Derby day disaster for West Brom
It was all going so well.
Two-nil up inside 10 minutes against Aston Villa like in the reverse fixture at the Hawthorns, West Brom can't throwaway a two-goal lead again, you thought. But throw it away they did, and in spectacular fashion.
Losing 4-3 after having an early lead is bad enough. That the defeat came in a fierce local derby makes it even worse. But what made the result even more catastrophic is that it allowed Villa to open a five-point lead in the Prem table and, with other results going against them, put West Brom closer to the relegation zone.
The performance after going up 2-0 was nothing short of embarrassing. The defending was in utter shambles throughout the game; every time Villa got the ball forward, it looked like they would score. After the defensive solidity of Roy Hodgson and maybe even Steve Clarke, watching a West Brom side defend like they did Wednesday night was a shock to the system. Ben Foster made a couple of key saves in the first half; otherwise the scoreline could have become even worse for the Albion fans.
The result showed both the positives and negatives of Pepe Mel's style of play, the obvious negative being his desire to play with a high-defensive line. After only two games, Mel may have realised that he is going to have to change tact until the summer when he can bring in defenders capable of playing in such a system. Even in the draw with Everton, there were signs that playing a high line with West Brom's back four could be disastrous, and these fears came to fruition at Villa Park.
What was even more disastrous was that the back four once again included Steven Reid and Diego Lugano, who kept their places despite Billy Jones and Gareth McAuley being fit. Reid has been a good player for West Brom, has been a steadying influence and is clearly a fantastic professional. But playing in a high defensive line simply showed that he has a severe lack of pace and why this will probably be his last season in the top flight. Jones is the one Albion defender with any pace, and his ability going forward should have made him a shoo-in for selection.
While Reid was bad, Lugano was even worse. Some of his faults against Everton were perhaps hidden by the equaliser he got, but there was no hiding place at Villa. Blame could easily be attributed to him for the first two goals while the fourth was definitely his fault as he stupidly and needlessly fouled Christian Benteke to give away a penalty. Lugano was just awful, and his display was summed up by missing what was near enough an open goal with the game evenly poised at 3-3. McAuley simply has to replace Lugano in the next game; his style of defending isn't exactly suited to a high-line either, but he will be much more effective than the Uruguayan.
Mel was brought into the club charged with the remit of changing the style of play to a more possession-based game, and there were more signs of the team adapting to that. Youssuf Mulumbu's goal in particular was a delight to watch, the midfield finishing calmly after some quick, incisive passing. It seems that Mel's style has reinvigorated the midfield players, with Claudio Yacob having another good game in the centre of the park and Chris Brunt also looking much improved, scoring a screamer in the process.
Mel's cavalier, attacking approach is an admirable one. Should he keep The Baggies up this season, I am sure that if he is allowed to bring in players who suit that style in the summer then it will be exciting times at the Hawthorns. My only worry is whether this cavalier approach can keep Albion in the league. It was clear that Albion's attacking players needed reinvigorating, but the fear is that Mel sacrifices too much of West Brom's defensive solidity to allow these players to flourish.
The Spaniard faces a difficult balancing act in trying to do this, and he is unlikely to be able to do much in the final two days of the transfer window to change anything. In an ideal world, Mel would bring in a centre-back, a left back and the extra striker he wants. He might get the striker, if he is lucky. But for the most part, he is going to have to go with the hand he has already been dealt.
Mel needs to find a way to mesh his attacking ethos with keeping it tight at the back, and he needs to find it quickly, as free-scoring Liverpool come to the Hawthorns on Sunday.