West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United: Pepe Mel looking for plot changes to turn round ‘soap opera’

 

The Manchester United manager, David Moyes, is not the only one desperate for a restorative result at The Hawthorns.

Pepe Mel, his West Bromwich Albion counterpart, has arguably an even greater need. It is 58 days since the Spaniard’s appointment as Steve Clarke’s successor and the former Real Betis coach is still seeking a first win.

There have been moral victories – 1-1 home draws with Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea – but Albion start the weekend in 17th place in the Premier League, a single point above Sunderland, who have a game in hand. It is all a far cry from the last time United visited the Black Country last May for that remarkable 5-5 draw in Sir Alex Ferguson’s farewell game. Then Albion were celebrating an eighth-place finish – their highest in the Premier League era – and the future looked equally bright in September when they won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1978.

Few would have predicted then the downward spiral that followed. Clarke was sacked in December, Mel arrived a month later, yet they have just one win from their last 18 fixtures and midfielder James Morrison could be forgiven for describing the club as a “soap opera” while on Scotland duty this week.

“What Morrison means is I am the third coach this season [including caretaker Keith Downing] and that is not a nice situation for the players,” said Mel yesterday.

Albion’s problems can be traced back to this very week last year when Dan Ashworth, the club’s long-serving sporting and technical director, left for his post as the Football Association’s director of elite development. Under Ashworth, Albion had established a fruitful recruitment policy which yielded bargain signings such as Gareth McAuley, Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob; last summer, under his successor Richard Garlick, their transfer business proved considerably less successful. The subsequent January sale of Shane Long to Hull City looks particularly baffling and means that, with Peter Odemwingie and Romelu Lukaku already departed, Albion have lost their three top scorers from last term. Their lack of goals has contributed to a division-high 13 draws and just four wins. 

The loss of Nicolas Anelka, suspended over his “quenelle” goal celebration, has hardly helped and the plot has thickened in the past fortnight.

On a training trip to Spain, Albion’s senior players confronted Mel to express their misgivings over the high-tempo football he is asking them to adopt. On top of that, Dave McDonough, the director of technical performance and scouting, has left the club. The Spanish-speaking McDonough had become increasingly influential in transfers and was prominent in Mel’s appointment, so his departure is hardly the best news for the manager. “No” was Mel’s one-word reply when asked if he had been consulted about it. 

The club responded to rumours about Mel’s own future in the wake of the 1-1 home draw with Fulham by stressing there had been “constructive” talks and painting a united front. However, when asked yesterday if he had received assurances, the 51-year-old offered a vague response: “For me the only thing that matters is the day-to-day and working today for tomorrow. I am not looking further than tomorrow.”

Mel, who should have record signing Stéphane Sessègnon available today for the first time, was watching on TV when Albion won at United five months ago and has pointed out to his players the importance of “their high pressing” that afternoon – just what he has been trying to instill.

His willingness to tweak his style to suit a team built to counter-attack – “they are little details,” he said – need not be a sign of weakness but he knows he has a job on his hands. “I have only been here six weeks and I want to change the style of play of a team who have been playing many years in a different way,” he said. “In reality it is not a big thing. The important thing is they want to win and so do I.” And, for Mel’s sake, the sooner the better.

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