West Brom 1 Reading 0
Reports that Albion would be without two or three players because of positive COVID-19 tests were concerning, but when it emerged that it was actually four players, and that they were all defenders, Albion fans feared the worse. With Kyle Bartley the only fit central defender, the prospect of facing Andy Carroll was daunting but, in the end, any fears were unfounded.
With Grady Diangana ruled out with a non-COVID illness and Matt Phillips still suffering with a back problem, 20-year-old Rayhaan Tulloch was the oldest outfield player on the Albion bench. Jake Livermore and Adam Reach joined Bartley in the back three while Taylor Gardner-Hickman added another string to his bow and played as the left wing back, and all three players playing our of position performed admirably.
In all honesty, the hosts dominated the game from start to finish and should have won far more comfortably. There was the fear that Albion’s poor finishing would come back to haunt them, but Callum Robinson finally found the net just after the hour mark for his first Baggies goal since August. It wasn’t a particularly convincing finish, but it was no more than Albion deserved.
The Baggies recorded 25 attempts at goal, 11 of which were on target, compared to just 4 off target attempts from the visitors. Andy Carroll barely got a touch and looked to be well past his best, but Reading were poor overall and never looked like troubling Albion’s makeshift defence. In fact, they hardly even tried until the last 15 minutes and barely mustered anything worthy of being called a chance. Their best opportunity was just before the break when Tom Dele-Bashiru was put through on the left side, although he did look to be offside – he drove into the box but his shot ended up going our for a throw-in.
Carroll’s most telling contribution was when he headed Alex Mowatt’s deflected shot off the line, one of several efforts Albion had in the first half. The best fell to Karlan Grant when a error by Tom Holmes saw the ball drop for the Baggies’ top scorer but his shot was well saved by Royals’ ‘keeper Luke Southwood.
As the hour mark approached, Albion still hadn’t scored but there was no sign that Valérien Ismaël would introduce his trademark substitutions. Robinson then got the breakthrough and the Frenchman obviously felt more comfortable leaving the experienced players on the pitch – perhaps if Albion had scored a few more goals as their play deserved, we may have seen one or two of the youngsters given an option, with many hoping to see the much-talked-about Reyes Cleary on the field, but we only saw Tom Fellows given a senior debut for the last four minutes.
The visitors had to try to push forward but it led to lots of opportunities on the break for the hosts with Robinson coming closest with a curling shot that was turned around the post by Southwood.
It was an excellent performance from Ismaël’s team and one of the most telling comments is that the makeshift defence looked anything but. A better side may have tested them more severely, Reading won just one corner all game, but Livermore and Reach looked comfortable without much defending to do.
Gardner-Hickman and Molumby were the stand out performers for me, with the 19-year-old impressing in every match he has played for the first team. Bartley dominated Carroll in the way that Jonas Olsson used to, Livermore looked solid and even Hugill put in a great shift with some excellent hold up play. Robinson and Grant both should have had more goals but they were a constant threat and hopefully Robbo’s first goal in four months will open the floodgates for him.
With the top two dropping points once again, Albion are now just three points off second and five points off the top. With more winnable fixtures to come, the aim must be to get back in the top two by the time that the January window opens.