Analysis: More positives than negatives for West Brom although draw changes little in promotion race
Forty years ago this weekend, Albion moved top of the old First Division with a 1-1 draw against Norwich at The Hawthorns.
Cyrille Regis scored Albion’s goal that day and, four decades later, that iconic team stepped out on to the hallowed turf once more to mark the first anniversary of his passing.
By some strange coincidence, this match finished with the same scoreline, but unlike 40 years ago, it was not enough to move the Baggies up to where they want to be.
At half-time, when the likes of Derek Statham, John Wile and Ally Robertson were on the pitch collecting their caps, all was going well.
Darren Moore’s men had just outplayed their promotion rivals for the opening half, despite being dogged by problems in the build-up.
Losing Harvey Barnes a day before was not ideal, but then Matt Phillips and James Morrison picked up late injuries in the 48 hours before the match.
Moore turned to his squad and, most notably, handed 18-year-old Rekeem Harper his first league start for Albion.
It’s a busy time of year for technical director Luke Dowling, but based on this performance, one of his priorities must be getting Harper signed up to a long-term deal.
The teenager handled the pressure of a huge six-pointer in front of a sold-out ground and put in a performance that suggests he’s ready for the first team.
His composure was epitomised at the end of the first half when the whole ground urged him to hoof the ball up field, but he dribbled out of his own box and won a throw-in.
That was just a snapshot of a box-to-box performance and, with a few more games under his belt, he could be the dynamism in midfield Albion need.
In recent weeks, Phillips has provided that pace and athleticism, but with Barnes going, he may be needed further forward as the season wears on.
However, it was a man old enough to be Harper’s dad who shone the brightest, a man who had more than 50 Premier League games to his name before Harper was even born.
Gareth Barry may turn 38 next month, but he remains a crucial cog in this machine, capable of breaking up play with crunching tackles or important interceptions and getting Albion going forward with sensible yet effective passing.
Since he’s worked his way into the team, he’s been man of the match more often than not.
Albion are still fourth and still three points behind the top two, but guiding the Baggies to promotion this season would counter-act the negativity from last season.
Fans are already singing his name and waving the squad off to Dubai happily. It is in stark contrast to last season.
Behind Barry, Albion now boast a Premier League-quality defence and, for the majority of the game, they looked it.
Mason Holgate shone on his league debut for the club, setting up the goal with a cross that wasn’t even in his top three of the day.
Getting Barnes in on loan was an impressive bit of business, but Holgate’s arrival looks just as shrewd.
Both he and Kieran Gibbs are Premier League full-backs and in between them, Craig Dawson and Ahmed Hegazi continue to flourish.
Hegazi was a monster in this game, and put in a performance unbefitting of someone who has just been on the sidelines with injury.
Apart from one mistake that let Teemu Pukki in behind, Dawson was similarly impressive.
After the one-sided first half, Norwich came at Albion in the second period, and started to squeeze themselves through little pockets of space in midfield.
There were flashes of the Canaries' quick passing that has befuddled other opponents this season, but with the diminutive Pukki up front, Albion were always in control.
It wasn’t until Daniel Farke played his trump card that they equalised.
Kenny McLean and Jordan Rhodes had been on the pitch for a matter of moments before those two combined for the equaliser.
It was a masterstroke from Farke, and accentuated Moore’s decision to stick with what he had.
Albion’s starting XI were all still on the pitch in the 83rd minute, including the two midfielders in their mid 30s, the fledgling midfielder on his first league start, and goalscorer Dwight Gayle, himself returning from injury.
Moore was hampered. He didn’t have Phillips, Morrison or Jake Livermore to call upon, but fresh legs and fresh impetus may have helped.
Whether sending Bakary Sako, Jonathan Leko, Sam Field, or Wes Hoolahan on before the equaliser would have stopped it, is a hypothetical question without an answer.
But this is not the first time this season an equaliser has followed Moore’s inaction in the dugout.
Putting it down to naivety is too simplistic. He has the experience of Graeme Jones, Wayne Jacobs and now Gary Walsh in his ear.
The other side of this argument is that Norwich are the best in the business at roaring back late on.
Albion have won a joint league-high 17 points from losing positions this season, so Moore’s in-game management has worked at times.
But he – and Albion – need to improve their ability to see out a game if they’re going to go up automatically.
What’s promising is he rarely gets his first XI wrong, and didn’t here, despite dealing with a number of problems.
This was another impressive performance moulded out of the ashes of adversity, just when Albion needed it.
Even though a point leaves the Baggies in exactly the same position, three points off the top two, there were more positives than negatives to take from this draw.