West Brom 0 Stoke City 1
Michael O’Neill’s disciplined and organised Stoke City side recorded the club’s first win at the Hawthorns since 2014 on what was another frustrating night for Slaven Bilić and his team.
Their winless run in the Championship now extends to six matches, which is longer than for any Albion side in the second tier since Brian Little was in charge. Thankfully, the Baggies league position is somewhat stronger than it was back in 2000 when they were heading towards an exit from the division at the wrong end until Gary Megson intervened.
This campaign, they remain top of the table for the time being thanks to a similarly poor run from their nearest rivals, Leeds United. The gap to the chasing pack has narrowed to five points which is hardly surprising give Albion’s haul of just four points from the last eighteen. It could further reduce to three points should Nottingham Forest win their game in hand against Reading on Wednesday evening.
I felt that, at Charlton, there were signs that Albion had regained some of their spark, but those first ten minutes against Stoke seemed to destroy to any confidence they may have rediscovered at the Valley.
The apparent recurrence of Grady Diangana’s injury inside the first few minutes was greeted with stunned silence by the Hawthorns crowd who had so anticipated the return of the West Ham youngster, and it obviously affected the players on the pitch.
That was compounded by the first poor substitution that Bilić has made in his time at the Hawthorns when he opted to bring on Kenneth Zohore thereby resorting to the front four that started the game at Charlton. It was perhaps understandable given that KenZo had scored in his last two games, and Albion had scored twice with that formation in south London, but against a side as dogged and organised as Stoke, it was crying out for Pereira to remain in the middle of the park.
A disappointing hat trick of events in those first ten minutes was completed when the visitors scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game. A misplaced pass by Jake Livermore put Ince through, Hegazi got to the ball but his attempted clearance rebounded off the Stoke midfielder into the path of Tirese Campbell who finished with ease.
Pereira had scuffed a good chance to take the lead before that but it was a rare clear cut chance in what proved to be a disappointing first half.
The second was better, particularly the first ten or so minutes when Albion came out with some renewed vigour, but as an organised Stoke defence repelled attack after attack and, on the rare occasion when the hosts did break through the lines, the final ball was just not quite right. As the half went on, the confidence seemed to drain from the side.
The pace of Albion’s play became ponderous and forward passes became a rare commodity. Time and again, Matt Phillips was in space but the ball rarely got to him quick enough. Once or twice, he did manage to sprint through to the byline and looked dangerous, but the final ball always seemed to find a well-placed Stoke defender.
Bilić’s substitutions were perhaps a little late, but Brunt in particular had something of an impact adding some more energy and directness to the passing. But the big men in the heart of the Stoke defence were just too effective as Albion were reduced to floating in high crosses into the box.
There is no doubt that Diangana’s absence has been a massive factor in Albion’s poor form, but the players that were on the pitch are capable of so much more. One thing they weren’t on Monday night is brave. There were so few forward passes threaded through the opposition players, those that need to be perfect to work, but will open play up if they do. Those were the sorts of passes, into Pereira, Diangana and Robson-Kanu, that were being played with regularity during Albion’s awesome autumn, but the woeful winter has so far seen very few of them.
That, for me, is the key. It stems from a lack of confidence and, as anyone in football will tell you, confidence is a strange beast that can be absent for long periods but can also be regained very quickly.
This is a massive test for Slaven Bilić, but one that I believe he is able to overcome. Let’s not forget that he assembled this side and instilled the team spirit and confidence that saw them rise to the top of the table superbly. He needs to rebuild that confidence, but as he has said in the wake of Monday’s game, he knows that it is within this group of players to rediscover their form with hard work and belief.
A couple of new signings would undoubtedly help in freshening things up, particularly with Diangana likely to be ruled out for several weeks. The prospect of West Ham recalling their young winger has all but receded with his most recent injury. It may be a blow now, but he may well prove crucial in the last couple of months of the season.
Albion are in danger of throwing away a fantastic position, but it’s worth remembering how we all felt in May after the penalty defeat to Aston Villa. At that point, the prospect of the Baggies maintaining a position in the top two from the end of September through to January was way above expectations. It’s still been a fantastic season, and Albion are still very well placed for a return to the Premier League.
Picture: Laurie Rampling