Tony Pulis must play West Brom's best against Newcastle
Salomon Rondon's last minute equaliser rescued a point for West Brom against Swansea in a 1-1 draw at The Hawthorns, saving face for Tony Pulis who nearly handed Swansea the game when he substituted Stephane Sessegnon in favour of Saido Berahino.
After a couple of poor performances in recent weeks, Sessegnon looked to have rediscovered his form and was causing a few problems for Swansea's Neil Taylor. With the game at 0-0, it was the correct decision in trying to get Berahino onto the pitch in support of Rondon, who was struggling to match Ashley Williams physically.
However, Sessegnon being the player to make way was a shocking decision that nearly won Swansea the game. West Brom lost one of their two attacking outlets, which meant that all their play went down through James McClean on the left wing. But more importantly, it left West Brom horribly exposed on the right-hand side of the pitch.
There was no protection for Craig Dawson at right-back, who was left dealing with two-on-one overlaps on several occassions. Sandro tried to cover from the centre of midfield but it was a role that is totally alien to him and it showed. It was baffling that a head coach who prides himself on the defensive solidity and organisation would leave his side so exposed.
West Brom had done ok up until that point; they were far from outstanding but the game was even and the home side were beginning to create a few chances. If Pulis wanted to get Berahino onto the pitch, he could have easily sacrificed one of Sandro or Claudio Yacob and simply dropped Darren Fletcher back into one of the holding midfield positions that he has played all season.
Credit must be given to the determination and character shown by the WBA squad who added another injury time goal to their growing collection, after crucial late strikes against Newcastle, Stoke, Bristol City and Chelsea over the past month. One of the driving forces behind their comeback against Swansea was the introduction of Victor Anichebe, who matched up far better with Williams physically and put his head in bravely at the corner which eventually resulted in Rondon tapping home.
Despite Rondon's goal, and the encouraging performance of Anichebe off the bench, Pulis simply has to get Berahino back into the starting line-up for this weekend's fixture against Newcastle at St James Park. Considering Newcastle's deadline day pursuit of the forward, he should need very little motivation to show them what they missed out on when West Brom managed to keep hold of the England U21 International.
While Berahino wasn't at his best against Swansea, he still demonstrated that he has a level of quality that is above what the likes of Rondon, Anichebe and Rickie Lambert can provide.
Outside of the box he has an excellent first touch and close control, while he's also a good passer of the ball. It is in and around the penalty area where Berahino really comes alive, and that is where Pulis needs him most. He's a natural finisher, capable of scoring with both feet, makes space for himself and create chances out of nothing. Considering West Brom's struggles in front of goal this season, these are attributes they quite simply can't live without.
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Berahino remains remarkably popular among West Brom supporters considering the controversies he has been embroiled in, both on and off the field, since breaking onto the scene. This may be down to the situation that the Hawthorns club find themselves in, trying to avoid relegation with the fans beginning to show disapproval towards Pulis' style of play. Berahino possesses genuine quality and is an exciting player to watch, something that is in short supply in Pulis' side.
It is not just Berahino who Pulis needs to get back into the side, as the return of Chris Brunt will also be important to West Brom's fortunes. He was rated as a doubt for the 1-1 draw with Swansea, so there is a chance he could return against Newcastle. With Jonny Evans out injured with a hamstring injury, Pulis will hope that is the case.
Considering Sebastien Pocognoli's poor display against Peterborough in the FA Cup, and the fact that James McClean was forced to play at left-back against Swansea in the second half despite being West Brom's biggest attacking threat, Brunt's performances as a makeshift left-back are beginning to look all the more impressive. His return would give the side some balance and could be almost as crucial as Berahino being restored to the starting line-up.
Matthew Evans is ESPN FC's West Brom blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @MattEvansWBA.