West Bromwich Albion 2 - Manchester City 3
It's a measure of the gulf between Man City and Albion that a 3-2 defeat can be seen as creditable (although it could have been 10-4 based on chances). The only way to try and neutralize City's awesome ability is with speed and energy, commodities Albion's aging squad have in limited supply - So a defeat is hardly a surprise.
If I was the owner I would have been looking to see whether the team are still playing for Pulis. And You have to say that there is no sign they have stopped. We showed discipline in holding our shape, although our full backs were very narrow at times (1st and 3rd goals). And there was no lack of effort either.
But the usual failings were there again. As we see, week after week, we play deeper than any other team in the league, inviting teams to shoot from the edge of the box (second goal). If Brunt doesn't play, Barry is the only midfielder able to hold the ball and play in our forwards (J-rods and Phillips goals). Our 'out balls' are lump it to Rondon and hope he can hold it until the cavalry arrive. It tells you something about the team when the best passer is centre half Hegazi, who had another superb game. Never mind loanee Krychowiak, we had better hold on to Hegazi. If we had picked up points against weaker teams, today's result would have just warranted a shrug, but now next weeks game against Huddersfield is really critical, given the other fixtures on the horizon
When I saw the starting lineup I thought respectable loss was the best possible outcome. That may have been the case regardless but with our 5-3-2, lack of creativity in the central 3 and lack of pace out wide I'd thought we'd struggle to get out and build attacks.
I think that if ever there was a game for 4-5-1 with Phillips and McClean in each wide position this was out - pace to track the bombing on fullbacks and then legs to get up into the gaps they vacate on the turnover.
We were pegged back from the start although it was nice to see us press up and for JRod to stay in and around Rondon - and Rondon made a fairly decent start by stretching City in the channel and then running in before trying a cross when he really should have just put his left foot through the ball and rolled the dice.
Their first goal was class - Sane was stunning in the cup game and this was more of the same. Perhaps we could have got closer but yoiu will struggle to find a better finish all season for sheer power and accuracy.
We went right up the other end and scored a very basic goal - Barry looked lost for options but with 2 up top a strightforward route one was finsihed well by JRod.
The calamity see-saw went straight back the other way as before we could even get a foothold back in it we conceded a soft second. It looked like Foster went to ground way too early and a defelction trickled the ball past him and in off the post.
From then on in it was all about hanging on - we defended OK but couldn't get out. Gibbs and Nyom did their best but had too much ground to make up and both looked tired.
City might have got a third but for bad finishing and good defending.
It looked like 40 minutes was a trigger for us to suddenly go and press again which surprised City and having won the ball high Rondon should have done better with a headed finished from close range. If he'd have headed it down he probably would have scored - we then saw the game out to half time.
Chadli seemed to be warming up more than anyone else at the break, but we started as were were and continued where we left off.
I thought our first change was a very bad one - Rondon for HRK took our willing runner off, our only pace and outlet at the time and although he'd had a typical Rondon game there was promise there between him and JRod and it was only 60 minutes. You sometimes think Pulis has made these decisions before the game and was going to do them however the game panned out.
If anything I'd have taken one of the defensive midfielders off, dropped JRod a bit deeper and got Phillips on the pitch somehow to get at Delph.
The change allowed City to press up (knowing that HRK or JRod would never run in behind them from halfway) and keep the pressure on and after a sustained period of keep ball where they switched it across the pitch a couple of times, their quality was faster than we could shuffle across and Walker crossed from the byline to give them a 3rd and a tap in.
After a while we seemed to go 4-4-2 with Phillips comign on for McAuley, although Barry was reluctant to go very wide so it looked much more like 3 holding centre midfielders with Phillips wide and HRK/JRod up top.
There was nothing doing with this and it seemed to expose us on the counter a bit more - we gave the ball away quite cheaply and had Foster to thank for pretty much 2 one on one blocks and rushing De Bruyne so that he put another wide, keeping the score respectable.
McClean then came on for Greg to give us more of a 4-4-2 and if gave us a bit of energy and cover without any real quality.
I have to confess I missed the Phillips goal having elected to leg it down Halfords Lane for a 2 carriage post-match rush hour train.
Today was mostly about pride and I do think some of that was restored. The players gave it everything and their heads never went down.
Next week is now a massive six pointer and away from home you fannc Pulis to go there and absolutely ruin the game for a point. I wouldn't be surprised if he starts the same team.
It would be interesting to speculate if those who wanted to counter claims that Albion under Pulis, despite being the West Midlands' sole club in the top flight, had not really pushed on, could have taken any solace in Man City making no less than ten changes, from the side that had squeezed past the Wolves in the League Cup, for their visit to Fortress Hawthorns.
According to the commentary team, Pulis was half-expecting Evans' groin to go in the warm up, and so had put Phillips on standby, but, as things turned out, Evans was considered fit enough to allow Pulis to deploy three centre-backs behind his three-man defensive midfield shield, meaning that any creativity would appear to have to come from long balls towards Rondon, who may or may not have the support of Rodriguez, depending on whether the latter was free from covering the right-flank in front of Nyom.
It would only take City ten minutes to squeeze Albion's back five inside the width of their own box, before Sane still managed to find enough space to get off a shot that went through Nyom's legs, across the full width of the goal and into the far side netting.
Within two minutes though, Albion had the point they'd started the game with back, as Barry's ball over the top found Rodriguez with enough space to lift the ball over the on-coming keeper, only to see that point taken away again as Fernandihno was given more than enough space, centrally, right where you might have expected one of more of the three-man defensive midfield shield to be, to fire off a shot that took a deflection of Barry, one of those three who had dropped even deeper than usual.
The game was nearly over in the 25th minute but Silva somehow managed to steer a header from inside the six-yard-box wide of the target, but Nyom would return the favour just after the re-start, albeit in heading straight at the keeper from his free header.
As the hour mark approached, Pulis rolled out his usual potentially game-changing straight-swap of the striker ploy, with HRK being given the opportunity to make slightly more something out of nothing that Rondon had, but shortly after that change, City would move the ball from the left to the right across Albion's back 8/9/10 (I lost count) quickly enough to see Walker able to cross from the space inside our penalty box for Sterling to tap in unchallenged from the space inside our six yard box.
As the game entered extra time, Barry would once again float a ball over the City back line, a ball under which Otamendi felt comfortable enough to chest back to his keeper, however such complacence allowed the alert Philips to nip in between City's back-line and, for the second time in the game, flick the ball over an embarassed Ederson:
so a "Matt finish" that put the slightest of glosses onto yet another Albion home form improvement disaster, perhaps?
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