Albion beaten as defensive frailties prove costly once again

Cardiff City 2 West Brom 1

Slaven Bilić has some thinking to do as the Baggies continue to struggle in the league. It was another disappointing night as they gifted Cardiff two goals to succumb to successive league defeats for the first time since April.

It extends their winless run to seven games and, with Leeds United coming back from two down to beat Millwall, it saw the Baggies slip into second place just two points clear of third placed Nottingham Forest. Shaven Bilić’s side are now 23rd in the six-game form table and in dire need of a victory.

In truth, if you take out the defensive errors that led to the Cardiff goals, it wasn’t a bad performance. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near the heights we saw in the autumn, but Albion played some really good football against a stubborn Cardiff side and rarely looked in danger aside from the goals.

The Vaulks long throw tactic was well used by Neil Harris’s side throughout and, until the opening goal, it was one that the Albion defence had handled well. It would be harsh to blame O’Shea too much, although it was his wayward pass that led to the throw in the first place, but Kyle Bartley really should have done better as Vaulks’ first throw of the second half was played by the former Swansea defender into the path of Sean Morrison – his shot was saved but Callum Paterson fired in the rebound.

I also wouldn’t blame Sam Johnstone for the opener, as he did well to block the initial effort, but he was culpable for Cardiff’s second. He was bothered by the attentions of a City forward as he sought to get Albion moving forward, and started an ill-conceived attempt to play out from the back that led to the concession of a free kick on the ‘D’. Lee Tomlin, who had come off the bench, struck a wonderful shot over the wall that Johnstone had no chance with, but it was an opportunity that he should never have had.

In between those goals, Charlie Austin had equalised from the penalty spot with his first touch after Krovinović was brought down. That equaliser looked to have swung the game’s momentum back into Albion’s favour, which makes the nature of the second goal all the more frustrating.

Krovinović had a decent game in the number 10 position, and had two good chances to equalise before Austin joined the fray. The first, after an excellent driving run and pull back from Matt Phillips, really should have been buried.

The second goal rocked Bilić’s team and they never really looked like equalising for a second time, although Smithies saved well from KenZo in stoppage time, and any momentum that may have been gained from the win at West Ham is now gone.

The mistakes that Albion are making at the back are more in keeping with a team battling against relegation rather than one fighting for automatic promotion, although their recent form is that of a bottom-of-the-table side with just four points from the last 21.

Bilić will hopefully have one or two new faces by the time Graeme Jones returns to the Hawthorns on Saturday with his Luton team, and the hope is that some new blood can galvanise a recovery of their league form. The likelihood is that the reinforcements will be in attacking areas and, while it has been the defensive frailties that have cost Albion lately, a few more options in attacking areas will undoubtedly help – the free scoring version of the team we saw in the autumn was able to overcome the travails at the back with goals at the other end.

Having said that, the Baggies defensive record on the road has been largely good this season, but something has been lost in recent weeks. Injuries and suspensions have not helped, of course, and the Nathan Ferguson contract situation is also an unwelcome distraction. It was, perhaps, a surprise to see him in the starting lineup at Cardiff, but I guess Bilić sees him as a more solid aerial presence than Townsend, and that is one area that Cardiff were always going to test the Baggies back line.

I’m sure that was also a factor in the decision to play O’Shea on the other side and, while it would be a little churlish to criticise that decision given the Irishman’s performance at the weekend, I did feel that Albion missed Furlong’s attacking threat. It is telling, however, that it was Bartley who was withdrawn and not O’Shea when Furlong was brought on after Cardiff’s second goal.

February could well be a decisive month for Albion’s season. Six games, including the visits of promotion chasing Preston and Forest to the Hawthorns, and tricky away trips to Millwall, Reading and Bristol City, will surely test the Baggies’ mettle. If they are still in the top two come 1st March, their chances of automatic promotion will remain high.

However, as Bilić said in his post match press conference, Albion have to be better. They weren’t awful last night, but when they are not firing on all cylinders up front, defensive errors do cost points, and that has been the story of the last six weeks.

Joy in January has only been found in the FA Cup for the Baggies, but we can only hope for a few new faces this week leading to a fantastic February.

Main photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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