As we left Griffin Park’s many pubs on Saturday, Albionites were bemoaning our haphazard approach to the game. I was smiling after a defeat for the first time in as long as I can remember. Yes, we maybe should have sacrificed our ridiculously attacking full backs (especially at 1-0 down) but, overall, we were a joy to watch. I’ve heard of winning ugly, but losing pretty? It works for me, if not all Albion fans.
‘Winning ugly’ is a term we’ve heard countless times over the years. It was best performed by us in that magical March under Gus when all our tippy-tappy excellence was reduced to long-ball 1-0 wins at the likes of Dagenham and Redbridge and Yeovil. I think we managed seven 1-0 wins that month. We won ugly and we won the league.
Brentford was possibly the first time in my Albion supporting history that I actually felt inspired in defeat. Technically, if skill level per player is what you’re after, we’ve genuinely never had it so good. Of course, at some point this season, our lovely passing, genuinely gorgeous skill and outlandish attacking effort will need to turn into points. I know that. But, at this end of the season, in a Championship that threatens to be just as mediocre as it has been the last few seasons, I’m more than happy with our start to the season.
Did anybody seriously think we’d blag it into the play-offs after our start last season? On paper, Oscar Garcia’s debut performances were better (points wise at least) than Sami’s this term, though the core of Gus’ ceiling squad was still together. The scale of changes at the club the summer just gone should not be underestimated. However there are enough signs already to start thinking we could be entering a great new era.
Griffin Park showed us a formation I don’t think I’ve come across before, certainly at Albion. In defence and attack we sort of played two centre-backs, two full-backs as wingers, three central midfielders and three up front. It was almost a 2-5-3 if you like, a sort of progressive (or possibly regressive, depending on your opinion) return to the WM formation of yesteryear. It mainly didn’t work because we didn’t take the lead and yet there we were, with five clear cut chances before Brentford began to come close. That’s more chances than we managed in more than two consecutive games last season.
Of course the inspiration I emerged with from Griffin Park was tempered slightly by our loss at Ipswich in midweek. But again, we had the chances first and simply failed to convert them. What we could really do with is an £8m striker - now where do you find one of those? The amount of chances we are creating is incredible, more than most games in any of our recent Division 2 seasons. Just think of the joy Mr Ulloa would be having. It does means that pressure is mounting on one of his replacements to become that 12-goal a season (!) striker we’re missing so much. Give them time, they’ll get there.
That’s the thing with football - you need personnel to match at the right time for really special things to happen. How many 1-0 wins would Bobby Z have managed without Paul Watson and a solid backline?
The Sami Hyypiä WM formation needs work, especially defensively. The full backs cum wingers were pushed so far forward on Saturday that any pacey Brentford attack left paceless Gordon Greer / Lewis Dunk / Aaron Hughes terrifyingly exposed (and it was genuinely terrifying, being that close to the action from the away terrace). But it can work. It just needs two very disciplined holding midfielders to sit deep and allow our full backs forward. That is progressive attacking play, whether you like it or not - it confuses opposition players (and ours still, at the moment!) and stretches the game as much as possible.
Having such width then offers players like Kazenga LuaLua the opportunity to exploit space - arguably one of his two attributes (shooting hard being the other). So it was frustrating for everyone to see our somersaulting extraordinaire yet again ploughing an unwinnable task through the middle of the field.
Time will fix this. Players, universally stunted by small brains, will adapt to this way of playing. It requires new thinking from them - they need reassurance that they can play in a formation other than 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. This should come, especially if we start taking those chances to offer confidence that we can win this way. We, as fans, must give it a chance too. Why? I don’t see any other great plans on the horizon. Do we really want another summer without a manager? And wholesale playing staff changes No, I thought not. We must change our thinking, and smash through that ceiling.
We still have some way to go to be the club we all now somehow aspire to be. But after wholesale changes to the playing and coaching staff for the second summer running, we must be ahead of where most thought we would be. Keep the faith kids, this could easily be as exciting an era as any. Up the Albion.
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