Di Matteo keeps his head after West Bromwich soar to new high
West Bromwich Albion 2 Fulham 1
Monday 25 October 2010
Much could go wrong for West Bromwich Albion between now and next May but, as an appreciative audience – the biggest in almost two years – streamed away from the Hawthorns on Saturday, chairman Jeremy Peace may have allowed himself at least a brief moment of self-congratulation.
It would stem from the recollection that his decision to appoint Roberto di Matteo as manager 15 months ago was a gamble, even by his own admission.
Despite the temptation to play safe after three relegations in seven yoyo seasons, Peace rejected the credentials of Preston's Alan Irvine and convinced his directors that the Swiss-Italian's lack of experience should not count against him.
So far, he seems justified in having done so. West Brom, promoted again from the Championship after Di Matteo's first season, climbed to fourth place in the top flight as a result of Saturday's victory, their highest position in 28 years since seven wins from the first 11 matches of the 1982-83 season lifted them to second. Moreover, his gross transfer outlay is less than £10m.
Di Matteo is already too wise to indulge in fantasy and will not speculate on whether Albion's good start is sustainable. "How long can we keep the run going? I've absolutely no idea," he said.
But he is helping Peace bolster the proposition that a club of limited resources need not see crude pragmatism as the only route to survival in the Premier League. Rejecting such an approach failed under Tony Mowbray but Di Matteo's side still tries to play football that is pleasing to the eye – with a measure of resilience to go with it.
What will have pleased the manager most on Saturday was that while his side's willingness to attack, which is central to his philosophy, created eight or nine chances, they made so few mistakes that Fulham barely had one.
Going forward, they had pace and energy, exemplified in particular by the box-to-box play of Youssouf Mulumbu and Jerome Thomas's working of the left flank. At the back, meanwhile, Gabriel Tamas and Jonas Olsson, were proficient in the air and on the ground. There was always good cover, too, from Mulumbu, James Morrison and Paul Scharner.
It was Chris Brunt who caught the eye most, however. The Northern Ireland international has always had a potent left foot but has added something else under Di Matteo. "He has matured a lot and become a tremendous asset. Every week he gives you eight out of 10," the manager said.
After a shot from Zoltan Gera, a former Hawthorns favourite, had freakishly given Fulham the lead after bouncing off a post and in off Scott Carson's body, Brunt was central to both Albion's comeback goals, supplying the pass from which Mulumbu equalised and releasing Thomas to make the cut-back from which Marc-Antoine Fortune put them in front.
Fulham manager Mark Hughes, adding to the debate over "active" and "inactive" players in offside positions, suggested neither goal should have counted but did not appear to begrudge his former Chelsea team-mate the victory, even though it extended Fulham's dismal away form to 23 games without a win. "Roberto is a good guy with a lot of ideas and seems to be doing an excellent job here," Hughes said.
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