positives though. Despite only having worked with the players for a week, Mel's influence was already noticeable. West Brom pressed higher up the pitch, played at a much higher tempo and moved the ball around a lot quicker than at any time under Steve Clarke or Keith Downing. For Albion to have 50% possession against an Everton side now renowned for its passing was some achievement, particularly considering how poorly The Baggies have kept possession of the ball in recent games.
Mel also had an immediate impact on the form of some players. On the left hand-side, Liam Ridgewell had his best game in an Albion shirt for some time while Chris Brunt looks like he could flourish in Mel's set-up. His range of passing should suit the style perfectly, as should the willingness and quality he showed in the final third, delivering a succession of fantastic crosses in the second half.
James Morrison has looked a shadow of his former self, but his display against Everton was much more like the player Albion fans know. He was running at the opposition's midfielders and often got past them; he played the right pass the majority of the time and of course he set up the equaliser with a superb cross that was met with an even better header from Diego Lugano. The high-pressing game also seemed to suit Morrison and his partner in the centre of midfield, Claudio Yacob.
Some eyebrows, including my own, were raised when the team was announced. It was a big decision for Mel to drop Youssouf Mulumbu to the bench considering he's been the key player at West Brom in the past three seasons. Mulumbu has been in poor form recently and it showed that Mel isn't afraid to make tough decisions, which was a welcoming sight. His selection was also vindicated by the aforementioned duo, with Morrison picking up the sponsor's man of the match, but some fans felt that honour belonged to Yacob, who broke up play all night and then passed the ball quickly, simply and effectively.
In the end, it was perhaps only the selection of Zoltan Gera on the right-hand side that could be viewed as a poor choice. Gera seemed to struggle to adapt to the pace of the game, and in particular the demands of pressing while also getting up and down the wing. I think Gera can still play a part in the remaining games of the season, but only if he is employed behind the striker where his creativity and guile will prove useful. Morgan Amalfitano should prove a good fit in that position, particularly when Billy Jones returns to full fitness, as those have struck up a good partnership going forward.
And now onto the biggest talking point, which is of course Anelka. Unfortunately, it is not for anything that he did in the Everton game. If we were simply discussing that game, then I'd be talking about how he had arguably his best game in an Albion shirt and looks like he could play a big part in Mel's quest to propel Albion away from the relegation zone. However, all the focus is on the fall-out from his La Quenelle gesture that he performed after scoring against West Ham in December.
Prior to the game, Zoopla announced they would be ending their sponsorship of the club at the end of the season, with reports suggesting it was because West Brom continued to play Anelka. In reality, this was a bit of a non-story. The sponsorship deal with Zoopla ended this coming June anyway, and there was no guarantee from either side that the deal had to continue.
- Report: Zoopla to end West Brom sponsorship
The biggest issue is that Anelka has now been charged by the FA. While he is yet to decide whether to appeal the charge and therefore has not received a ban, it still puts West Brom in a difficult position. Anelka could be a pivotal player for The Baggies in the run-in, but can they keep him if the FA do find him guilty of an anti-semitic gesture, particularly with the club's proud history of battling racism? If he is kept on and only receives the mandatory five game ban, that means Anelka will miss over a third of West Brom's remaining games. Perhaps Anelka will ease Albion's problems by choosing to retire from the game if he picks up a long ban.
Whatever the outcome, it has something that has been allowed to drag on for far too long and a conclusion needs reaching as soon as possible, particularly if it means the club have to delve into the transfer market for a replacement.