Frustrating and ugly, but no need to panic for Albion

West Brom 1 Millwall 1

For the second game in succession, Valérien Ismaël’s team were made to look very ordinary by a team prepared to match up in formation and intensity, and play a very physical game to make things very difficult for their opponents. Unlike the game at London Road, Albion were unable to claim all three points and, had Millwall been more clinical in front of goal, it is a game they would have lost.

The point may have been enough to lift the Baggies to the top of the table, still unbeaten after six games, but the nature of the performance has led to much criticism on social media and, while some of it is understandable, a lot if it is, in my opinion, a knee jerk reaction and massively over the top.

Having said that, the new Baggies head coach has some serious work to do if he is keep his team near the top of the table. Both Peterborough and Millwall have found a way to restrict Albion, and the first half at the Hawthorns on Saturday was as poor a half a football I have seen at the Shrine since Pulis was at the helm.

Perhaps the international break had interrupted the team’s momentum but the intensity that we have become used to this season was completely missing and, bar a few sparks from Grady Diangana, there was very little creativity up front. Meanwhile, at the other end, Millwall really should have taken the lead when Semi Ajayi’s attempted head back to Johnstone was intercepted by Jed Wallace.

Nonetheless, the Baggies should have gone in ahead when a rare short corner resulted in a penalty when Diangana was brought down by Maikel Kieftenbeld. Karlan Grant’s shot was not close enough to the post and penalty-save specialist Bartosz Bialkowski managed to push it away.

While Albion did take the lead shortly into the second half, Millwall immediately looked dangerous and Murray Wallace had a great chance to equalise even before Ballard’s looping header dropped inside the far post. Another underhit backpass from Ajayi forced Johnstone into another great save and the hosts rarely looked table toppers until Ismaël brought Callum Robinson onto the field.

Diangana was perhaps unfortunate to be substituted at half time as it had probably been his best 45 of the season, but Hugill was far more effective at retaining possession amongst the giants of the visitors’ back line. However, it was Robinson that made the greater impact. His pace, trickery and speed of thought made the hosts immediately look more dangerous and they dominated the remainder of the game. However, Millwall always looked dangerous on the break and either side could have nicked it. Neither did.

There is no doubt that Albion looked vulnerable at the back without O’Shea and Clarke. Ajayi, imperious at Peterborough, was, perhaps, rattled by his early mistake and never looked quite as assured from then on. Kipré did OK, but he doesn’t have the same instinct for the game that either Clarke or O’Shea does – I certainly don’t feel he is a lost cause and with more playing time he could become a decent option – he certainly has the physical attributes required. He was beaten by Ballard for the Millwall goal, but I feel it would be a little harsh to blame him when the Millwall man had the advantage of a running jump while Kipré was moving backwards.

With Kean Bryan under consideration for Tuesday’s match with Derby and hopes that Matt Clarke might be available before the next international break, this match may be the only time we see the Ajayi-Bartley-Kipré back three.

While Big Val felt that one of the key reasons for the poor performance was the mistakes giving the opposition hope, for me there was a lack of intensity from the start and a lack of imagination in attacking areas. It seemed obvious very early on that Millwall were not going to beaten by aerial crosses into the box, albeit that approach did produce Albion’s only goal, and it was only when Robinson attempted to initiate slick passing around the edge of the area did they look like conceding. Bringing Hugill on improved ball retention up front, but by taking off Diangana, he reduced the quality in tight areas around the box.

I presume Robinson was rested due to his involvement in the international break, but he has been by far our most effective forward this season and he was my man-of-the-match on Saturday despite only being on the pitch for half an hour.

Millwall and Peterborough were determined to make each match a physical battle and both succeeded to varying degrees – the Lions were far more effective and Albion needed to react earlier to change their approach away from the aerial route and play it more on the ground. Obviously, Val-ball dictates that the ball is moved forward quickly but, when the opposition defence is as dominant in the air as Millwall are, a more intelligent approach is needed.

As Ismaël said in his post-match interview, there will be many teams who will adopt the same tactics as Gary Rowett did at the Hawthorns – the Frenchman needs to get his side to adapt more quickly, something that will hopefully come more easily as the season progresses.

While it was not a pretty game and it was a frustrating result, some of the outcry on social media has been nothing short of ridiculous. They have obviously forgotten the performances against Blackburn Rovers, Sheffield United and Luton Town from a few short weeks ago, displays that showed what this team is capable of and, let’s face it, if Albion’s players were able to perform at their peak week in week out, they wouldn’t be playing for Albion.

Despite two “poor” performances that still produced four points and with the “unstoppable” Fulham losing at newly-promoted Blackpool, the Baggies are top of the table and remain unbeaten. They have also registered more attempts on goal than any other side in the division as well as conceding the fewest attempts on their own goal, so they must be doing something right!

A 1-1 draw against Millwall is hardly a reason to panic – Slaven Bilić’s side achieved the same in 2019 and followed it up by losing to the same opposition in the cup four days later, and yet were 12 points clear of 3rd place by Christmas. It’s a long season.

The players know they are capable of much better and they have the chance of proving that on Tuesday evening when Derby Country are the visitors to the Hawthorns. I’ll be there in anticipation of them doing just that.

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