West Brom 2 Middlesbrough 3
The Baggies’ challenge for a top two spot took a blow yesterday as Pulis continued his excellent record against his former clubs and made it eight matches unbeaten at the Hawthorns as a visiting manager.
But add some tasteful wrapping paper and a pretty bow and this three points could have been a belated 61st birthday present for the Welshman as two of the goals were gifted to a Boro side that looked toothless for much of the game.
It was a game that Albion dominated for long periods and, having been on the other side of such statistics for so long following Pulis’s Baggies, I was not surprised that Darren Moore’s team had 67.3% possession, their highest since they recorded 71.8% for the opening day defeat to Bolton. Incidentally, the Baggies’ highest possession figure away from the Hawthorns was for their visit to the Riverside in August with 62.0%.
In the first half, however, the Baggies couldn’t really get their attacking play going and there was a paucity of chances. Boro were pressing high as many teams continue to do against Albion, but this time there was a mistake and it was punished. Johnstone’s ball out to Barry was a little wide and a little too heavy and Barry was not aware of George Saville coming up behind him – he pounced as the Albion man mis-controlled and ran through in on goal and beat Johnstone with ease.
It was a goal that Boro didn’t deserve and the fear at that point was whether Albion would ever manage to breach the Pulis defence. When they eventually did, there was an element of fortune. The Baggies had been knocking on the door without much encouragement, but when a Flint half-clearance fell to Rekeem Harper, his miscued shot found Jay Rodriguez at the back post and he had an easy finish for his 15th goal of the season.
It was clear to me that the approach needed to change – Albion spent too much time trying to cross into the box, all of which were being headed away by the giant Middlesbrough back three, and I felt we needed to start running at them.
The other point to note in the first half was that the agricultural nature of Boro’s tackling was not being punished by referee, Tim Robinson. Time after time Albion players were clattered, and the referee’s notebook remained in his pocket. It took a horrendously late challenge from Saville in the 35th minute to finally show a yellow card, and then a few minutes later Jordan Hugill, who had probably been the worst offender in terms of foul tackles, took an outrageous dive in the box and still escaped what should have been a clear yellow card for simulation.
The second half was much more like it from Albion. Gareth Barry, who had been out of sorts in the first half, looked a little more on it, but there was much more movement from the front three. Hal Robson-Kanu showed some really nice touches and worked as hard as ever, while Harper found the confidence to start running at the defence.
The breakthrough finally came just after the hour mark and, like Albion’s equaliser, this too had a touch of fortune. Holgate’s cross was nodded down by Rodriguez and Gayle struck a shot that took a deflection and found the corner of the net as he joined his strike partner on 15 goals for the season. Job done, we hoped, as Boro had offered little in attack, but then Pulis brought on Britt Assombalonga and suddenly they had something else up front.
It was typical Pulis to leave their most potent attacking force on the bench, and the Boro fans must be tearing their hair out when they see what this guy can do. He changed the game although he did have a little help from the Albion defence.
Dawson gave him a little too much space and he managed to find the corner to equalise and then, with Darren Moore having unusually made three substitutions with seven minutes still left, one of them, Chris Brunt, mis-kicked a clearance with what was probably his first touch of the game and Assombalonga capitalised with a great finish. It was a mistake from the club captain on his 400th appearance for the Baggies that a clear shout from Johnstone might have prevented.
Those two mistakes harked back to the early part of the season, and were not representative of a side that had the joint best defensive record in the previous 12 games. Let’s hope that this is just a blip on that front, and that the resoluteness in defence is in evidence once again at Stoke next weekend.
There has been the usual knee-jerk reaction on social media calling from Brunt to be axed, and criticising Moore’s substitutions but ultimately Albion’s failure to win this game was down to a couple of individual errors and some clever tactics from Tony Pulis.
Both Brunt and Barry have been excellent in the past few months, but both made key errors yesterday; Moore may have brought Brunt on moments before his mistake, but no one would have expected him to make such a fundamental error, but mistakes do happen.
Johnstone has also come in for more criticism, and he certainly had a part to play in both of the gift goals. I thought he was excellent at Bolton but, while Bond’s display at Brighton last weekend has brought more pressure on the ex-Manchester United man, I don’t think Moore will consider switching his first choice ‘keeper just yet.
On the substitutions, I think that the decision to replace Barry with Livermore was the right one – I don’t, as some have suggested, think that this resulted in any loss of control in the middle of the park as I felt that it hadn’t been Barry’s best day and he was beginning to flag.
Big Dave’s other substitution was to switch Hal Robson-Kanu for Jacob Murphy. HRK got a great reception from the Hawthorns faithful when he went off which was well deserved following his second half performance, in particular, but we ended up with what I think will soon become the first choice front three with Murphy alongside Rodriguez and Gayle.
It was a brief 16-minute cameo from the Newcastle loanee, but is was very encouraging as he showed some good pace and whipped across a couple of very dangerous balls late on – as his teammates get to know his strengths, they will hopefully learn to read his game, although Gayle should already have a good idea as they are both on loan from the same club.
Many Albion fans have already resigned themselves to a play-off finish after this result, but there is still a very long way to go this season. February will be pivotal, and the Baggies have failed their first test, but there are another five Championship games this month, depending on what happens on Wednesday evening. Albion may be seven points off the top two, but that will become four should they win their game in hand.
Leeds United also failed their first big test of the month losing to Norwich last night and who knows what the table will look like by the time Albion travel to Elland Road on 1st March. The Baggies’ form on the road has been spectacular of late having picked up 15 points from the last 18 available, and a continuation of that will see that gap to the top two narrow in the coming weeks.
It’s a big setback, and it’s all the more painful given the man in the opposition dugout, but it’s by no means terminal.