Changes make the difference for West Brom
West Brom continued their knack of picking up unexpected points after coming from a goal behind to draw 1-1 with Liverpool at The Hawthorns, as Pepe Mel came closer to finding a combination of players that could be considered his first choice XI.
The Baggies have now taken points from Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool this season, either at home or away. The challenge that faces Mel is getting his players to replicate these kinds of display against teams in and around Albion.
The most significant changes came in defence with Billy Jones and Gareth McAuley returning in place of Steven Reid and Diego Lugano after their poor displays in the 4-3 defeat to Aston Villa. McAuley was as reliable as ever at the heart of the defence, winning everything in the air and dealing well with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. One of the most pleasing aspects of McAuley's display was how well he adapted to playing a higher line than the one employed by previous head coaches, the experienced centre-back took to the style far more quickly than Lugano or even Jonas Olsson.
It took a little bit longer for Jones to get up to speed, with the right back playing Sturridge onside for the opening goal. But as the game went on, Jones simply got better and better. He is by far and away the quickest of all of Albion's defenders so he is perfectly capable of playing in the high-line that Mel uses, but it is his attacking contribution that is arguably more important. Jones provides far more of an attacking threat than Reid, which is useful as most of the players used on the right wing this season, such as Saido Berahino, Zoltan Gera and James Morrison, prefer to come inside and play more centrally. Without the width provided by Jones, Albion's play can become a bit too predictable and one-sided. Jones linked well with Gera on Sunday, who showed signs of getting back to his best with a good second half performance full of intelligent movement and one-touch passing.
Like under Steve Clarke, the main problem for Mel has been finding the right combination of strikers who can fire Albion to safety. Mel gave another opportunity to Matej Vydra, with Berahino also playing although he only moved up front in the second half. This was a combination that some West Brom fans were keen to see but after the display against Liverpool, I'm not sure it will be a partnership that is seen again for a while. Vydra struggled playing as the lone forward in the first half; he simply doesn't have the hold-up play or strength to do that. He clearly has to be alongside someone who can hold the ball, which then allows Vydra to play on the shoulder of the defence and make runs in behind.
There was an improvement in the performances of both Vydra and Berahino when Mel switched to two up front in the second half, but it is clear that they perhaps need an experienced head alongside them to really flourish. Credit must go to Mel for first making the switch to a 4-4-2 and then for bringing on Victor Anichebe. For the second successive home game, the big forward had a big impact in turning around The Baggies' fortunes. Anichebe's presence ensured that Albion kept a hold of the ball far better, which in turn allowed them to increase the pressure on a Liverpool back four that looked unsteady.
If there is one constant criticism that is levelled at Anichebe, including from me, it is that he doesn't score enough goals. His equaliser was only his second goal of the season, but the clinical finish he provided was encouraging. Of course, most of the focus has been on the ball being given to Anichebe 18 yards from goal by Kolo Toure, but Anichebe still had a lot to do when he took control of the "pass" and he did it with aplomb. With a display like that, Anichebe simply has to start in West Brom's next game against Crystal Palace.
It is then down to Mel to decide whether he wants to play a 4-5-1, in which case James Morrison would return to the side after missing the Liverpool game with injury or go for a 4-4-2, where he would then have to choose between Berahino or Vydra to partner with Anichebe. It is a tough choice, but I think Mel may go for two up front, as quite simply West Brom need to start winning.
Getting points against the top sides are a nice bonus, but what Albion really need to do is starting beating sides around them in the table. With Crystal Palace and then Fulham as two of their next three games, Mel is presented with two decent chances of getting his first win as Baggies boss. He simply needs to get his players to replicate the high-intensity, quick-passing, exciting performances that they seem to save for the top sides.