Allardyce’s Albion show their mettle

Liverpool 1 West Brom 1

An Anfield, we got a first real view of what an Albion team under Sam Allardyce might look like, although whether it will be closer to the first half or the second half remains to be seen, but on this occasion, the combination earned a point that was richly deserved.

After showing an apparent lack of ambition that would have embarrassed Tony Pulis in the first half, the Baggies showed much more attacking intent after the break and scored an equaliser through Semi Ajayi inside the last ten minutes.

The first half was a very difficult watch as Albion sat deep, allowed Liverpool possession, defended in a very organised manner but without any apparent attempt to get forward. One slight lapse by Ajayi allowed the hosts to score their only goal. The Nigerian international was drawn away from the centre by the presence of Roberto Firmino leaving an extended gap between him and his central defensive partner, Dara O’Shea, one that was exploited by the clever movement of Sadio Mané and an excellent ball from Joël Matip. Mané controlled with his chest and fired home with one fluid movement that oozed quality.

But that was it for Klopp’s table-toppers. Despite 82% possession in the first 45 minutes, they could not find a way through – Liverpool had nine attempts on goal in the first period, three of which were blocked and none troubled Sam Johnstone other than the goal. Albion were a little passive, evidently fearful of Liverpool’s quality on the ball, but they were incredibly disciplined in a compact unit.

That passiveness was highlighted by the “passes per defensive action” statistic (PPDA) as discussed by Steve Madeley in The Athletic. That measure records how many passes a team allows the opposition before attempting to win the ball back – in the first half, the Baggies’ figure was 54.5 compared to their season’s average of 17.8 and the Premier League’s average of 12.6 for the current season.

Allardyce claimed that they had changed things slightly after half an hour, attempting to leave Grant further forward to offer some semblance of an out ball, but it was in the second half that a distinct change of tactics was obvious. Suddenly, Albion were defending higher up the field, committing more players further forward and even having touches in the opposition box.

Furthermore, that PPDA number was down to 21.3 for the second half, still high but certainly much less passive than before the break. The results were obvious for all to see and Albion managed to maintain their defensive solidity, and actually restricted Liverpool to fewer attempts than in the first half, and just one on target once again.

That, of course, was the header by Roberto Firmino in the last few minutes that brought an outstanding fingertip save from Sam Johnstone. That it was the only save that he had to make in the game was testament to the performance of the team in front of him. The ‘keeper that had made more saves than any other in the Premier League this season had to make just one to secure a point at the home of the division’s top scorers.

An even more remarkable statistic is that Albion recorded more shots on target than their hosts, the first away side to do so at Anfield for more than two years.

While Johnstone was relatively quiet, the back four was immense. Semi Ajayi may have been guilty of a small error that was punished for Liverpool’s goal, but he was otherwise outstanding and more than made up for his mistake with the equaliser. I feared that the goal would be taken off him as the one at the Etihad was, but rather than Alisson deflecting the ball into the goal as I thought, it was the spin that took it over the line after it rebounded off the post, so it was Semi’s goal.

Another player worthy of a special mention was Darnell Furlong, arguably the man of the match with an outstanding defensive display – if that is the sort of reaction that a public criticism Allardyce from brings, carry on Big Sam!

Matt Phillips looked to have been energised by being given the captaincy while Romaine Sawyers is starting to look as if he is capable of playing that shielding role in front of the back four. He didn’t always make the right decision, but only Conor Gallagher made more tackles than his three during the game and Diangana was the only one of the Albion starting eleven with a higher pass accuracy and that was with less than half of Sawyers’ 34 attempted passes.

I actually thought that Diangana did OK, particularly in terms of his work rate, while Robinson and Grant also put a real shift in and offered a threat in the second half. We all feared that the former Terrier had blown Albion’s best chance when Alisson saved well when he was put through by a wonderful pass from Sawyers, but I’ll take the positives in that he anticipated the pass, was quick enough to get beyond Williams and his attempt to finish between the legs would have beaten many lesser ‘keepers.

So, while the first half was reminiscent of Albion under Tony Pulis, the second period was more akin to Roy Hodgson’s Baggies, and I’m not sure there are many amongst the Hawthorns faithful that wouldn’t welcome a return to that style of football given the results it produced.

Allardyce is, perhaps, somewhere between the two and, let’s not forget, Hodgson had a much better squad of players available to him. Also, I’m not sure that if the second half approach had been attempted for the entire 90 minutes that the result would have been the same. I think Liverpool were surprised by Albion’s switch in tactics and it took them some time to adapt, time that enabled the Baggies to grab a vital foothold in the game.

Against City, the Baggies showed the determination and grit that they will need in this relegation fight, but they only escaped with a point thanks to profligate finishing and a series of fantastic saves from Sam Johnstone. At Anfield, they added a far better defensive organisation which restricted a better opponent to fewer chances and still came away with a point.

It is perhaps just one small step in the right direction, but while I initially thought that the result at the Etihad may have been a turning point, the change in head coach and the result against Villa pretty much negated that. This performance, however, offers much more hope for the next 23 games that Albion may have a fighting chance of staying up.

It is only one point, however, and the Baggies remain five points from safety. They now need to produce that level of commitment and organisation against lesser sides, and that starts on Tuesday evening against Leeds United.

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