West Brom 1 Middlesbrough 1
The title of this piece is no coincidence – the Baggies’ failure to take three points from this match was not tactics or team selection, it was simply the ability of one Albion player to pass to another Albion player at the crucial moment. I actually think that the team played well on the whole, and there was some excellent passing in the build up, but the final ball was almost always either misplaced, or the wrong option was taken.
What makes it more frustrating is that this same group of players have been able to find the right ball earlier in the season, but in the past two games in particular, they have not been up to standard. It’s not that they can’t pass all the time, either – Albion’s pass completion rate was 78% against Boro, not quite the season high of 83% achieved against Hull, but still not too shoddy. There was some lovely build up play at times, but in and around the box, it just wasn’t clicking.
Callum Robinson was probably the worst culprit in the first half, which is a shame because is movement was good, but so many times he received the ball and then passed it straight to a Middlesbrough player – only 6 of his 14 attempted passes found their mark and this is a player that was on fire at the beginning of the season. His statistics were the worst of any Albion player although Furlong, Reach and Grant were all below 70% successful with Snodgrass and Molumby the best with more that 90% of their passes finding a teammate.
It was a similar performance to the one we saw against Hull, but one goal wasn’t enough on this occasion thanks to the comedy of errors that led to the visitors’ opening goal. I still felt Albion would win the game, and they would have done were it not for a couple of excellent saves from former Baggie, Luke Daniels, who twice denied Kyle Bartley at the near post.
I was pleased to see Grady Diangana given a start and he repaid his boss with his first goal for nearly fourteen months. When he opened the scoring with a fantastic goal at Goodison Park in September 2020, we all hoped it was a sign that he could take the Premier League by storm, but that never happened. Hopefully, this strike will give him the confidence he needs to become the player we know he can be.
It was a surprise that Kyle Bartley did not immediately return to the side as Ismaël opted to start with the back three that finished the game against Hull. Cédric Kipré put in another good performance and looks to have moved ahead of Ajayi in the pecking order for the time being. The injury to Matt Clarke saw Bartley come on fairly early – it looked like a concussion injury so hopefully Clarke will be available after the international break.
With Livermore reporting a tight hamstring on Saturday morning, Big Val had little choice in central midfield and I think the partnership worked well. Snodgrass was much better than he had been in the last two games and we all know what Molumby brings to the team – pace and energy and clever use of the football.
Bar the error for the goal, I felt that everything worked well until we got close to the Boro box. Albion got into so many promising positions but just failed to make the right pass. It was incredibly frustrating but, in my mind, I cannot correlate it with criticism of the head coach. It’s not like there are a raft of better quality players on the sidelines – pretty much everybody is getting a chance – and the tactics aren’t the “hit-and-hope” approach that Val has been criticised for. The team are attempting to play the ball on the floor for the most part, but it is the passing that is letting them down.
As I have been saying all season, the style will continue to evolve. I think the approach that they have taken in the last two games has been the right one for the opposition, but poor passing has let them down. In their away games at Fulham, Swansea and Stoke, I felt that the pressing intensity was not as good as we saw in the early games of the season, which is perhaps a result of the softening of the principles of Val-Ball to cope with sides that sit deep, and I feel that when we do come up against sides that want to play out, we need to press harder than we did in those games.
Obviously, Fulham and Bournemouth are the teams to beat at the moment, and they have now opened up a significant gap, but such gaps have been bridged before so it would be premature to suggest that automatic promotion is beyond Albion. However, they do need to improve and, most importantly, they need to get a better number nine in January – Mitrović and Solanke are making the difference for the top two and the Baggies need to find their equivalent.
A side story to the game was that Neil Warnock had been told on the morning of the game that his 1,603rd game as a manager would be his last in charge of Middlesbrough – it didn’t seem to have dampened any of his enthusiasm on the touchline. On the EFL on Quest highlights show on Saturday night, they showed a table of the managers who have taken charge of the most games in English football with Warnock at the top and a certain Fred Everiss in third place sandwiched between Dario Gradi and Sir Alex Ferguson. It you are not a student of the history of West Bromwich Albion, who may not know that Everiss was instrumental in saving the club from bankruptcy in the early years of the 20th century. He was Secretary-Manager from 1902 to 1948 taking charge of 1,524 games in league and cup, not including wartime games, steering Albion to win both the League (1920) and the FA Cup (1931), reaching the FA Cup final on two further occasions (1912 and 1935) and also winning promotion to the top flight twice (1911 and 1931). A true Albion legend.
The period leading up to the November international break is a popular time for clubs to change their manager, something that Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Middlesbrough, Norwich City and now Aston Villa have done this year, but while there are some Albion fans that would like to see Ismaël replaced, I would be flabbergasted if it were to happen. Furthermore, it is not something that should be considered in my opinion – the Frenchman has done a decent job when you consider the change in playing style and the fact that he wasn’t particularly well supported in the transfer window. With the team third in the table, he deserves time and at least another transfer window and I feel the minimum achievement is a top four finish. That, and promotion, is still well within reach.