West Brom 1 Reading 1
There are so many things about Slaven Bilić’s Albion team that are markedly different to Darren Moore’s, but the failure to record a home win so far this season is disturbingly familiar.
Nonetheless, the performance against Reading further showed those aspects that have improved significantly, the mobility in midfield and calm control of possession to name but two, but it also highlighted the biggest negative change, the inability to take chances.
In the early stages of last season, the deficiencies in the Albion side were clear to see, but they could be easily forgotten because, when it came to scoring goals, the Baggies were second to none. The win at Norwich in August was down to a fantastic display of clinical finishing; seven goals against QPR was a further example, while it was easy to forget that Moore’s team could have been 3-0 down inside half an hour at home to Bristol City before going on to win 4-1.
It’s hard to envisage Bilić’s side conceding anything like the number of goals that Moore’s did but, while we don’t now have the skills of Gayle, Rodriguez and Banes, there are signs that this season’s team will create plenty of chances and we just need to hope that the likes of Austin, Zohore, Edwards, Phillips et al will start to put them away with more frequency.
At the Hawthorns on Wednesday evening, a point was ultimately a relief and, given how far the Royals appear to have come since last season’s relegation battle, it’s not necessarily the worst result.
After losing their opening two games, Reading thumped Cardiff City and put in a good performance against the Baggies. Midfielder, Ovie Ejaria, who is on loan from Liverpool, stood out as their best player and was involved in both goals. His stunning strike when space opened up in front of him opened the scoring, while it was his challenge that brought down Krovinović for the equalising penalty.
The Royals made it very difficult for the Baggies but, while they did have a few chances, the xG stats (Albion 2.08, Reading 0.64) suggest that this was a game that Albion should have won. Austin and Phillips both had shots blocked in the first half while, after the break, Cabral Barbosa denied Austin with his feet before Liam Moore flew himself in front of Zohore’s goalbound shot.
Bilić had opted to make changes to his starting line up for a league game for the first time, swapping Zohore and Edwards for Austin and Diangana, and also giving Nathan Ferguson a rest to provide Darnell Furlong with a first league outing.
Of the three new starters, Furlong perhaps impressed most. He offered good pace on the right wing, and some impressive deliveries into the box, although I was a little concerned with his defensive work at times. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Ferguson would seem to be the better defender, while Furlong probably has the edge from an attacking point of view.
Charlie Austin’s performance was good without being spectacular, and he faded badly before his substitution. He is evidently well short of match fitness and, while the run out will do him good, I’d be inclined to put Zohore in from the start at Derby.
As for Diangana, lots of great skill and pace, but his inexperience was in evidence with his decision making at crucial points. I’d like to have seen him release the ball a touch earlier and, on the one occasion he did manage to wiggle through, he blazed his shot over the bar.
As for the rest of the team, there was plenty to be positive about. Sawyers was perhaps not as dominant as he has been in earlier games, but he was still the main architect from deep – having misplaced one pass at Luton, it was seven against Reading but he still made more successful passes than anyone else on the field.
Krovinović was impressive once again, although I’m not sure how much contact he received for the first penalty shout he had. Phillips had his good and bad moments, but continues to offer some great delivery into the box while Pereira showed some flashes of quality after coming off the bench. The Brazilian has great skill on the ball and is always willing to try the unexpected and, as a result, he is likely to frustrate as often as he delights.
I felt the defence were generally solid bar one moment in the first half when Ejaria found himself unchallenged on the edge of the six yard box and, of course, the parting of the waves for his goal. I continue to be impressed by Bartley this season and, when Hegazi does return, I would expect that it would be Ajayi who would make way. Having said that, I don’t think the former Rotherham man has done too much wrong.
There was one bad performance on the pitch, and that was from referee, Peter Bankes. I can’t be sure that he got any of Albion’s three penalty shouts correct, the one on Furlong in the first half looked the best of the three to be fair, but I will not understand how he did not give the foul on Bartley when the Reading forward climbed all over him in the build up to their goal. He seemed unwilling to give any sort of free kick but, perhaps more obviously, he seemed not to care where any free kick or throw-in was taken from. Some were taken some 15 or 20 yards away from the incident.
It may be a minor thing, and we often berate referees for being too officious about such things, but it’s about control. As a former referee myself, I know how clamping down on such things early in a game can demonstrate control and earn the respect of the players – failure to do so results in the opposite effect which, I believe, is exactly what happened last night. The only surprise is that the players did not get more frustrated.
For the fans, it was a mix of frustration and relief at the final whistle, but I remain hugely optimistic for the season. As Slav said after the game, if Albion continue to play like that, the goals will come, particularly if they can get Austin fully fit and firing. The goal for KenZo will give him confidence – it was great to see him put it away given the pressure he was under both for himself to get his first goal, and in terms of the match situation. I also feel that Robson-Kanu will have a significant part to play this season.
Had the home/away results been reversed, I doubt there would be too many Albion fans complaining, and let’s not forget, two points per game will see any side in the mix for automatic promotion.