Sunderland's recent trips to The Hawthorns have hardly been ones to savour for the red and whites. A 0-3 reversal in April 2009 was followed by last season's miserly 0-1 defeat just two games into the new campaign. In spite of this, the recent resurgence under Martin O'Neill saw a sold-out away end in buoyant mood on Saturday afternoon. As it were, the Black Cats' West Brom hoodoo continued, with Peter Odemwingie opening the scoring after just three minutes. By the time 5 o'clock rolled around it was 4-0 to the home end, and O'Neill and his side were left to contemplate a day where simply nothing had gone right.
The Sunderland manager surprised a few by naming an unchanged side from that which saw off Arsenal in the cup a week previously. No starting return for either Fraizer Campbell nor Nicklas Bendtner meant Stephane Sessegnon once again led the line up front. Meanwhile, captain Lee Cattermole, perched precariously on nine bookings, was chosen despite the fact a yellow card would rule him out of next weekend's Tyne-Wear derby (and the following week's encounter with Liverpool).
Thus it was a 4-5-1 formation that was in evidence at kick-off on Saturday. Cattermole was flanked by Jack Colback and Craig Gardner, who in turn were flanked by James McClean and Seb Larsson. At the back, the central defensive pairing of John O'Shea and Michael Turner remained, aided by Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley in protecting Simon Mignolet's goal.
The Baggies, too, opened with a 4-5-1. Bustling frontman Marc-Antoine Fortune was picked as the home side's sole striker; Odemwingie, hat-trick hero a fortnight ago in the 5-1 derby demolition of Wolves, took up residence on the right-wing. On the left was the tricky Jerome Thomas, while James Morrison played as an attacking midfielder. Behind him, Youssuf Mulumbu and Keith Andrews took up more reserved central midfield roles.
At the back, Scott Foster's goal was shielded by Liam Ridgewell at left-back, Steven Reid at right-back, and two central defenders in the shape of Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley.
Hodgson's Men Press For Victory
This was a game that broke Sunderland records for this season - for all the wrong reasons. It was the first time the Black Cats had conceded more than two in a game, as well as the first time they'd lost by more than a one goal margin. Added to the fact that it was West Brom's first home win since November, it would be fair to say that few saw it coming.
That is not to say, however, that it wasn't deserved. From the moment Odemwingie's header hit the net in front of a stunned away end, Sunderland never looked like getting anything from this game.
There were a number of reasons for this. First of all, Roy Hodgson's West Brom side employed an almost insatiable pressing game when they found themselves without the ball. With both Mulumbu and Andrews played very close together in deep-lying midfield roles, they restricted the space for Sunderland to play in midfield and closed the visitors down whenever they dared stray over the halfway line (much like that tactics Sunderland themselves employed against Arsenal last week).
Andrews, maligned by many in the past as a mere journeyman, showed his true Premier League quality on Saturday. He led the way with regards to tackles - successful in five - as well as offering three vital interceptions and even blocking one of Sunderland's fairly rare shots on goal. He, alongside Mulumbu, restricted the likes of Gardner and Colback effectively; the latter had a particularly bad game, and was rightly taken off at half-time.
Furthermore, the West Brom pairing were economical when they found themselves with the ball; Mulumbu had an extraordinary completion rate of 90% from his 73 attempted passes, not to mention three 'key passes', while Andrews saw a success rate of 87% from 61 attempts.
The pressing game wasn't limited to the middle of the pitch either. The most obvious example came on the Baggies' right side, where Steven Reid and Odemwingie combined to shut James McClean out of the game completely. The young Irish found himself faced with two men to beat almost every time and Reid, once a midfielder, was superb at right-back. Not only offering tackles and blocks, Reid's clearances had a 100% success rate in finding a fellow team-mate, and were key in helping the home side launch dangerous counter-attacks.
In truth, Sunderland were visibly rattled by the home side's immediate pressure. The early goal set the Black Cats back and saw them unable to demonstrate their usual ploy of counter-attacking at pace; instead, they were unable to find their feet, and saw themselves consistently under the cosh.
Much can be drawn from analysis the average position graphs of each side.
It is noticeable that, despite how each side opted for a 4-5-1 formation, the home side's was the much more attacking of the two. Fortune, on average, occupied a position not too far from the Sunderland penalty box.
This was a result of two things. First, Fortune proved highly difficult to get off the ball - he contributed four successful dribbles through the heart of the Sunderland defence, and caused both Turner and O'Shea huge troubles. Secondly, the highly aggressive nature of wingers Odemwingie and Thomas meant Fortune was able to get forward into the area to try and get on the end of crosses.
This second point is one that needs elaborating upon, as it is a clear reason in why the Black Cats were humbled on Saturday. In Martin O'Neill's time at the club, the opportunities for the opposition to get to the byline have been sparing at best. The "doubling-up" of winger and full-back has seen teams resort to sending balls in from deep, which are much easier to defend (for both centre-backs and goalkeeper).
At The Hawthorns, this was not the case. Whenever McClean or Larsson received the ball upfield, they were invariably dispossessed, before the home side sprang a quick attack of their own. Wingers Thomas and Odemwingie both had the better of their opposing numbers Bardsley and Richardson all day long, meaning the balls crossed into the area were plentiful. Indeed, a long at the graph shows that Thomas occupied, on average, a role deeper in Sunderland's half than the defending Bardsley did - hardly what O'Neill will have wanted from his right full-back.
The home side, while being effective when attacking, were also wise when defending. Realising that Sessegnon could be a threat up front, Gareth McAuley dropped far deeper than partner Jonas Olssen, looking to pick up the frontman should he beat the first line of West Brom's defence. As it were, Sessegnon had a torrid game - his pass completion rate of only 67% was the worst of Sunderland's outfield players - but it is difficult to deny the Baggies credit for how they looked to deal with him.
A look at where the two sides shot from also offers a damning insight into Saturday's game.
Where Sunderland have previously resisted attacks ably, protecting their own box well, Saturday saw the opposite. As shown, a staggering 65% of the home side's 20 shots on goal came inside the Sunderland area. This of course lines up with how West Brom were able to get to the line and put in dangerous crosses, but also is a sign of how easily they were often sliced through in the middle of the field. Lee Cattermole had a fairly poor game, unable to get to grips with the adventurous James Morrison; Jack Colback was, in every sense of the word, awful; Craig Gardner, though offering sporadic bursts upfield, didn't offer much defensively until the second half, by which time the game had gone.
Martin O'Neill got this game wrong tactically. His decision to stick with 4-5-1 again, though understandable in some respects, was undone as early as the third minute. From there, the Black Cats were lucky to make it to the break at just two-nil down. They looked lethargic, lacking in ideas and immensely sloppy, while too many key performers failed to turn up. Sessegnon cut a deflated and ineffectual figure up front, while wingers Larsson and McClean - upon whom so much is relied in this new-look Sunderland attack - had no answer to the opposition pressing game. It is notable that for the first time in a while the bulk of red and white attacks did not go down the left-hand side of the pitch, such was the effective job Reid did on McClean.
That said, some credit can be afforded for O'Neill in his willingness to admit his mistakes. This came at half-time, where he hauled off Richardson and Colback for Bendtner and Campbell - bringing two strikers showed his intent to still get something from the game.
They did start the second half brighter at first, but this was undone after three minutes once again. Odemwingie's second goal, and West Brom's third, was a counter-attack Sunderland themselves would have been proud of, but the openness of his side so soon after a half-time chat will have worried O'Neill.
The substitution of Richardson too seemed odd. Though poor in the first half, he was by no means the worst, and eventual welcoming of Wayne Bridge at left-back anyway allowed the manager to see his decision to move McClean to left-back was the wrong one. This is a minor point however.
So, all in all, West Brom deserved their victory as much as Sunderland deserved their defeat. It is a setback for the club, one magnified by the looming trip to Newcastle next week. It has taken sixteen games for Martin O'Neill to see his new side but in a truly bad performance - it will be interesting to see how they react next week at the Sports Direct Arena.