It must be hard being Tony Mowbray, and not just because you have to wake up every day and see a face that really, honestly, resembles an owl.
Not just because you have a voice and demeanour that suggest you are at least double your forty-five years. And not just because the West Brom side you have managed with style and dignity for the past three years are rooted firmly to the bottom of the Premier League, six points from safety, scoring at a rate of less than a goal per game, with just nine fixtures remaining.
Mowbray has divided football commentators all season long. Some, like myself, admire his commitment to passing, attractive football and technical ability. Some see his almost Arsene Wenger-esque dedication to the aesthetic side of the game as a weakness, something which has held the Baggies back as they have struggled to cope with the demands of top-flight football.
Against West Ham on Monday, West Brom picked up what would usually be considered a sound point away from home. And a clean sheet to boot. But given the insipid nature of the home side’s performance, and the territorial advantage experienced by the visitors, Albion fans could justifiably have left Upton Park with a feeling that this side simply lacks the cutting edge to stay up. Which is a terrible shame.
Mowbray has assembled a squad filled with technically sound footballers. His midfield of Robert Koren (sort of like a poor man’s Luka Modric), Jonathan Greening (vastly under-rated), Chris Brunt (best player on the park for my money) and James Morrison (arguably Albion’s star performer this season) possess enough to compete with most sides, ability-wise.
And in Paul Robinson, they possess a left back who emits not only a never-say-die commitment to the cause, but also a simple efficiency to his play which (should) spread assurance to the rest of the defence. Add to this the absent club-record signing Borja Valero- a midfielder in the Xavi mould, although far from the same class-, and the classy Felipe Teixiera and Albion should have enough creativity to win enough games to stay up.
Unfortunately, where Mowbray has failed to get the balance right is at both ends of the pitch. It is all well and good having Brunt whipping in dangerous balls from one flank, and Morrison finding space coming infield, but who is going to finish the chances off?
Marc-Antoine Fortuné was given the task of ploughing a lone furrow up front on Monday, and quite simply wasn’t up to the task. His one opening, created by Greening’s astute first time pass, saw him slash the ball wildly into the side-netting, with the situation screaming for a driven effort across Robert Green. Other than that, Fortuné’s touch was heavy, his physical presence was lacking and his intelligence seemed elsewhere. It was no surprise when he was withdrawn ten minutes from time.
However if Fortuné isn’t up to the task, it says a lot for the quality of replacements at Mowbray’s disposal. At West Ham he used Jay Simpson & Luke Moore from the bench, ignoring the game but limited Roman Bednar, but neither of these players has shown enough to suggest they could score the goals to keep the Baggies in the top flight.
Moore burst onto the scene with some eye-catching displays at Aston Villa in 2003, but his development has undoubtedly stalled since his move across the Midlands. Simpson similarly showed glimpses of his promise on loan at Millwall last season, and for Arsenal in the early rounds of this season’s Carling Cup, but he has too much to learn to be thrust into a relegation battle with any great regularity. The loss of Ishmael Miller to a serious knee injury in December may not have made headline news at the time, but it was a significant moment in West Brom’s season.
Of course Mowbray cannot be completely blamed for a lack of goals. West Brom do not possess the funds or appeal to attract big name, Premiership-class goalscorers. But his defensive signings are one area that he may have to admit error. Gianni Zuiverloon arrived from Heerenveen in the summer to replace Carl Hoefkens at right back, but looks decidedly shaky. He owed a lot on Monday to the dedicated work of Greening & Morrison to track back and rescue his sloppiness.
At centre half the problems deepen, Ryan Donk, Jonas Olsson & Abdoulaye Meite have all made numerous errors since arriving at the Hawthorns, the nadir of these coming at Goodison Park where at least two of those named players decided that tracking Tim Cahill and/or Marouane Fellaini at a set piece would be a silly idea.
At West Ham, Mowbray thrust the untried Shelton Martis into the fray, and to be fair he looked ok. But considering that he was facing a timid Freddie Sears, and a misfiring David Di Michele, it is hard to say whether he will add enough stability to the defence to stem the flow of goals (54 conceded from 29 games) that look set to relegate Albion. Add to this the fact that Scott Carson, for all the hype, really isn’t a particularly good goalkeeper, and you have the reason why such a neat passing side as West Brom sit nailed to the bottom of the league.
And as I say, it’s a terrible shame. Compare the style of Tonys Mowbray & Pulis for example. One prides himself on a team that passes the ball, develops its technique and thinks about its football. The other encourages “percentage football” with balls knocked into the channels in the hope of winning a set piece, and plays on the hostility of the Britannia crowd.
Nothing wrong with either I suppose, but I know which one I would prefer in the Premier League.