West Brom 0 Birmingham City 0
While the afternoon started with what was a positive result for Albion with Fulham losing at home, it was ultimately frustrating as the Baggies failed to fully capitalise on the Cottagers’ slip as they were held by a dogged Birmingham City side.
Slaven Bilić’s side dominated possession but failed to really test Lee Camp in the Blues goal as too many of their creative players were well below par. Nonetheless, the point does move them to the top of the table ahead of Leeds’ trip to Cardiff City tomorrow, and the gap to third place is now seven points with just eight games remaining.
After the anticipation of getting football back on our TV screens, it was undoubtedly a bit of a let down. It is difficult to say whether the lack of fans in the stadium did have an impact on Albion’s performance, or if it was just the lack of competitive football for three months that meant the collective performance was well below what they are capable.
On the positive side, I though the defence looked as solid as ever. It’s true that Pep Clotet’s team didn’t really press too much, but Hogan and Jutkiewicz are a threat, particularly from set pieces, but the Baggies back line repelled everything and Sam Johnstone was every bit as quiet as Lee Camp.
Bilić opted for Hegazi rather than Bartley, and the Egyptian looked very assured and commanding in the air once again. It was perhaps a surprise that he opted to change both full backs from the Baggies last game – Gibbs coming back in on the left was perhaps not a surprise, particularly given Townsend’s susceptibility in the air, but he has previously shied away from playing Furlong alongside another attacking full back. Perhaps Furlong’s prowess in the air played a part in that decision.
In front of the defence, the formation was switched back to the 4-2-3-1 that was so successful before Christmas with Robinson on the left, Phillips on the right and Pereira behind Hal Robson-Kanu in the middle. While Albion dominated the possession, the final ball wasn’t up to scratch, perhaps similar to how that formation was failing in Albion’s winless run in the winter. It will be interesting to see whether Bilić swaps back to the 4-3-3 on Friday.
For me, however, it was more the individual performances rather than the formation that was the problem. Matheus Pereira, making his 30th appearance to trigger the clause that will making his signing permanent, was perhaps the only player in that front four that was anything like his best, and even he wasn’t on top form. Matt Phillips was very off colour and Callum Robinson struggled to find the right pass when getting into some very promising positions. Hal Robson-Kanu showed one or two nice touches but too many of those link up passes that are a feature of his play when at his best were just a little off the mark.
The bench was as strong as you could imagine, although it was a surprise not to see Grosicki there as well, but they failed to make the impact that Bilić’s substitutions normally make. Edwards did ok but Diangana looked a shadow of the player we knew in the autumn. He tried to beat a player once or twice but was dispossessed easily and you can fully understand why he didn’t start. He did put in a delightful ball late on from which Zohore should have scored, but that was probably his only positive moment.
Krovinović, who lost his place as a result of the formation switch, did look as if he might be able to open the door, but too many around him weren’t quite on the same wavelength – he may well get a start on Friday evening.
While I do put this performance down to the players being off the pace as a result of the lockdown, I do think that the 4-3-2-1 formation does lead to an over-reliance on Pereira. I feel he needs to play with another player that has that extra something – that could be Diangana, although his performance against Blues would suggest that he’s not quite on it yet, but in February it was Krovinović that was the Brazilian’s foil, and the Croat works best in the central position of a midfield three, with Pereira as one of the wider forwards.
I still feel that HRK offers more that the other options in that centre forward role. Austin is not mobile enough, but is evidently an effective impact player, while Zohore is a good footballer but just lacks that confidence in front of goal. I can see what coaches see in the Dane – he’s quick, has clever feet, but he just doesn’t take enough chances as was demonstrated when his fluffed what was the best chance of the game in stoppage time.
While it was frustrating, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Albion remain in a fantastic position to earn automatic promotion, some seven points clear of third place.
Furthermore, while some sides may try to emulate Blues’ approach to the game, I’m not sure that many will be able to execute it as effectively.
It is important to avoid defeat at Brentford on Friday, but I’m sure that Albion will get better as they play more games – there is so much quality in this side that I remain very confident that they will get the job done.
A final word on the experience of watching the game today – it’s not great is it? You just can’t beat being there and the sooner we can return to the stadiums the better – hopefully when we do get back to the Hawthorns, it will be for a Premier League fixture.
Keep the faith Baggies!
Lead photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images