Stoke City 1 West Brom 0
Valérien Ismaël’s frank assessment of Albion’s performance at the Bet365 Stadium was spot on – his team failed to reach the levels that they did on Tuesday evening and made far too many mistakes. On another night, they may have got away with it, but the Potters were the best side that the Baggies have faced this season and they deservedly took all three points.
Having said that, it did look as if Michael O’Neill’s side might not take advantage of their superiority. With Brown’s miss in the have and Johnstone’s penalty save from Surridge, their inability to take chances, a problem that has dogged Stoke all season, looked as if it would cost them again, but a quality finish from Nick Powell finally told with eleven minutes left.
It may be tempting to rein back completely from the optimism of Tuesday night’s performance, but when you lose for the first time in October, it is difficult to be too negative. Albion were poor and Stoke played well, and yet still the Baggies almost got away with it.
For me, this was not a failure of tactics but a failure of too many players to perform at the levels they can. None of the attacking players really gelled and, while Hugill was probably the least effective, none of them could have complained had they been withdrawn. Callum Robinson was the man to play the full ninety minutes, but nothing quite clicked for him, not did it for any of his attacking colleagues.
It was Callum Robinson’s mistake that ultimately told on a night that the Albion defence were under more pressure that they have been used to. Livermore and Mowatt were also struggling to control the midfield, but I feel that it all spelled from the front – the press from the front three was not intense enough often enough and it allowed Stoke to play their own game. It did work on occasion, and there were several times when the Baggies did win the ball back high up, but it wasn’t often enough and it left Albion’s midfield two exposed far too much.
Stoke deserved to win, but if there is a gripe, the hosts’ ‘keeper, Adam Davies should have been sent off for his handball outside the box as Robinson would have been clean through on goal had he not intervened. The referee did, otherwise, have a decent game and certainly saved Johnstone and Furlong’s blushes in the first half.
On Sky, they made it out to be a “statement victory” for Stoke and, while it was certainly a good result, that they didn’t win more comfortably is a concern for them. If they are to challenge, they need to be far more clinical.
It’s obviously disappointing to head into the international break with a defeat but a fortnight’s break will give the players time to recuperate and Matt Clarke, who was on the bench tonight, will hopefully be ready to get back into the starting line up which could be a massive boost.
Two points per game is no mean feat, and if they keep that up, promotion should be in their grasp.