Di Matteo’s mindset of aiming for survival by playing the game the ‘beautiful’ way, which he shares with Ian Holloway of Blackpool, certainly makes for refreshing viewing, but with both clubs – especially West Brom – edging ever-closer to the dreaded bottom three how much longer could things continue without a change of approach? Now, the West Brom board could be looking to instil the grit and solidarity that is so often required to keep a newly promoted club in the Premier League, with Stoke being the most obvious example to look at.
In the league this season, the Baggies have kept just one clean sheet, with an average of 1.92 goals conceded. This means in the majority of games they have been required to score at least two goals to win games, which is a huge ask in this league whatever your attacking talent. And when the offensive part of the team begins to lose its effect, as West Brom’s certainly has in recent weeks – with their average goals scored dropping to 1.24 and a total of nine games so far in which they have failed to score – you can begin to understand why Chairman Jeremy Peace panicked and pulled the trigger, albeit with very strange timing.
If we take an example from the old-school of ‘staying up’, scrappy home wins based on a tight defence, and the utilisation of set-pieces, we have Stoke’s effective – if not pretty – style. In the Potters’ maiden Premier League season in 2008/09, away form and performance was ignored in favour of turning the Britannia Stadium into a fortress, being tough to beat and excellent from set plays. By making this the case, a successful – and comfortable – avoidance of relegation was achieved, with a 53% win ratio and the fifth meanest home defence giving the Potters the bulk of the points required to survive. That year, just 0.79 goals per game went in and a home clean sheet was kept in almost half. This is, of course, not to everyone’s taste, not least the football purists, but it cannot be denied that if the attacking unit hits a rut, then a solid foundation to fall back on is vital, and this is something Di Matteo’s side simply did not have.
There is of course no ‘right’ way to stay up, merely more and less successful ones. It makes sense, however, that teams should master the art of survival before they take on the world. The more successful teams have both parts of the equation: an attack capable of unlocking the toughest defence, yet with a backbone for when games turn ugly. Attaining both takes time and experience, but history suggests that the latter, even if not for the purists, currently holds the best chance of Premier League survival, and Di Matteo has unfortunately paid the ultimate price for trying to change that fact.