West Bromwich 1 Manchester United 2: Robson counts the cost of conservative approach

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The Independent Football

As a player for both these clubs and for his country, Bryan Robson was bravery personified, ever ready to stick his modest mullet where the studs were showing in the quest to convert a quarter-chance into a goal.

As the recklessness of youth has given way to the responsibilities of middle age and management, the willingness to gamble has apparently been replaced by a safety-first strategy. The consequences for West Bromwich Albion are potentially calamitous.

For the third Saturday running, Robson's 4-5-1 formation, or rather the way he applied it, was conservative to a fault. Two of the games were, admittedly, against Chelsea and a Manchester United side that Albion's Paul Robinson ruefully likened to the Red Arrows flying team.

But these were fixtures - like the one at Tottenham a week tonight, with Arsenal, Liverpool and a derby at Aston Villa all looming - that their parlous Premiership position demanded Albion at least try to win. Instead, tactical rigidity has delivered one point from nine.

For most of this match they again deployed a solitary striker, with first Kevin Campbell and then Nwankwo Kanu toiling alone. The contrast with United's wonderfully fluid attacking duo, Wayne Rooney and the two-goal Louis Saha, might have been striking in any circumstances, yet Albion's negative set-up ensured that it was never a contest.

In theory, the extra man in midfield should have given Albion the edge. Sadly for them, the player detailed to support Campbell, Jan Kozak, displayed none of the dynamism Robson lent to such roles. The Slovakian found that technique can be redundant if the tempo is too quick.

United's superior touch and movement actually made it appear that they held a numerical advantage in the centre, though it was no more Sir Alex Ferguson's first-choice quartet than the unit Alan Pardew fielded for West Ham in a defeat by Portsmouth, whose repercussions rumbled through the Midlands like a minor earthquake in the Bull Ring.

Albion seldom breached United's half, let alone their penalty area, while they adhered to one forward of no great mobility. At Birmingham a week earlier, Nathan Ellington scored 90 seconds after supplementing the strike force.

This time it took him 19 minutes to head a goal from one of the set-pieces that posed the only threat to United. By then, however, Saha had twice justified his selection ahead of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Saha is not only finishing clinically, as evinced by an early header from a Ryan Giggs corner and the deft touch that brought his 13th goal of the season after a clever flick by Cristiano Ronaldo. The Frenchman is also dovetailing seamlessly with Rooney, who has been noted for his bravura individual feats rather than a capacity to form forward partnerships.

Ferguson hailed United as "a developing team, a very good young side" - an interesting spin on the fact that are a distant second in the League and will end the season with "only" the Carling Cup.

The line-up was not especially youthful by their own standards, and as a pointer to the future, it was revealing to see Kieran Richardson arguably outperformed in a wide-left role by a player they let go, Jonathan Greening.

Robinson, Albion's admirable left-back, emerged from a gruelling test against Ronaldo to offer intriguing takes on both teams. Declaring himself unconcerned by the machinations surrounding Portsmouth's win - as Robson, to his credit, also did - he said pointedly: "If we start playing more football, we'll cause teams plenty of problems."

Backing United to push champions-elect Chelsea "to the limit" next season, Robinson waxed lyrical as he reflected upon their jet-heeled counter-attacking: "With them twisting and turning all the time, it's like watching the Red Arrows in the sky."

For Albion and their manager, having already pulled off one great escape at the end of last season, the time for waxing miracle is approaching fast.

Goals: Saha (16) 0-1; Saha (64) 0-2; Ellington (78) 1-2.

West Bromwich Albion (4-5-1): Kuszczak; Albrechtsen, Davies, Watson, Robinson; Kamara (Ellington, 59), Wallwork, Kozak (Carter, 69), Inamoto, Greening; Campbell (Kanu, h-t). Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), Clement.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Silvestre; Ronaldo, O'Shea, Giggs, Richardson (Fletcher, 90); Saha, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Evra, Van Nistelrooy, Rossi.

Referee: H Webb (Yorkshire).

Booked: Albion Robinson. United Richardson, Silvestre, Giggs.

Man of the match: Saha.

Attendance: 27,623.