Middlesbrough 1 West Bromwich Albion 1
A debut goal from John Swift secured a well-deserved point for Albion in their opening day fixture at the Riverside Stadium. The hosts had the better of the first half and were worthy of their 1-0 lead at the break courtesy of a tenth minute goal from Isiah Jones, but Steve Bruce’s team were much better in the second forty-five and could have easily turned one point into three after Swift’s equaliser.
Bruce’s key decisions in the starting line up were largely successful although I’m not sure whether the decision to start Matt Phillips on the left really paid off. It was ostensibly to add a little more defensive discipline against the dangerous right wing back, Isiah Jones, but given that he scored, can it said to have worked?
In fairness, I’m not sure that Phillips was really at fault as it was the Wolves loanee, Ryan Giles, who was the creative spark for the hosts’ goal, as he was for the majority of Middlesbrough’s good moments, and if anything, it was Conor Townsend who was drawn into the middle for the goal leaving Jones unmarked on the far post.
As a right footer, Phillips is not a natural on the left side and his tendency to look inside from that flank means that attacks will often slow down when he gets involved. His distribution was good and he had the highest pass completion percentage (90%) of any if Albion’s starters, but that is perhaps more a reflection that his passes were mostly safe rather than being progressive.
Bruce’s decision to go with Ajayi and O’Shea was undoubtedly a success with both producing impressive performances. Ajayi’s was top of the tackle stats with six, while O’Shea’s ten clearances and three blocked shots were also the best of any player on the field. I thought they were both excellent.
In the middle of the park, it was no surprise to see Molumby start as the midfielder that Bruce has used most in pre-season, but I thought the first half, in particular, largely passed him by. Jake Livermore alongside him was the better of the two for much of the game, but I thought he tired towards the end of the game and his passing became more erratic as the game went on. Once Okay is match fit, I would expect him to be a regular starter, but neither of yesterday’s pair has cemented a place in my opinion.
Up front, I was not surprised to see Grant start with Bruce being very cautious with Dike’s fitness. The American’s late cameo, however, was enough to suggest that he will become the regular “number nine” leaving Grant to battle it out with Grady Diangana for the left side attacking berth. Grady also did well when he came on and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start against Watford next week.
I suggested in my match preview that Jed Wallace and John Swift would be two of the first names on Bruce’s teamsheet and the game at the Riverside has only reinforced that opinion. They combined for the goal with an intelligent pull back from Wallace and a consummate finish from Swift and both had very strong debuts with Wallace, in particular, proving to be Albion’s principal attacking threat.
The right winger was Albion’s best performer according to WhoScored.com with his 7.20 rating beaten only by Boro’s Zack Steffen and Darragh Lenihan. As impressive as Lenihan was on his Middlesbrough debut, he was outmuscled twice by Daryl Dike inside the last ten minutes which will only spread fear amongst the Championship defenders still to face the big American.
Overall, it was a decent start from Albion but there are lessons to be learned. They started well but struggled after the Boro goal and could have easily been two or three down by the break. Bruce managed to change the mentality at half time, but the leaders on the pitch need to do that in game. I felt that Albion looked the more likely to grab a winner, particularly after Diangana and Dike came on, and that certainly bodes well.
I think most Baggies fans will have taken a point before the game, so a job well done in the end and we look to the visit of Watford next week, with the Hornets kicking their season off against Sheffield United on Monday evening.