Yes it’s that time of year again, writes West Brom blogger Warren Stephens. where that ugly thing dressed in red and white turns up, we all end up being ripped off, drinking too much and feeling depressed afterwards.
No, not Santa Claus and Christmas, I mean Stoke City at home.
Reminiscent of a particularly vile and uncompromising loan shark, they seemingly turn up annually to collect a payment they scarcely deserve, yet we all know it’s going to happen.
A lot is often said and written about Stoke’s style of play, and let’s make no mistake, it can often be restrictive and cynical. I watched the game back on Sunday (as if watching it once wasn’t enough punishment) and Garry Birtles commented towards the end of the first half that Tony Pulis would be hugely frustrated at the persistent fouling of his players.
Err, I think you’ve missed the point there Garry. Stoke came primarily to spoil and they spoiled. They restricted the game to few chances at either end and to their credit took one that came their way.
However, we knew before the game that Stoke would try and frustrate us and it still happened. Steve Clarke himself admitted after the Sunderland game last week that games would now become a lot harder, teams were less likely to allow us to pick them off on the counter attack and certainly if we’re to build on our positive start, we have to find a way of breaking teams down that defend in numbers.
Much has been spoken about Steve Clarke’s team selection, with six changes from the midweek defeat at Swansea. Steven Reid, Goran Popov, Graham Dorrans and Markus Rosenberg found themselves in a first eleven they may not have featured in a few weeks ago and Albion’s bench included James Morrison, Peter Odemwingie and Romelu Lukaku.
Like many Albion fans I personally didn’t see this as our strongest XI and I was concerned about our width and penetration when I saw the team sheet, but after three games in eight days I think some changes were inevitable. That’s not to suggest that any professional footballer is incapable of playing three games in eight days, but as Gary Neville succinctly puts it ‘you can eat three bacon sandwiches in quick succession, but the third won’t taste as good as the first’.
Whilst we all like to think we’re a football manager, only Steve Clarke and his coaching and fitness staff will have truly understood the physical conditions of the players, who was ready and who wasn’t after a busy week. Clarke has also been responsible for a number of positive tactical decisions over the course of the season, so I think it would be slightly unfair to be overly-critical.
Markus Rosenberg in particular seems yet to fully adapt to life in England since his summer move from Werder Bremen. In his defence I remember reading an article when he arrived saying he preferred to play as a central striker. From memory, of the little playing time he’s had he’s spent about 20 minutes against Chelsea in that role since his arrival, he doesn’t seem to possess the natural attributes of a wide player to me and I think it would be unfair to judge him as such, particularly when he’s had so little game time. I expect he’ll show us a lot more as the season progresses provided he’s given the opportunity to.
So, to coin a commonly-used phrase in Aston and Wolverhampton this week, has the bubble-burst? Well not really; we’re fifth in the Premier League - higher than any of us could have realistically expected. Nobody in the Premier League registered more points in November (12- only Manchester United matched that), only two teams actually have more points than us, we have some winnable home fixtures approaching before Christmas and we haven’t suddenly become a bad side.
This weekend sees us visit the Emirates Stadium and will evoke memories of the remarkable 3-2 victory there a couple of years ago. It was a terrific day and remains the only game of football I’ve been to where so many people have been so visibly nervous whilst 3-0 up with 15 minutes left!
We’re currently above Arsenal in the league and they seem to be navigating their way through something of a crisis after a series of average performances culminating in last week’s home defeat to Swansea.
There’s certainly a temptation to suggest we could go there and expect to compete for something from the game. I’ve no doubt we will but it’s perhaps worth remembering that visiting a side containing the likes of Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is always going to be very difficult.
Finally, last weekend played host to one of the most eagerly-anticipated events in the football calendar, the FA Cup third round draw.
I’d personally hoped for a winnable home tie or a trip to a previously-unvisited ground e.g. MK Dons or Crawley, basically anything other than familiarity and a tie there’s a decent chance we’ll lose. That we then drew QPR away is probably in keeping with how agitating last weekend proved to be from a football perspective.
The only positive I can draw is that QPR may well view the FA Cup as an unwelcome distraction given their priority will be to stay in the Premier League.
Let’s just hope this weekend will be slightly more enjoyable than last. Come on you Baggies!!