West Brom 1 Birmingham City 0
It was a tough watch for most of the 90 minutes, but a sweet strike from the in-form Karlan Grant was enough to claim all three points in Albion’s only home local derby of the season and send them to the top of the Championship, albeit for less than 24 hours.
It was a pretty dreadful spectacle but there were two teams out there and only one was trying to win the game. It was perhaps not surprising that Lee Bowyer’s tactics were to disrupt and destroy given Blues’ recent form, but it was disappointing that Albion found it so difficult to break through.
The visitors were extremely well organised and I felt the movement from the front three was not smart enough to find the gaps. Matt Phillips spent far too much time going deep and central rather than offering the width that Darnell Furlong was looking for in front of him while Callum Robinson looked like a player that had played two matches and travelled half way across the world in the last week. Karlan Grant also offered little for much of the game, but it was his moment of skill that proved to be the difference.
Alex Mowatt, meanwhile, was well below par and it seems obvious that he was not 100% fit and probably shouldn’t have been risked. His withdrawal did lead to one of the positives to come out of the night in Jayson Molumby. The Irishman was full of energy and definitely helped to enliven Albion in the final 30 minutes of the game.
The return of Matt Clarke into defence was also a massive plus. He was excellent, biting into every tackle and setting the tone that meant that Blues had few opportunities – that same bite was missing further forward. Clarke’s return meant that Conor Townsend could move back to his favoured left wing back spot, and the former Scunthorpe man put in a man-of-the-match performance as Albion’s most creative influence in the game.
Jordan Hugill has taken a lot of stick from certain sections of the fan base in recent weeks, and there was more cricitism after Friday’s game but I felt he made a difference when he came on. He helped Albion to retain possession in the front third much better and offered a more physical presence – the Baggies need a goalscoring number nine in the January window but, in the meantime, Hugill does offer something different to the other attacking options.
It would have been useful to have been able to call on Grady Diangana, but a minor hamstring issue meant that he was not in the squad, although reports suggest that he should be available for Wednesday’s trip to Swansea.
The fact is that none of the five options Albion have along the front line are perfect, all have their strengths and weaknesses, and all have something to offer. If all of the front three are on form, the Baggies can be devastating, but that is not going to happen that often and if one or two sparkle, it will normally be enough in this division. On Friday night, one moment of brilliance from Grant was enough, but that will not always be the case.
It seems clear that most teams that Albion play during this campaign will seek to frustrate rather than attack and, while Ismaël’s team have found a way on occasion, three wins from the last seven games isn’t quite the return that they need to maintain their place in the top two. There is no need for panic, the team is continuing to evolve and the players and coaching staff will continue to adapt and improve their tactics.
If you compare the tactics employed against Millwall a month ago to those we saw on Friday evening, the differences are stark despite there being similar frustrations in the stands. Rather than the immediate ball forward, Albion did play through midfield against City but the creative spark was not quite there. The display at Cardiff shows what the team are capable of, albeit against limited opposition, but the team cannot be expected to perform at that level every week. It should not be forgotten that these players are in the Championship for a reason – if they could perform at their best consistently, they would be playing in the top flight.
As frustrating as it was to watch on Friday night, Albion did find a way. The Baggies faithful will have to get used to games like this as opposition head coaches will continue to seek to frustrate and Ismaël and his team will need to continue to work on ways to adapt. It remains a work in progress and, given that they are far from the finished article, that Albion are in the top two is a massive positive.
This is the Championship and there are few occasions to rest and reflect – Wednesday sees Albion return to south Wales to take on Swansea and we’d all like to see a repeat of their last visit to that particular region of the UK a few weeks ago.