Irvine makes good impression in debut
All of the excitement prior to the Sunderland game surrounded the potential debut of West Brom's new 10 million striker Brown Ideye -- but it was two other summer signings who impressed in Albion's 2-2 draw with Sunderland.
Craig Gardner was The Baggies' first signing of the summer -- having been brought in prior to the arrival of Alan Irvine as head coach. The signing of the midfielder wasn't one that got the pulses racing -- a solid Premier League performer but not exactly exciting signing, especially given that he was released by Sunderland rather than choosing to leave of his own accord.
However, Gardner was incredibly impressive in his debut.
His main contribution to the cause was a fantastic assist for Saido Berahino's second goal of the game and demonstrated some of the qualities Gardner will bring to Albion. He was first to the rebound after Graham Dorrans' shot was parried away, before he sent a perfectly flighted ball to the far post -- with his weaker left foot -- that Berahino raced onto for a tap-in.
Gardner will contribute a decent number of goals from midfield, partly because of his powerful long-range shooting and his tendency to arrive in the box late and pop up at the right time. But what was especially impressive was his all-around game from deeper on the pitch.
He used the ball wisely -- nothing too expansive or overcomplicated but always playing the right pass. Gardner also showed good energy alongside Youssouf Mulumbu in the middle of the park, with them taking it in turns to go farther forward with the other sitting further back and picking up the pieces if the attack broke down. The ex-Birmingham man also showed he wasn't afraid of a tackle by putting his body on the line and challenging for every loose ball.
Another player who showed he wasn't afraid of a tackle was Sebastien Pocognoli. The Belgian international was very impressive in his debut at left-back -- particularly going forward. After watching the struggles of Liam Ridgewell and Goran Popov the past season, it was a nice change to witness a left-back with the mobility to get up and down the pitch and also provide a bit of quality in the final third by sending a couple of delightful crosses into the box.
Those two, as well as the two-goal contribution from Berahino, were probably the stand-outs of what was a better than expected showing in manager Alan Irvine's first competitive game. The most encouraging aspect of the display was Albion's attacking play. After a slow start in which Lee Cattermole put Sunderland ahead, The Baggies really took a hold of the game and strung together a few impressive moves, but they couldn't quite find the end product to match up some good buildup play.
It was nice to see the ball being moved quickly through midfield, with the central trio of Mulumbu, Gardner and the resurgent Graham Dorrans showing some decent combination play -- often playing around the strength of Victor Anichebe in the lone forward role. Chris Brunt also contributed to one of the better passing performances from an Albion side in recent memory, which gave both Pocognoli and Olsson an angle for a pass that meant the aimless long-balls forward seen the past season were a rare sight.
Some of the limitations of the West Brom squad showed by the decent attacking play on the show.
While Pocognoli provided a good outlet on the left side, there was a distinct lack of width from the right -- the problem being that the only winger in Albion's squad is Brunt. Berahino obviously made a big contribution to the game, but he's not a traditional winger and was always wanting to come inside and get into the box. That would have been fine, but Andre Wisdom didn't look comfortable pushing forward and beyond Berahino in the way Pocognoli did on the other side.
Irvine knows he needs at least one -- preferably two -- wide players, while Cristian Gamboa will provide a more forward-thinking option from right back now that his visa issues have been sorted and he has finally been able to join up with his new teammates.
It was a decent first showing for Irvine, but one worrying sign was the defending of set-pieces -- or the lack of it, to be more precise. West Brom didn't deal well with any of the corners or free kicks sent into their box, Cattermole's opener coming after Wes Brown was allowed a free header at the back post, which The Baggies then failed to clear properly, though there wasn't a lot that could be done about the stunning strike that followed from Cattermole.
This issue at set-pieces could just be due to personnel, with fourth-choice centre-half Craig Dawson partnering Jonas Olsson at the back instead of regular partner Gareth McAuley or new signing Joleon Lescott. While next weekend's fixture is likely to come too soon for Lescott, I expect McAuley to come back into the side if he comes through training this week. McAuley has proven himself to be very good from set-pieces -- both defending and attacking -- and seems to be the kind of player who will take control and organise everyone else.
Overall, the start to Alan Irvine's reign was decent. He'd have liked three points -- and after Berahino's second goal he might have expected it -- but after the performances in preseason, quite a few walked away from the Hawthorns with far more confidence than they had walking into the ground prior to kickoff.