West Brom 0 Derby County 0
Twenty-five goal attempts, nine of them on target and 64% possession and yet Albion had to settle for a point against Derby County. After a first half that was only marginally better than the drab affair against Millwall on Saturday, the Baggies threw everything at the County goal in the second half and yet couldn’t find the net. With QPR losing, it was enough to keep them on the top of the table although both Fulham and Stoke City could leapfrog them on Wednesday evening.
It is perhaps a sign of respect that opposition managers are changing their approach when coming up against Ismaël’s Albion, and nobody has done that in a more obvious way than Wayne Rooney. Derby had previously been consistent in playing out from the back in the way that Darren Moore’s side did, but not once did Kelle Roos pass to one of his defenders on Tuesday evening. Every ball was hit long and, as against Millwall on Saturday, it left Albion’s front players with no one to press.
In the first half, bar a short period when Albion were able to exert a spell of pressure, it looked as if the tactic would work although Derby offered none of the threat that Gary Rowett’s side did. At half time, Ismaël made two substitutions and apparently instructed his players to be a little more composed in possession – still get the ball forward quickly, but not quite as quickly as before.
It was a simple instruction but what a difference it made. Rather than looking to hit the front players aerially and immediately, Albion started to play through midfield with the front three coming shorter on occasion and the wing backs offering the bulk of the width. Hugill certainly made a difference with his improved hold up play and he may well have earned himself a starting spot for the return to his former club, Preston North End, on Saturday.
The interplay around the box was excellent on occasion in the second half and the Derby defending was desperate at times with Roos making a number of telling saves to keep his clean sheet intact. On another day, the Baggies would easily have scored two or three goals in the second half.
Grady Diangana deserves a special mention as he was arguably Albion’s best player and the most likely source of a breakthrough. I also thought Adam Reach was very impressive on the left hand side and, without a significant aerial threat to deal with, Conor Townsend was a perfectly adequate option on the left of the back three.
The encouraging thing about that second 45 is that Albion have found, if not a plan B, then a variation on plan A when the opposition are unwilling to take any risks at the back. I’m not sure that many sides will be as extreme as Derby were in that approach, and I think Rooney can count himself very lucky that his team somehow came away with a point.
Some Albion fans will never like Val-ball, but with this first evidence of the ability to adapt, some doubters may start to come around. It is important to remember that we are only seven games in to this complete change of approach and the players are still learning. The tactics will continue to evolve and this is, perhaps, a first stage of that evolution.
While it was frustrating not to get the result, I certainly feel a lot happier than I did on Saturday evening.