Hull City 0 West Brom 2
With fans and local journalists alike having been calling for Taylor Gardner-Hickman to play in midfield since Bruce first came to the club, there will inevitably be a feeling of self-satisfaction after watching the youngster impress in that position once again and help to fire Albion to a first away win since early December.
There is no doubt that TGH’s performance was a massive factor in the Baggies’ victory, not least for his efforts in single-handedly winning the penalty that led to the crucial second goal, but I feel that it was the return of Jake Livermore to the side that was perhaps the biggest factor in the improved performance.
We will never know whether the introduction of TGH into the midfield for any of the last two or three games would have made a difference, but there is no doubt that the midfield three of Livermore, TGH and Mowatt was the most effective combination of Bruce’s short tenure.
The other crucial change was the return to a back three. While many fans were keen to see Albion return to a back four after the inflexibility of Val-ball, the fact that Ismaël had drilled the defence to play as a back three meant that the players struggled to adapt to a back four leading to the defensive lapses that were highlighted in my match preview earlier this week.
The hosts did have one or two moments with Sam Johnstone forced into a couple of good saves, but I thought the defence looked far more comfortable with Matt Clarke and Semi Ajayi in particular having excellent games. Ajayi had a number of marauding runs in the first half and it was his cross that brought Albion’s first big chance when Conor Townsend’s effort was saved by Matt Ingram in the Hull goal.
Grant’s opening goal was not only a first for Albion’s top scorer for eight games, but with Mowatt providing the cross it was also the first goal involvement by a central midfielder for the Baggies since Jake Livermore’s assist to Grant’s winner against Birmingham City in November. It was only the third assist by a central midfielder this season (Mowatt supplied the other in the opening game of the season) and was quickly followed by a fourth for Taylor Gardner-Hickman, assuming you are in the camp that awards assists for winning a converted penalty. It was only Albion’s second spot kick of the season, the other being missed by Grant against Millwall in September.
The one surprising change was the omission of Andy Carroll from the front line, and the former England man would have been rolling his eyes at the number of crosses that Albion were throwing into the box in the opening half an hour, something that had been conspicuously lacking when Carroll had been on the field in recent games. Ultimately, it didn’t make a difference to the result but I do wonder whether he might have broken his Albion duck had he been on the field from the start.
All in all, it was a much improved performance but it was far from perfect and a better side than Hull City would have probably got something from the game. Hopefully, the result will be enough to bring a little confidence back to the team, and I think the 5-3-2 formation will be here to stay, or at least it should be.
Huddersfield Town will present a much sterner test on Friday evening – if Albion can earn another three points, then perhaps there might be a little more hope of sneaking a play-off place. At the moment, it still looks like a step too far.