Millwall 0 West Brom 2
After almost two months of below par performances, Albion produced one of their best displays of the season to take all three points at a wet and windy Den on Sunday.
It was a victory that saw the Baggies move four points clear at the top of the table after Leeds United were beaten once again, their biggest lead over Bielsa’s team so far this season, but more than that, it was a performance that proved that Bilić’s men still have what it takes to win the Championship.
The starting line up was a surprise as Pereira returned but not, as was expected, in place of Filip Krovinović, but at the expense of Matt Phillips with the side lining up in more of a 4-3-3 formation rather than the usual 4-2-3-1. With Krov sitting just in front of Livermore and Sawyers, Pereira was generally quite narrow as the right side of a front three, although he effectively had a free role. It left Dara O’Shea with a free rein on the right wing and he put in one of his best performances for the first team, capping it off with the goal that sealed the points for Albion.
It should have been over as a contest well before then, however, so dominant were the visitors. Matheus Pereira almost marked his return from suspension with a goal inside the opening few minutes as he struck a shot against the inside of the post as the Baggies swarmed over the Millwall back line. There definitely was a much higher press from Albion as they sought to capitalise on any hesitancy that the hosts’ defence may have had with the conditions. Time and again they won the ball deep in the Millwall half and were able to maintain sustained pressure for long periods.
It was a surprise that it took so long for Bilić’s team to open the scoring, but when it came, just before the break, it was a wonderful goal. Pereira fed the ball into Krovinović about twenty yards from goal and he wrong-footed his marker with a deft first touch and then curled a delightful shot into the bottom corner.
While it was 1-0, there was always the concern that the hosts might nick an undeserved equaliser, but though they had a number of set pieces, the Albion defence never looked overly worried as both Bartley and Ajayi put in commanding performances.
O’Shea was also solid defensively, but he looked far more comfortable further up the pitch than he has previously. He produced some really nice passes and, of course, he topped it off with his first senior goal for the club with a deft header from Grosicki’s corner. His influence on the game is illustrated by the statistic that only two other Albion players had more touches than the young Irishman, and he had more tackles (5) and interceptions (3) than any of his colleagues.
One of the players who had more touches than O’Shea was his fellow full back, Conor Townsend. The Yorkshireman has started six of Albion’s last eight games in all competitions and he is starting to repay Bilić’s faith in him, particularly in his last two games. Both against Luton and Millwall, Townsend has looked very solid defensively and a willing outlet on the left hand side – with Gibbs still struggling and Ferguson’s future involvement in doubt, he has needed to step up and has done so.
There were excellent performances all over the pitch with Hal Robson-Kanu and Jake Livermore also worthy of a mention, but the star of the show for me was Filip Krovinović. The Croat produced a complete central midfielder’s performance with energy, intelligence and quality which bodes well for the remainder of the season.
Albion’s rivals will also be worried to see the strength of their substitute’s bench. To be able to bring on the quality of Kamil Grosicki, Charlie Austin and Matt Phillips demonstrates their attacking prowess and let’s not forget that there was no room Kyle Edwards, Chris Brunt and Kenneth Zohore while Grady Diangana should also be competing for a place in a few weeks’ time.
One telling statistic that illustrated the Baggies’ dominance was that they had 29 shots on goal to Millwall’s 7. Furthermore, every Albion outfield player, including all three substitutes, had at least one shot while all of the hosts’ attempts on goal were from Jed Wallace. It was a real team performance and Slaven Bilić was rightly gushing in his praise of his players in the post-match interviews.
Slav also pointed out that this was the expected level that Albion need to maintain for the remainder of the season. They don’t have much time to bask in the glory of this victory as they visit the Madejski Stadium on Wednesday evening before welcoming in-form Nottingham Forest to the Hawthorns on Saturday.
The Championship is relentless, but this performance is an indication that Albion may have what it takes to win it.
Lead photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images