Preston North End 0 West Bromwich Albion 4
There have been occasional signs this season that Carlos Corberán had got Albion moving in the right direction. For short spells of twenty minutes, or even half an hour, we have seen them dominate the opposition with some excellent football, but those periods have been bookmarked by lapses in concentration, poor decision making and basic errors. At Deepdale on Saturday afternoon, however, we saw what a complete performance from a Corberán team can look like.
Albion’s domination of their opponents was almost entirely complete, with the flow of the game set early on as the visitors snapped into their opponents on the ball and took the lead in the fourth minute thanks to a sweet strike from an unlikely source in Darnell Furlong. That Preston were unbeaten, had won all their home league games this campaign and were top of the table just over a week ago only adds to the impressiveness of the Baggies’ display.
The hosts actually had slightly more possession overall, but Albion dominated all the other key statistics – shots 19-5, shots on target 6-1 and, of course, the only statistic that really matters – goals 4-0. North End had conceded only six goals in their previous eight league games, and the Baggies rocked up without a recognised striker and stuck four past them!
With further matches on Tuesday and Friday coming up and only one fit striker available to him, Corberán evidently felt that he needed to give Brandon Thomas-Asante a rest. Instead, Jed Wallace led the line with John Swift in support. More surprising was that the formation looked more like a 4-4-2 than the usual 3-4-3 with Grady Diangana on the right wing and Matt Phillips on the left. Alex Mowatt kept his spot in midfield but this time was paired with Okay Yokuşlu.. At the back, Ajayi did not recover from his ankle issue picked up last weekend and Kyle Bartley retained his spot in central defence with Furlong and Pieters at full back.
Quite why it all clicked into place in this match is difficult to say. The early goal was obviously a massive help and, rather than sit back a little after taking the lead, Albion maintained their front-foot approach throughout the match. They went for the jugular and the second goal was well deserved as the hosts were unable to find any sort of rhythm. The main reason for that was the tenacity in which the Baggies players stuck to their tasks – the pressing was coordinated and effective. Perhaps the most noticeable difference was that Palmer was much more open to finding a quicker route to the attacking players. When the back four was employed against Huddersfield Town, Albion struggled to play out from the back and Corberán and his coaching team had obviously worked on alternative approaches – this was aptly demonstrated for the second goal when Alex Palmer’s pinpoint long pass set Diangana away with the resulting move ending with Mowatt’s fine finish.
When the hosts did have spells of possession, they rarely looked like being able to break through Albion’s well marshalled two banks of four and, with time running out and the game already won, there was no let up and it was clear that the entire team was determined to keep the clean sheet intact. Palmer only had one shot to save all game, parrying an effort from Duane Holmes shortly after half time. Kipré abd Bartley were both superb and the latter deserved his late goal if only for his determination to get something on the ball to poke it home.
While the entire team’s hard work left Preston little time on the ball, when Albion were in possession, it was Alex Mowatt who was at the centre of their attacking moves. Only Erik Pieters in an Albion shirt had more than Mowatt’s 76 touches and he was always looking to play forward, with one touch often being enough. John Swift was also excellent in attacking areas with five key passes according to whoscored.com, while Wallace led the line superbly, despite it not being his natural position. Matt Phillips also put in a fantastic display while Diangana always looked capable of producing something on the ball as he completed back-to-back 90 minutes for the first time under Corberán.
It was probably the best performance of Corberán’s tenure at the club, certainly the best away from the Hawthorns, and it has now set the standard for the coming months. This was an unexpected victory but it will be significantly diminished if it isn’t followed by another three points against bottom side Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday evening.