Wigan Athletic 1 West Bromwich Albion 1
At the start of the season, Albion were amongst the bookies’ favourites for promotion along with the relegated clubs – all started slowly, but as Norwich and Watford were scoring late winners and Burnley comfortably beat Millwall, the Baggies stuttered to another draw to leave them languishing in mid-table while those three clubs all sit in the top four.
Sure, it is still early days and Steve Bruce’s side certainly don’t have the results that their performances have warranted, but one win in the first seven games is Albion’s worst start to a second tier campaign since 1994 and, with Semi Ajayi adding to the lengthy injury list last night, the club needs a massive couple of days if they are to challenge at the top end of the table this season.
The performance at Wigan wasn’t great, but had the Baggies managed to convert more of their dominant performances into victories, it would be little more than a footnote. With results as they have been, however, it becomes a symptom of a greater malaise.
It was incredibly poor defending that saw Josh Magennis muscle past Ajayi to opening the scoring, with the Nigerian’s central defensive partner, Kyle Bartley, also partly to blame as such an innocuous hoof up field should not have created such chaos. Albion then benefitted from an error themselves when a loose pass put Karlan Grant running through on goal with one defender and the ‘keeper in front of him – he took it very well but it proved to be the highlight of a very poor performance. While previous games have seen the Baggies win comfortably on xG, this one they actually lost, although the 0.59-0.43 xG result demonstrates the paucity of big chances for either side.
In slight mitigation, Wigan made life very difficult for Albion, breaking up play with niggly fouls and putting ten men behind the ball as soon as they lost possession evidently anxious to prevent a repeat of the 5-1 thumping they received at the hands of Burnley at the weekend. With the likes of Okay, Swift and Wallace all having off-days, and Diangana struggling to shake off the physical attention of the opposition with little support from a weak referee, Albion never looked like being able to break them down.
Steve Bruce is coming under increasing pressure from parts of the the fan base and, while he is far from perfect, I’m not sure too many managers would be able to do that much better given the financial constraints he is working under. To his credit, he has turned around the form of Grady Diangana and improved the style of play, and he would have certainly played a part in bringing Jed Wallace and John Swift to the club. However, he should have been looking to bring in a striker even before Dike suffered his injury set back, and I would have liked to see him use TGH more and maybe even include Cleary on the bench to provide something different.
Personally, I don’t see any benefit in changing manager at this stage and, to be honest, I would be flabbergasted if it is even under the merest consideration in the Albion boardroom. What the board need to do is support him in the next 36 hours to bring in some new players. The paucity of the squad not only means that players are tired and more likely to get injured, as Ajayi did last night, but they are also mentally tired as a group. Being able to switch things around when things aren’t going well provides a bit of freshness and a mental boost, even to those that are playing every week, but Bruce hasn’t felt able to do that in the understandable belief that the fringe players represent too much of a drop from the first eleven.
With 36 hours of the transfer window remaining, the strongest rumours relate to Brandon Thomas-Asante from League Two Salford City. While I am certainly not averse to signing young promising players for a small fee, and would not be against this deal happening at all, he is unlikely to be the game-changing signing we need. Other reports suggest that Callum Robinson could be on the move to Cardiff City despite Bruce suggesting last night that he was left out of the squad due to injury and that no offers have been received. Like the departure of Mowatt, Robinson leaving would only make sense if he were to be replaced, and we’ve still not seen a replacement for Mowatt. Furthermore, while the extent of the injury to Ajayi is unclear at the time of writing, it could leave Bruce with only two senior centre backs available for selection for an extended period, so I would not be surprised if additional cover in that position is not being sought, not that it wasn’t needed before.
The signings of Wallace, Swift and Okay kicked off the window strongly, but there it has ground to a halt. It would be premature to judge before it is over, but it needs a big finish if any fans are to be remotely satisfied. The Express & Star has reported that Bruce is hoping to bring in three or four more players of which Thomas-Asante is one. We will have to wait and see what materialises. The manager has always said that the rebuild would take more than one window, but enough needs to be done in this one to ensure that Albion are in the promotion mix come January.
In the meantime, Baggies fans will hope for good news, fear for bad, and look ahead with some trepidation to the visit of a buoyant Burnley on Friday who will visit the Hawthorns on the back of successive victories that have moved them into third place in the table. Had Albion won two of the games they have drawn, they would be in a similar position – it’s small margins so far, but Steve Bruce and his team need something to go their way.