Youngsters impress as Sako breaks Baggies duck

West Brom 1 Wigan Athletic 0

Darren Moore’s Baggies eased into the Fourth Round of the FA Cup thanks to a goal from Bakary Sako, his first for the club.  That was enough to beat a Wigan side that rarely troubled debutant ‘keeper, Jonathan Bond.

Bond was one of nine changes to the eleven that started the match at Ewood Park on Tuesday, with Kyle Bartley and Tosin Adarabioyo the only players to have started both games.

Those two formed the central defensive partnership in front of Bond, with new loan signing, Mason Holgate, making his Albion debut at right back with Conor Townsend replacing Gibbs at left back.

It was a back four that looked pretty solid throughout. After the first twenty minutes in which Bond was first into a decent save from Will Grigg, the Baggies started to dominate the centre of the park and went ahead through Sako’s first Albion goal on the half hour.

Brunt, who was at the centre of everything good for the Baggies in the first half, provided the assist returning the ball into the box after his corner was cleared, and Sako powered a header in off the bar with the goal confirmed goal line technology.

It was the former Palace striker’s best display for Albion and he should have had a second after the break but was denied first by Latics’ ‘keeper, Jamie Jones, and then by a clearance off the line by Chey Dunkley.  He faded towards the end, however, but it was an encouraging performance.

Sako played on the left of a front three with Jonathan Leko on the right and Wes Hoolahan through the middle, effectively playing as a false nine.  It was certainly experimental and, despite the result, I’m not sure it entirely worked.  All three players played reasonably well but, while Hoolahan showed some really nice skills, he’s not a natural goalscorer and there were far too many occasions when either Sako or Leko got into great crossing positions but with no one to aim for in the box.

In the first half, the midfield three didn’t help with Brunt playing in front of Harper and Field. I felt that the two youngsters were a little too conservative and really broke forward into the box often enough.

It improved after the break and both Harper and Field seemed to gain confidence and Albion’s passing was slick and incisive.  Wigan were opened up on several occasions and the Baggies should have added two or three more goals in the first half hour after the interval.

That would have been deserved but, as it was, Wigan came back into the game late on.  They got into one or two decent positions and had some set pieces, but the Albion defence looked fairly comfortable and never really looked like conceding.

Kyle Edwards came on for Hoolahan with twenty minutes left and, to be honest, I think it would have made sense to start with Edwards through the middle.  He did OK when he came on but it didn’t give him the opportunity to impress in the way that Field, Harper and Leko did.

I hope that the performances of those youngsters will persuade Moore that they deserve to be involved in the league games.  With Livermore suspended for another three games, it would be a perfect opportunity to give Harper a chance.

The eighteen year-old has been on the bench for every league match since the victory over Leeds United, but has only got on the pitch once, for the last few seconds of the Leeds match itself.  I suspect his place on the bench may have been to satisfy the EFL rule that an academy graduate must be included in every match day squad, but I hope that his display against Wigan will convince the coaching staff that he is worthy of a place in the first team.

It was also good to see Jonathan Bond make his Albion debut, and he did well although he wasn’t tested too much.  I did think that it was interesting that Bond got the nod ahead of Boaz Myhill, and even Alex Palmer got the spot on the bench ahead of the Welshman.

Jack Fitzwater, who has returned briefly from his successful loan spell at Walsall, was also on the bench.  It’s perhaps a shame that he didn’t get on the pitch, and I half-expected him to start.  Big Dave obviously felt that Bartley would benefit from some more game time and, while Tosin has had plenty of time at right back, his time at centre back has been limited.

Overall, it was a very encouraging performance especially given the number of changes that were made.  It should give Moore the confidence that his youngsters can be trusted to come into the first team, and hopefully Sako’s goal will give him the confidence he needs to have an impact from the bench.

Moreover, assuming Hegazi and Gayle are recovered from injury by next weekend, the vast majority of the starting eleven next week will have had at least ten days rest.  Either Tosin or Holgate is likely to start at right back, and I guess Harper could take Livermore’s place in the middle, but every other player should be well rested and raring to go against for the biggest game of the season so far.

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