Big crowd; big defeat. We’ve seen this game before. Cov’s play-off hopes are hanging by a thread, but things, once again, could have been quite different.
So, that wasn’t how we hoped the game would go.
Uber-hyped belief and anticipation following back-to-back victories led to a surge of optimism amongst Cov fans. The resurgence was actually on. And while we started the match embodying that intensity and showed all the signs of a team that knew the importance of the fixture, a recurring and brutal reality was our undoing once more.
We are close – so close – to being a team all opponents in this league should be rightly scared of. Our first half display was vibrant, intense, creative and full of intent. We wanted it, and the energy reflected that.
But there are two areas of difficulty that will ultimately colour the overall assessment of this campaign, and it’s our lack of care and edge in attack, and a growing porousness in defence. Both avoidable and fixable issues of course, but this isn’t done overnight. So much of it is internal and requires development of applicable football IQ, as well as exposure and experience of making the right choice, over-and-over again.
It feels unfair to be too critical of a team that’s one of the highest scorers in the league, so I’m not going to do that, but when you consider the opportunities we’ve had this season – we all know the goal-scored column should be far higher. We have attributes that provide an inherent threat on a football pitch: a striker with many imposing physical abilities; dynamic playmakers who find space with ease; and endless energy and bite across the middle – something that spans the width of the pitch.
But we lack an edge – a crispness, a decisiveness, a ruthlessness – in the critical attacking positions.
Our goals recently have been great and borne out of some strong qualities, particularly set-piece delivery. And when faced with opportunities that rely on pure impulse and reaction, we regularly show control in what we do. I believe it’s there within us – we have the innate quality to score goals.
But when we have the opportunity to be more considered, and there is the time and space ahead of us to exploit an error (for instance), we can often be found lacking the same level of control and decisiveness in our actions. The comfort and belief in those areas isn’t quite matching the broader quality we’ve shown this season.
Bournemouth clearly had their luck yesterday, and it’s not often you are punished quite so harshly as we were, but it was symbolic of the attacking standard that we must aspire to and will serve as a valuable lesson.
All very profound. Sure. But don’t get me wrong – what an absolute pain in the arse it had to happen in this game.
Fast and frantic
As mentioned, I can’t be too critical of our approach in the first half. Often in these hyped-up matches, the gamespeed fails to match the occasion. In the first half, that wasn’t so.
This was a Championship game of the highest standard. Rarely has a team provided such high and structured pressure on our defence as Bournemouth, meaning we had to work far harder than usual to implement our own style. Rose, Hyam and Bidwell found time-on-the-ball at a real premium, but in fairness to them, showed their talent in being able to deal with that press and retain the control needed to move us forward with accuracy and purpose.
Further up the pitch, we spread the play and sought space relentlessly. Kane came into the team on the right-hand side, and found himself as the regular outlet. He and Dabo offer different things, and while I feel there’s little argument over who the pound-for-pound winner of that battle is moving forward (it’s Fanky), Kane has been one of the more able deputies this season.
As the game quickly hit its stride, the chances began to present themselves. Viktor proving once again just how much of a handful he can be to the very best defenders in the league, striding behind the defence early on and forcing a stop from the keeper. It was a clean strike, one that we know he’s capable of, and if he can replicate that crispness more frequently in future it will bring even more goals to his tally.
Punishing lesson in finishing
Bournemouth are a strong side with a dizzying blend of talent across the pitch. Even amidst the intensity of the first half, they were able to display moments of real composure and execute to their capabilities.
You can pick at the detail of their opening goal from a defensive perspective but there was also a lot to admire about it. Their burst down the left was slick and left us struggling to counter it, and the finish from Lowe was impressive. A strong header as he fell away from goal that asked a real question of Simon Moore, who wasn’t able to respond. This was an early hammer blow to our intentions, but we continued with our high-tempo approach.
O’Hare was heavily involved as always, but for all his involvement, unfortunately he is rarely the player you want to be tasked with finishing the opening. He offered so much liveliness and link-up during the first-half, but when the clearest chance came to him the box, his shot was tame and left us pining for Matty Godden – somebody who has the mentality and familiarity to deliver in that position in the big moments.
The second Bournemouth goal came just before half-time and felt like a far more familiar tale. A brief lapse in focus from Bidwell left Hyam and Rose at risk, and as the ball was fired back at them, a hint of confusion and indecisiveness between them – with Rose guilty of failing to engage – was all Solanke needed to take control. Both defenders were vulnerable and unsure of their roles, and backtracked, offering Solanke the time and distance he needed to move into shooting range. There was clearly luck involved in how the goal went in, but a striker like Solanke has earned the aura of threat this season, and our defenders in that moment, seemed overly-fearful. It was disappointing given how unrelenting they’d been to the league’s other standout striker a week previous, but we’ve seen these lapses in positional understanding punished many times this season.
0-2 down at half-time was a blow, but we’re at a point in our development where we at least have the belief that it is salvageable. That is a very fortunate mindset to have as a fan, and a testament to the how the team has regularly fought back over recent years. We still believe, even in these difficult moments.
A third goal however, was too much for even our own resilient maniacs to fathom, and proved to be the killer to all belief – as well as the buffer needed to allow Bournemouth to relax and deliver an annoyingly controlled conclusion to the game.
The Solanke threat was again the root, and the smallest defensive hesitation enough for him to pounce. Bidwell found himself caught in a rogue position and Solanke given a chance that was arguably tougher than O’Hare’s. This didn’t matter, and he finished with the ease of a striker in full control of his deliverables right now.
While we always hope for a miracle, it soon became clear that we weren’t going to be able to muster up the required changes to make the final thirty minutes interesting. If anything, Bournemouth stepped up their authority and there was a real risk of this game going beyond respectable if we didn’t tighten up and bring some order to the team.
Ordinarily, I’m as vocal about the need to “go for it” as any fan. It’s all about points and wins at this stage in the season. But 0-3 against a team that had elevated to such superior standards of possession, and then had the audacity to bring on Phillip Billing – well, that was too much. Robins responded with his senior professionals and sought to stabilise, with some vague continued hope that we could nick a goal to tidy up the goal-difference.
But on reflection, I agree with that approach. He protected Hamer, brought some leadership onto the pitch, and protected the scoreline. It’s not exciting, it wasn’t going to salvage the result – but this wasn’t a match for Taveres and Jodi Jones to have a punt against such a professional unit. Any hint of rawness in those final twenty minutes and Bournemouth could have picked us off.
I know the pragmatist view is that the play-offs are beyond us now, but as manager, it’s not Mark’s job to think like that. He has three more games to navigate so going balls-out for a goal and risking further damaging our already flimsy goal-difference was not the smart man’s move.
There were many lessons yesterday, but I don’t come away from it entirely disheartened. I’ve long since thought that Bournemouth are the best team in this league, and we have certainly felt less matched to their quality than Fulham’s in the games this year (and last). They’re very good, took their chances, and gave us a taste first-hand of what it’s like to sniff out minimal chances and finish these clinically.
It’s not new information – we’ve known all season we can be wasteful – but it’s a vital message that has to be enforced, for everyone’s benefit, and something we continue to work on until we get to that place of attacking consistency ourselves.
For the dreamers among us…
The one positive yesterday, for the dreamers among us at least, is that the distance to the play-offs shifted only minimally (points-wise). With Sheffield Utd drawing and the teams between us and them also losing, we’re still within that difficult-but-not-entirely-impossible zone.
It’s of course a long shot and there’s far less room for error as we’re now only one round of games away from being mathematically bumped out of the picture (if Sheffield Utd win on Saturday, we must match it). But we do still have another game to extend the dream and move us into the final two games with hope.
It’s tough and we have to be impeccable, but we’ll fight till the game is…
Well. You know the song.
Roll on the Baggies.