West Bromwich Albion 0 - Manchester City 4
This was always going to be a toughie but the starting lineup set off alarm bells.
As we kicked off the number of blue seats visible was actually quite alarming. Not sure what the attendance was but in years gone by this would nearly have been a sell-out. It looked someway off - I don't think that bodes well in general. Less spirited, blase, complacent and lacking momentum in the crowd when we are the only club in the top flight? This can't be going unnoticed.
Unfotuntaley for us straight from kick-off Fletcher set the tone for his own afternoon by ponderously giving the ball away cheaply and then labouring to cover.
If the first ten games are anything to go by he is a big problem for us. It is cruel in a way that such a great guy who has fought so hard to stay in the game is being let down by his body but it is painfully obvious and there is no sentiment at this level. He had a woeful opening 45 minutes. I can think of only one decent pass and many many times when he last the ball so cheaply or wanted way too much time. If Pulis has respect for him he has to come out of the team. His assist rate for the opposition is becoming a problem.
First half was a write-off really - the goals were great finishes but avoidable and we defended brilliantly at times but on the ball we really struggled.
2nd half I think we have to take the positives.
You can make a fair argument that City dipped but the subs and partnership of Brunt and Morrison in the centre of midfield dominated the game for the first 25 minutes or so. I don't think Mozza or Brunty gave the ball away all half.
Mozza did more in 10 mins than Fletcher did in a whole half. It helps that he can run, tackle and pass. Brunt was brilliant at incisive forward passes. Both were helped by the quality of Evans bringing the ball out.
Added to this, Leko gave us pace we've been lacking all season. In fairness, he took time to get up to speed and ran the ball out a couple of times but when he did click he was brilliant. He may not have picked the right pass every time but how many times has Phillips beaten 3 players this season? The kid needs match minutes now whether that means starting or getting 20 solid minutes per game for a while. What do we benefit from Gardner when we have him as an option?
I kind of agree with Pulis that at 2-0 down when Rondon missed a sitter we were well on top and had it gone in who knows. As it was that miss, not too long after followed by a slightly fortunate 3rd, knocked us a bit and although Leko found his feet and looked lively it was damage limitation.
Tough day but we have to bounce quickly - it's easy to see us getting into big trouble this season otherwise. I'm still angry about the Sunderland result because they are so so bad.
Special mention for the officials - abysmal. City don't need your help.
Never mind the quality; feel the width (OK: count the wide players)
Pulis's Albion lined up against City with Chadli, our most expensive signing and our best attacking midfield player, lined up on the right wing, thereby allowing many's-the-time right-winger Brunt to join Fletcher, and central-defender Evans, in the middle of that by now all too familiar 4-5---1/6-3---1.
Whilst the game plan might have appeared clear to regular watchers, Albion would have their first off-target shot inside three minutes after Dawson chased a ball played into the corner flag area and turned it into the box where Rondon held it up before laying off invitingly for Chadli, however, after their keeper wasn't troubled, City would move up the other end and, within 30 seconds, were asking a question of Foster that required a save.
Around a quarter of an hour in, Fletcher would lose the ball on the right corner of the City area, allowing Nolito to advance, only to be brought down from behind by Dawson who, having been up alongside his captain, was having to make up ground, and whilst the referee thought enough of the challenge to have a word with Dawson, Nolito clearly felt aggrieved enough to move his head towards Dawson's cheek whilst he was being spoken to by the ref. To his credit, Dawson made nothing of it, although, with the referee right there, why would you, however, Lee Mason merely thought it worthy of a yellow and Nolito remained on the pitch, whilst Dawson got one too, presumably for the shrug that got Nolito booked.
A couple of minutes later, Sterling would pull another save out of Foster, after Albion's inability get the ball out of their box, let alone upfield towards Rondon, once again invited a shot and from the resulting corner, Stones would find himself all alone at the far post but, presumably as he plays for a side who aren't all that dangerous from set-pieces, he would fail to hit the target.
Two minutes later though and Foster's long ball to Rondon would see our lone striker only able to head it back halfway into our half and with Albion a bit stretched, having moved up under the long ball, it only took three or four passes for the ball to be slid, down the side of Olsson, to Aguero, who was able to fire, through Foster's legs, from inside the box.
Not to worry though: it's only one goal and Man City had only kept one clean sheet all season. Slightly more worrying, a couple of minutes later, right-footed left-back Nyom would slice a clearance across the front of our box and with Albion backing off so as to line up under the trajectory of the ball, Fernandihno would be left free to drive a shot in from 25 yards and ask Foster to save again.
A couple of minutes later, with the ball once again around the edge of our area, albeit after a City counter-attack following a header from McClean that I thought would have counted as a shot on target but wasn't, Pulis's Albion, who work on being in this situation all the time, appeared to have snuffed things out, however Fletcher took too long to make a pass, got his pocket picked and, but for McAuley's last ditch defending, would have gone further behind, with Foster helpless to defend Nolito's unchallenged chip over him.
I actually thought Albion had snuffed out the next attack as well, but Dawson's little pass inside to McAuley, after City had been stifled into giving the ball away, found GMac retreating away from it, forcing Olsson to go to ground to make a tackle at the stretch from where the ball squirts to Fletcher who also tried to pass to McAuley only to give it to Aguero, and despite having to dribble across Olsson, now up off the ground, he did enough to create the space to give Foster no chance with a curled effort into the top corner.
For the rest of the half, City appeared happy to treat the game as a passing drill, whilst Albion were content not to make it too hard a drill, presumably for fear of losing their defensive shape and conceding a third goal, which is, after all, the Pulis Plan when going 2-0 down before half-time, and so half-time would then arrive without us having had a shot on target, let alone a corner from which to be dangerous.
Brunt and McClean swapped sides at the restart, which changed little, however, five minutes in, after City had so many men in our box that a goal-bound shot was deflected wide by one of their own, Pulis clearly realised that he might be able to sacrifice a centre-back - after all, he'd started with four on the pitch - and so off went Olsson, allowing our best defender, Evans, to move to his normal position, and so did Fletcher, although the "ex-ManU-player in a captaincy role" role was maintained, with Evans taking the armband.
As my regular reader will know, I'm one of the few who have not yet brought into the claim that this manager likes to play with width, yet, in bringing on Leko and Morrison, so as to give us a 4-4-1-1 that had four wingers in that middle four, even I would have to concede that he'd finally displayed some capability for wide play.
In that strange way that these things happen though, the first chance that resulted from the old "four winger switcharoo" would come from Brunt's ball curling infield from the left-middle channel which would see Rondon arriving straight down the middle to meet it in the space front of the central edge of City's box, but as he tried to steer the header over Bravo who'd come out to that edge, the Venezuelan could only send it looping wide.
Certainly, having four wingers in midfield and Evans now marshalling a much higher line than Olsson and McAuley could have done, Albion were now certainly defending higher up the pitch, although there may be some irony in the fact that one of those four wingers, McClean, would get booked, and so now deplete the "pool of width" for the next game, as a result of a challenge from behind, whereas earlier in the game, he'd almost certainly have been on our goalside of any player he was tackling.
Another move that caused City some concern, albeit not generating a shot on target, saw Chadli dropping back as all four wingers and, for good measure, Nyom, all got ahead of the ball and after Nyom's ball into the box had pinged around a bit, it fell to Brunt but fell in a way that merely caused him to fall over as he tried to manufacture a shot from it as it came down awkwardly.
For all Leko's direct running at Kolarov, and Albion's general upping of the tempo after the substitutions, they'd still end the game with just the one shot on target, and that a pretty tame effort by Brunt, around the 65-minute mark, from a centrally placed free kick that bobbled through to Bravo, and that stat, unlike the Liverpool game where our getting a goal back suddenly put the frighteners on an, up until then, untroubled opposition, meant that when City got a rather fortuitous third, Augero's flicked ball towards an offside player getting a deflection from one of the massed ranks on the edge of our box to find an onside, and unmarked on the penalty spot, Gundogan, it was pretty much game over with just ten minutes left.
There would still be time for Leko to finally set up a teammate at the end of a run, but McAuley would shoot against the post, at which point Pulis clearly decided to go all out for it, swapping his 4-4-1-1 to a 4-4-2 with Chadli sacrificed for Robson-Kanu. Unfortunately, this just opened up the game even further and, as City broke away, leaving Albion with only seven men able to get back into their box, Gundogan would get to direct his second unchallenged shot from near the penalty spot past a helpless Foster, and so see the game finish four-nil.
In summary, the fourth goal probably flattered the winners, although just one shot on target, plus McAuley hitting the woodwork in the 86th minute, suggests the nil was probably about right too, though what Lee Mason's seven yellow cards tells you, I have no idea, because it wasn't that type of game at all, although if he'd only noticed Nolito's head coming into contact with Dawson's left cheek whilst he was clearly focusing on Dawson's better side, or was simply just too close to take in the whole of Dawson's head, then he might have got to pull out a red as well and who knows how the game might then have gone.
Perhaps it was good job that that contract extension, committing us all to an extra year of Pulisball, was finalised ahead of a game in which our best central-defender would start in midfield with our best attacking midfielder initially pushed out to the right, although, with Albion now dropping into the middle of a group of three point-a-game sides, all sitting just above the bottom three, perhaps it is the ideal time, as the odds start to move against us, to reach for the "steady as she goes" of someone who has never been relegated.
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