West Brom 2 Fulham 2
After a first half performance that was as bad as anything we have seen this season, Albion somehow survived to be only one down at half time. A much improved display after the break, at least partially inspired by new signing, Mbaye Diagne, saw Sam Allardyce’s side take the lead but further problems at the back meant that they ultimately had to settle for a point.
Twenty minutes into the match, it was evident that Allardyce’s “fire break” hadn’t worked as Albion were already one down with Fulham looking as if they would score every time they went forward. Let’s face it, if the Baggies had been facing the same opposition as on Tuesday evening, the game would have been over by half time once again. However, the Cottagers were wasteful in front of goal and Albion enjoyed a modicum of good fortune which meant that it was only 1-0 at the break.
That gave Allardyce something to work with during what would have been an ear-bleeding half time team talk, and the difference in the second half was stark. Big Sam had already changed formation midway through the first period, replacing Dara O’Shea with Karlan Grant to change from a back three to a back four. O’Shea was perhaps unfortunate to be singled out in from a back line that were all chasing shadows, although he did make it too easy for Mitrović to lay the ball off to De Cordova-Reid for the opener. Having said that, Kieran Gibbs was drawn inside and left the goalscorer on his own and I would probably put more blame on him. However, none of the side can escape criticism for the first half performance.
For the second half, Big Sam opted to introduce new signing, Senagalese striker Mbaye Diagne, in place of Callum Robinson, who looked like he may have picked up a knock, and he made an immediate impact. He provided a more physical presence up front with pace and strength, and with Allardyce’s words ringing in their ears, the whole team were much more aggressive and energetic. They soon won a free kick and, after the original ball was cleared, Grant fed Pereira whose cross took a slight deflection but fell perfectly for Kyle Bartley to calmly divert the ball into the net.
The new boy was directly involved in the winner as he was fed into the right hand channel by Livermore. His low cross was converted by a deft touch from Pereira (pictured) and the Baggies were in front. It was a dramatic turnaround for which there were no signs in he first half. It looked like a completely different team.
But the defensive frailties became apparent once again as Albion allowed Fulham to equalise. Parker brought Reid and Cavaleiro off the bench and the two combined to score with 15 minutes to go, but it was such a preventable goal. Grant didn’t do enough to stop the cross and, while it was an excellent ball, Cavaleiro was all alone at the far post with Conor Gallagher having lost concentration to allow him to run into the box untracked.
It was the worst moment of a concerning performance from Gallagher. He offers so much, but was guilty of taking two dives rather than trying to legally exploit what were both promising positions. He was very lucky not to be carded by Anthony Taylor and the most concerning thing is that he has not learned from having already been booked for simulation at West Ham. Pereira seems to have largely cut such antics from his game in recent weeks, and Gallagher needs to follow suit.
Recovering from what would have been almost a death knell of a defeat is obviously positive, but Albion conceded twice against a side that had only scored twice in their previous five games making it seven successive games in which the Baggies have let in at least two goals. There is no way that Albion will survive if they have to score three times to win a match.
Personally, I think Allardyce has complicated matters by switching formations in an attempt to find something that works – players are struggling to get the message with one set of instructions, adding a different formation can surely not make it easier. The fact that he switched to a back four midway through the first half is an admission that he got it wrong, although given the number of basic mistakes that the defenders made in that first half, I’m not sure any formation would have worked.
This match was the first since the defeat to Spurs in early November that Romaine Sawyers did not start and, while Gallagher definitely appears to show more energy, he too showed that he is defensively flawed. I think it was the right decision to leave Sawyers out, and I would continue to do so, but it is worth noting that removing him from the firing line has probably done more to help him than the team as the alternatives don’t offer that much of an improvement. Allardyce is trying to sign a defensive midfielder, with Okay Yokuşlu apparently close to signing on loan from Celta Vigo, suggesting he doesn’t rate Sam Field as an option, at least just yet. Admittedly, the academy graduate has only recently returned to fitness so Big Sam won’t have seen too much of him, but after being on the bench for the Wolves and West Ham games, he has not been included in the last two matches.
Looking to the positives, Diagne’s debut was promising. He definitely looks capable of playing the lone striker role effectively and, as Allardyce said, his willingness to join a club in trouble and being eager to play despite only arriving from Turkey the previous evening are positive indicators of his character. He didn’t get any chances in the 45 minutes he played but he created two, one of which was converted, and showed signs that he offers more than the other strikers in the squad. It’s early days, but I’d put him in the definitely Mbaye column! (Sorry!)
The next two days are massive for Albion’s season as the transfer window closes on Monday, and they play bottom club, Sheffield United, on Tuesday. We’ll see what rabbits the club can pull out of the hat before the deadline and whether the team can meet Allardyce’s target of four points from these two games by winning at Bramall Lane.
The Baggies have only avoided defeat in successive games once this season – now would be a good time to start making a habit of it.