West Brom 1 Norwich City 1
At the final whistle, it almost felt like a defeat such had been Albion’s dominance during the game, but I think most Baggies fans knew we needed that second goal. Nonetheless, it was an excellent performance from Darren Moore’s team, their best display since the trip to Rotherham and the best at the Hawthorns since the win over Leeds.
The core players looked refreshed after their (at least) ten day break, and Moore pleased many by starting Rekeem Harper in midfield to replace the suspended Livermore, although late injuries to Matt Phillips and James Morrison will certainly have influenced that decision.
The 18-year-old took his chance, though, and certainly didn’t look out of his depth. Neat on the ball and with a couple of powerful runs, it was a great league debut from the youngster and he has certainly put himself firmly in Big Dave’s thoughts when it comes to selecting the first team in the coming weeks.
The other league debutant, Mason Holgate, also impressed and certainly lessened the impact of Phillips’ absence on the right flank. It was a delight to have a natural right back in place offering some real quality in attack. It was his cross that was converted by Gayle for Albion’s goal, and with him and Gibbs offering width on both flanks, it bodes well for the remainder of the season. His one mistake was the decision to shoot rather than cross for Gibbs at the far post in the dying seconds, but I feel that his signing could prove to be crucial in the Baggies’ push for automatic promotion.
Albion’s strong performance meant that Harvey Barnes’ absence could easily have been forgotten. His replacement in the front three was Hal Robson-Kanu rather than Bakary Sako as I expected, and the Welshman produced a solid performance. He is obviously a very different player to either Barnes or Sako, but I thought his hold up play was excellent and he could have easily had a goal or two were it not for a couple of excellent saves from Canaries’ ‘keeper, Tim Krul.
Darren Moore has come in for some criticism after the match for not making substitutions early enough. To be fair to him, I felt Albion looked pretty much in control and, while it is easy to say in hindsight that subs were needed, at the time it was not obvious to me what changes should have been made. I still felt that Albion were more likely to score than Norwich during the second half, and I personally don’t think that the lack of the subs contributed greatly to the equaliser.
Big Dave has made key substitutions early in other games that have made a decisive impact, but he seems unwilling to make changes for the sake of it. For me, there was nothing obviously wrong with the way Albion were playing, and no player was looking particularly tired – there was one moment when Barry over-committed and let Srbeny past him to have a shot on goal, but that was probably the only mistake he made all game.
For me, Moore is still learning his trade and it is, in some ways, encouraging that he is thinking carefully about his substitutions. Every change is likely to have a negative impact on the game as well as a positive, and when there are no obvious issues, I can understand his reluctance to make changes. However, the signs are not always that obvious and, on occasion, it may only be a gut feeling that a change is required – that will hopefully come with experience and is something that Graeme Jones, evidently the more experienced man, should be able to help with. As an aside, I was delighted that Jones turned down the opportunity to speak to Luton Town about their manager’s position – I was not surprised that he did, but it’s always reassuring that he sees his future at the Hawthorns for the time being.
In my opinion, the failure to win the game was ultimately down to Albion’s inability to score the second goal rather than Moore’s failure to make changes. A combination of poor finishing, excellent goalkeeping and bad luck kept it at 1-0, and Albion even had two excellent chances to win it after the Canaries’ equaliser.
The Norwich goal was a combination of a couple of individual errors and some neat movement from Rhodes. Gayle was at fault for giving away the free kick, but that was well defended initially. As the ball was returned into the box, Harper vacated the space into which it was delivered and Rhodes moved across Hegazi, much in the way Gayle had done for his goal.
I said on Friday that Big Dave’s choice of players on the bench might confirm that he sees Kyle Edwards further down the pecking order than the other youngsters on the fringes of the first team, and so it proved. Field and Leko both made the 18 with Jon Leko coming on in stoppage time – I would not be surprised to see Edwards go out on loan for the remainder of the season.
If Albion play to the level they did against Norwich for the rest of the season, I feel sure that they will make the top two, but they need to start making the most of home advantage. They haven’t lost at the Hawthorns since October, but four of the last five have ended all square, and it is probably the failures to beat Brentford and Sheffield Wednesday that are more disappointing that the draw with Norwich. The next three home games will not be easy as Albion welcome Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United to the Hawthorns, but if they perform as they did against Norwich, they should win more than they don’t.
First up, though, is a trip to troubled Bolton Wanderers. The three teams above Albion have tricky away trips over the weekend so, by the time the Baggies play on Monday evening, they may know that a win could see them make up some ground.