West Brom analysis: Baggies must master the ugly side of game
Slaven Bilic was torn after the final whistle. He knew this was a game his side should have won, but he’s aware of the extenuating circumstances to the deficiencies.
Not only was it the second outing of a long season, but he has four new attacking players to inject into this squad including Charlie Austin, who is set to be first choice sooner rather than later.
So at the same time as being frustrated by dropping two points against exactly the sort of stubborn test the Baggies will have to overcome if they want to compete this season, like many inside the ground, he was also encouraged by certain aspects.
The Baggies enjoyed 73 per cent possession, and controlled large portions of the match.
Romaine Sawyers orchestrated play in the first half, while Filip Krovinovic looked encouragingly busy in the second period.
But possession for possession’s sake is useless, particularly in this league where the opposition will never give up, never stop running, and never stop battling.
It was something acknowledged by Bilic afterwards, who complained that his side were ‘happy’ to pass the ball around without doing much damage.
For all of their pretty passing, and there was plenty, Albion missed the ugly ruthlessness necessary to win games.
Austin, that cheeky chappy and outspoken, confident striker, will hopefully provide it. Based on this showing, Kenneth Zohore may struggle to, for now at least.
It’s early days in Zohore’s career at The Hawthorns, and any signing deserves time to get up to speed, but he looks short of confidence.
Both Sawyers and Krovinovic looked visibly frustrated at different times that he wasn’t showing for the ball when they hoped he would.
Sport is all about fine margins, and what a world of good it would have done Zohore had his shot slipped under Bartosz Bialkowski’s foot, rather than cannoning into it.
As Bilic said, it was unlucky, it was on target after all, he didn’t blaze it over, but you still expect your striker to be putting that chance way.
This new-look team is almost polar opposite to where Albion were at this stage last season.
Early signs under Darren Moore suggested a side lacking composure in their build-up play but devastatingly clinical up top. When Dwight Gayle and Harvey Barnes are in full flow, you can play poorly but score four, as Albion did on more than one occasion.
Bilic’s team on the other hand is, at this early stage, the complete antithesis of that.
Defenders and midfielders are comfortable on the ball, and trusting each other in tight spaces.
But it breaks down in the final third with the final ball. That ruthlessness is gone.
For all of their possession, Albion needed a set piece to open the scoring, and even though Kyle Bartley and Alex Pearce both claimed it wasn’t, what looked on replays like an own goal.
Apart from that, Bialkowski wasn’t seriously tested.
Having signed half of their players on deadline day, Albion were always likely to start slowly.
It’s something technical director Luke Dowling has privately admitted and prepared for.
In that regards, four points from the opening two games is a good return, and that has been plenty to be encouraged by the performances too.
But there are issues in both boxes.
Kenneth Zohore and Sam Johnstone have each started the season poorly.
There’s no escaping the fact there was an element of luck involved in all three of Albion’s goals so far this season. And there’s no escaping the fact that Johnstone should have done better with both that have been conceded.
The positives far outweigh the negatives though. Krovinovic is the sort of player Albion have needed for years, a playmaker from the country that seems to produce them at will.
Boban, Prosinecki, Krancjar, Modric, Rakatic, the list goes on, and Krovinovic looks like a chip off the old Croatian block.
Behind him Sawyers and Livermore seem to complement each other well, and the former seems to be getting the best out of the latter, who can be more industrial when surrounded by technicians who shoulder the creative burden.
Semi Ajayi and Kyle Bartley are developing a strong partnership that will suffice until Ahmed Hegazi returns from surgery to compete with them and in Kieran Gibbs, the Baggies have a left-back capable of having a significant attacking influence in games.
In between boxes, there’s plenty to like.
Of course, it’s inside the boxes where it counts, and that’s something Bilic will need to fix sooner rather than later.
But some of the deadline day four – if not all of them – should feature in the Carabao Cup against the same opposition tomorrow.
Bilic should have reacted sooner to the substitutes Neil Harris made, changes that gave Millwall the upper hand for a 20 minute spell and led to their goal, but he was not armed with his full complement.
There is more to come from this Albion team, and in that regards, four points from the first two games is more than acceptable.
But this league takes no prisoners, and it comes quickly at you. Managers have to identify problems quickly and fix them.
The promising thing is Bilic seems to know what his are. There are four games in the next 12 days. This one will swiftly be forgotten.