Academy products impress again as Baggies earn replay

Brighton 0 West Brom 0

Many, including myself, have criticised Darren Moore this season for not playing the youngsters more frequently in league games and, while you could see their displays yesterday as further ammunition for that view, I see it as a vindication of the work that has been done behind the scenes to prepare them for first team football.

The best support for this view is the comparison between the games against Crystal Palace in the Carabao Cup last September with the game at the Amex Stadium yesterday.  The team for the Palace game was arguably much stronger with Barry, Morrison and Hegazi all featuring, but that side was blown away by a second-string Eagles team.  There was no sign of that sort of result at Brighton as a team that featured nine changes from the first eleven from Monday evening were well worth the draw against an experienced Premier League outfit – of the team Hughton picked, only ‘keeper, David Button, and centre back, Dan Burn, had fewer that eight Premier League appearances this season.

As you might expect, the hosts dominated possession in front of a surprisingly large attendance of 27,000, particularly in the first half, but I thought the Albion defence was excellent with both Bartley and Adarabioyo putting in great performances.  Townsend, once again, looked comfortable at left back and even the much-maligned Tyrone Mears looked solid playing in a more familiar full back role.  It was Adarabioyo who came closest for scoring for the visitors hitting the bar with a header from Hoolahan’s free kick.

Unsurprisingly, the stars of the show from Baggies point of view were the central midfield partnership of Sam Field and Rekeem Harper.  Having looked solid alongside Gareth Barry in the match at Bolton, they were playing alongside another youngster, Kyle Edwards, at the Amex as Moore once again opted to play Wes Hoolahan in a false nine position.  Both were excellent as they worked tirelessly to close down the Brighton midfield and always looking to create opportunities for the front three.  Had there been a little more potency in that front three, the Baggies could have nicked an unlikely victory.

Another player to stand out was 25-year-old ‘keeper Jonathan Bond.  Having kept a clean sheet in the cup match against Wigan, he followed that up with another at Brighton and this time he was properly tested and produced a number of good saves.  Boaz Myhill, who only missed out on the Wigan match through illness, was on the bench yesterday but now looks to have dropped down to third choice following Bond’s impressive performances.

With Harper, Field and Bond all impressing, the other youngsters in the starting line-up were somewhat overshadowed.  Jonathan Leko played as one of the front three and, while he showed great pace and some good skills getting into some great positions, his final decision making was often lacking.  Playing as the left-sided forward, he seemed always too intent on getting the ball onto his right foot rather than trying to fire it across with his left.  When Rayhaan Tulloch came on for his first team debut with nine minutes left, one of the first things he did was get into a position on the left side of the penalty area and immediately fired it across to win a corner – something his more experienced team mate should learn from.

Meanwhile, Kyle Edwards played on the left side of the midfield three and didn’t really get into the game too much.  He did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand out either – I wasn’t sure that it was the right position for him but he did score two from left wing against Wolves for the U23s earlier this month.  I was really impressed with him when he came on for Phillips against Reading in October, but he’s not really shone since, in my opinion, and maybe needs another spell on loan.

As I said in my preview on Friday, I was hoping for a stronger line up as I’d like to see the Baggies progress in the FA Cup –  I wasn’t surprised by the selection but was pleasantly surprised by the performance.  The weakest part of the time was the front line – Robson-Kanu did what he does, worked hard and held the ball up well, but he’s not a natural goalscorer and, for me, that was the one thing that was missing in that line up, but Moore didn’t have too much to choose from.

I was pleased to see Gayle on the bench, and probably would have thrown him on in the second half to see whether he could have nicked a goal.  Moore was right not to risk Rodriguez and I guess the lack of any other realistic options highlights the deficiencies in the squad up top, which is surprising given the number of goals the Baggies has scored this season.  Once again, however, using Hoolahan as a false nine did not really work and, if Big Dave is serious about progressing in the replay, he will need to try something else.  Hopefully by then he may have one or two more options at his disposal, but we shall wait and see what the next few days bring.

All in all, it was an encouraging performance given the lack of experience in the team and, with ‘Boro to come at the weekend, the key players are all rested once again for another key game at the start of a month that will probably define the season.

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