West Bromwich Albion 1 Watford 1
Steve Bruce’s Albion opened their home campaign with an excellent performance that had the Hawthorns rocking throughout, but they ultimately failed to take all three points thanks to a wonder goal from Ismaïla Sarr although they could have ended up with nothing had the Senegalese forward not missed a second half penalty.
Fans leaving the Shrine were all smiling despite not winning the game because they had seen an Albion team play some excellent football, showing fight, desire and no small amount of ability, and comfortably outplay one of the favourites for promotion.
The statistics reflected the hosts’ domination, registering 70% possession according to the BBC, 19 attempts to 5, 7-3 for on target efforts, and 12 corners to nil. According to WhoScored.com, Albion attempted double the amount of passes and Watford had just seven touches in the Baggies’ box in the entire game.
Obviously, the most important statistic was even, and Watford had that little bit of quality in Ismaïla Sarr to thank for the point, one that they surely didn’t deserve. As good as his goal was however, his penalty attempt was dreadful and David Button was able to save it comfortably.
There were excellent performances all over the pitch. At the back, Ajayi and O’Shea were tested only sporadically such was Albion’s domination but, the penalty incident aside which was down to an unfortunate stumble rather than a challenge, they were both extremely assured. Diangana and Wallace on the wings were both excellent with the latter attempting a remarkable 24 crosses and being responsible for 7 of Albion’s 16 key passes. Diangana himself produced 4 key passes including, of course, the all-important assist for Grant’s goal.
John Swift showed some excellent quality on the ball while Molumby produced what was probably his best display in an Albion shirt. The young Irishman was all over the pitch and his passing accuracy of 88.5% was only bettered by Jake Livermore of Albion’s starting eleven with the skipper only having attempted slightly more than half as many passes. Of the starting outfield players, only Wallace and Swift had pass completion figures below 80% which I suspect is down to them being more willing to attempt the more difficult pass as neither stood out as being careless with the ball. Having said that, even their passing accuracy figures were not beaten by any of Watford’s starting eleven.
Another massive positive was the way the team responded to going a goal behind. At Middlesbrough last week, Albion started brightly but failed to recover from going behind until the half-time break. Against Watford, they reacted completely differently, brushing aside the disappointment and continuing to dominate proceedings.
With all the positives, however, that Albion only scored once is disappointing, and a little concerning. The Baggies were famously second only to Fulham in last season’s Championship xG statistics but only six teams scored fewer goals. It is early days, but their xG for the first two games is 4.5 (it was over 3 for the Watford game) compared to a return of just two goals and finding the net still appears to be a problem. Karlan Grant’s finish for the goal was sublime, but he missed two easier chances (albeit Daniel Bachmann should take credit for one of those) and, with the news that Daryl Dike has suffered another injury setback, the need for another striker is heightened. Bruce surprisingly claimed that he wasn’t looking to strengthen further in that area before the American’s injury, but he will now need to change his plans.
Another positive from last night was a second debut for Okay Yokuşlu as a 78th minute substitute for Jake Livermore. It’s obviously difficult to judge his fitness from that short cameo, but he looked comfortable and assured and very classy. I suspect that the Turk might become a permanent replacement for Livermore in the starting eleven before too long.
For me, however, the biggest positive of the night was the atmosphere. Several of the first team players have commented on Twitter about it, and it just shows what the Hawthorns can be like when the product on display excites. Ultimately, Albion didn’t win, but the fans went away happy because of the quality of the football seen and, more importantly, the attitude shown by the players. It’s the best we have seen since lockdown, without a shadow of a doubt, and if the players can keep that going, I’m sure we will see the Hawthorns selling out once again before too long.