West Brom 3 Blackburn Rovers 2
Slaven Bilić recorded his first home win as Albion boss thanks to a sparkling first half attacking performance in which the Baggies scored three well crafted goals.
Unfortunately, that half was book-ended by defensive errors that gifted Mowbray’s visitors two goals making the second period far more nervy than it should have been.
For me, the principal factor in this victory was Bilić’s decision to replace Filip Krovinović in the number ten role with Brazilian, Matheus Pereira. While Krovinović has been impressive with the ball, he has tended, in my opinion, to hold on to it for a little too long. Pereira combined similar, if not more impressive, ball skills with the ability to see the pass that much more quickly and, most importantly, to execute.
The on loan Sporting midfielder ran the game in the first half, with the Rovers midfielders unable to get close to him. His ability and vision was crucial in that 20 minute spell when Albion recorded their three goals. He claimed an assist for each the first two and he, along with the rest of the front four, can claim some credit for the third thanks to the constant willingness to close down the Blackburn defence putting every player under instant pressure.
The first goal was a prime example of the difference that Pereira made. He received the ball from Sawyers on the half turn and, rather than controlling and then looking up, he played a first time through ball for Matt Phillips to run on to. Phillips, fresh from committing himself to a new contract, was too strong and quick for Greg Cunningham and muscled his way past him to slide the ball past Rovers’ ‘keeper, Christian Walton. There was perhaps a hint of a pull from Phillips but, equally, Cunningham was attempting to block Phillips’ path to the ball.
Pereira may have claimed the assist for the second, but the build up was all about Furlong and Phillips. Darnell Furlong was impressive all game with his work on the right wing and, much as we have all been impressed by Nathan Ferguson, the former QPR man is looking increasing hard to shift from the right back slot. He beat Adam Armstrong to get to the byline and pulled it back for Phillips whose delightful chip struck the far post. Pereira was first to react and he laid it off to Livermore whose wonderful measured strike found the right hand side of the net.
It was a well-earned reward for another excellent performance by Livermore who is looking better and better this season alongside Sawyers – he seems stronger, quicker and more assured in his passing and back to the player that was a regular in the England squad not too long ago.
The Albion front four had been working hard on closing down the Blackburn defence as they tried to play out, and it finally paid off for their third goal. This was all about Grady Diangana, however. The Congo-born winger closed down and dispossessed Darragh Lenihan before streaking away from him towards goal. As Walton came out, Diangana audaciously dinked the ball over him and into the net.
Forty minutes of the first half was Albion’s best football of the season. Pereira was at the centre of everything, but he was ably assisted by some fantastic performances around him from Sawyers, Livermore, Furlong, Phillips and Diangana.
Nonetheless, the two Blackburn goals cannot be forgotten. The first came within seconds of kick off when Kyle Bartley played the ball towards Sawyers just outside the area. It wasn’t a perfect ball, but Sawyers was on his heels and apparently unaware of Lewis Travis behind him – Travis nicked the ball and it fell kindly for Bradley Dack who made no mistake in sweeping the ball home from 18 yards.
Just before the break, Albion’s set piece Achilles heel was in evidence again. Ajayi slipped as the ball came into the box inadvertently blocking Livermore allowing Travis a free header at the far post. It was straight into Johnstone’s midriff but the ball spilled free and, after a brief scramble, Bradley Johnson was able to poke the ball home.
It was a poor error from Johnstone that has brought the Twitterati out in force once again – they have such a short memory given his man of the match performance last weekend. Johnstone has made far fewer errors than the vast majority of his outfield teammates, but as a goalkeeper, they tend to stand out more.
Mowbray had to do something to change things at half time – he will have known that Rovers were fortunate to be only one behind at the break – and the visitors came out with a new plan.
For the first twenty minutes of the second half, Albion struggled to get out of their own half. The Rovers midfield crowded out Pereira and pressed relentlessly onto Albion’s back four. The Baggies defence stood firm although there were a few hairy moments from set pieces with the woodwork being struck twice and a goal rightly ruled out for a foul on Johnstone.
Slowly, however, the hosts managed to reassert a semblance of control and started to create chances again as the second half wore on. There should be a special mention for Semi Ajayi who showed his midfield credentials with a couple of marauding drives into the box to set up some excellent opportunities.
Pereira almost capped off his fine performance with a goal but fired just over after a great move, while the best chance of the half for Albion unfortunately fell to Kyle Bartley who fired over from five yards late on.
Other than the goals conceded, the other chief concern is the performance of Charlie Austin. He got a second league start but struggled to get into the game. He fluffed his one big chance in the second half when he took too long to set himself and his shot was blocked. It is, perhaps, still a fitness issue but he’s yet to show his predatory instincts in the league, at least, and KenZo offered much more when he came on.
It is still a work in progress but, in this match, we finally saw the attacking side of the team click which was, for me, chiefly down to Matheus Pereira. Albion are obliged to buy the Brazilian should he make a certain number of appearances – if he continues with this form, there are not too many who would complain.
With a fortnight until the next match, the Baggies remain unbeaten with an average of two points per game. There is still work to do, but the signs are promising that Bilić’s team will be in the promotion shake-up come May.