“Stoke City offer different types of problems than we give teams and yet they are just as effective, and at this moment more effective, than what we do. Whatever they do it is within the laws of the game and difficult to defend against.”
This was West Brom boss Tony Mowbray’s tacit admission, in the build-up to Saturday afternoon’s clash with Stoke City, that brawn can conquer brains. For a dedicated advocate of short-passing football such as Mowbray it is a difficult acknowledgment to make. The aesthetically-pleasing nature of his side has gained many admirers so far this season but, gradually, the Baggies have slid to the foot of the tightly-packed Premier League table.
Meanwhile, Stoke have hassled and harried their way to mid-table (admittedly, only three points ahead of their Midlands rivals). Along the way they have earned a certain notoriety. Arsene Wenger’s ill-advised whining in the aftermath of Arsenal’s deserved defeat at the Britannia Stadium, earlier this month, held the magnifying glass up to the ‘merits’, or otherwise, of the Potters’ physical approach.
Upon their promotion to the top flight, Tony Pulis’ side were widely-touted as relegation certainties, yet few observers would now confidently put much money on that outcome in late May. Rory Delap’s ridiculously prodigious throwing abilities have warped the result of many a Stoke game already, and their massed ranks of 6ft-plus scrappers ensures that they’ll not be out-fought all season long. As Pulis says, Stoke have forged a clear identity:
“There’s a system in place, so the players know exactly where we want the ball to go in certain areas. The organisation is very good and that goes right through the club.”
It’s not popular among the neutrals - comparisons with past Wimbledon and Watford sides are quite accurate – but few teams will travel to the Potteries expecting an easy three points. On the other hand, West Brom have already developed a reputation as something of a soft-touch.
Last season’s ‘if you score three then we’ll score four’ attitude has lingered at The Hawthorns, yet Mowbray’s men palpably do not have the capacity within their ranks to maintain that mantra in the unforgiving surrounds of the Premier League. The ex-Hibs manager has been lauded and barracked in equal measure for his strict adherence to a ‘pure’ footballing philosophy. To date, he’s shown no sign of acquiescing to the pro-pragmatism pack.
“You have got to keep believing in what you're doing, that it's right and keep going until someone tells you ‘enough is enough’,” he said this week.
“I don't feel any pressure. Hopefully in January we can strengthen our team with a couple of quality players and keep pushing on.”
Mowbray’s confidence is admirable, but such comments seem to almost invite the pressure he claims not to feel. If, in a worst-case scenario, Albion find themselves cut adrift at the turn of the year, Chairman Jeremy Peace might feel inclined to call his manager’s bluff and tell him that enough is enough.
Just a couple of wins from mid-table obscurity they may be, but West Brom’s numerous problems are glaringly apparent. The raft of defensive recruits from Holland’s Eredivisie are still struggling to adapt to the rigours of English football – Ryan Donk particularly. At the head of things, Roman Bednar and Ishmael Miller are beginning to show signs that they can make the step up, but neither could be considered prolific. The Baggies have scored only a paltry ten league goals so far and a Kevin Phillips-style poacher is prominent on the January shopping list for Mowbray. Naturally, though, such players rarely become available and cost a pretty penny when they do.
The technical and creative qualities of the Albion midfield are without question; with much-missed talisman Felipe Teixeira returning from a frustratingly long layoff to compliment the likes of Robert Koren, record-signing Borja Valero and skipper Jon Greening. Like the Arsenal team whose style they are so keen to emulate, a midfield enforcer is sorely lacking.
To cap their troubles, ‘keeper Scott Carson has just endured another confidence-sapping international experience. It’s hardly the ideal preparation for Saturday’s 40-mile trip. After all, Delap’s missiles + the foreheads of Sidibe & co. x Carson’s hesitancy = impending disaster, surely?
That’s not to mention that Stoke are Albion’s bogey team – they’ve not won in the Potteries since 1982, when a young Cyrille Regis was on the scoresheet. A solitary point from the last possible 18 also makes for sorry reading. A small crumb of comfort can be garnered from the absence through injury of Ricardo Fuller – their chief tormentor in recent games between the clubs.
It’s still too early for talk of six-pointers and must-wins, but at least avoiding defeat this weekend is essential if the Baggies’ self-belief is not to be further deflated. Their fans are among the most dedicated – and vocal – in the country, but even they need a scrap of hope to cling onto going into the hard winter months ahead.
About as far-removed from a glamour fixture as you can get, Stoke vs West Brom will, nonetheless, offer an intriguing gauge of each side’s ability to beat the drop.
Stoke are uncompromising and unremittingly physical; a throwback to darker days in English football. Albion are dedicated to a strict policy of ball-on-ground possession football. The third promoted club, Hull, chose to take the middle road – and have reaped the rewards. Only the passage of time will tell which - if either - of the two proud Midlands clubs has chosen the right route to avoid the top-flight trapdoor.