West Brom analysis: Unbeaten Albion still in need of a kick-start
It’s often said in football that the first goal is crucial.
But that hasn’t been the case for Albion so far this season – in what has been a truly extraordinary start to the new campaign.
It’s been well documented that – following this 1-1 draw at Fulham – the Baggies have now come from behind in six of their seven Championship outings.
But it’s even more remarkable that Slaven Bilic’s side has now played eight times in all competitions.
And in every single one of those fixtures, the team that scored first hasn’t gone on to win the game.
There is no doubt Albion have to stop giving their opponents a head start if they are to challenge for automatic promotion – everybody knows that.
Yet they keep showing immense character and an immense desire to get themselves over the line – with those qualities on display in abundance at Craven Cottage.
Sometimes in football it’s easy to forget just how good the opposition is.
Fulham have made more successful passes, created more chances and had more shots on target than any other team in the Championship. Make no mistake about it, they are going to be right in the thick of the automatic promotion race at the end of the season.
And for 20 minutes, they absolutely ran rings around Albion.
All the talk before the game had been about Fulham’s attacking threat of Ivan Cavaleiro, Anthony Knockaert and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
In their 4-3-3 system, though, it is the midfield trio of Harrison Reed, Bobby Reid and Tom Cairney who really make them tick.
And with Reed dictating play and Cairney constantly making well-timed runs from deep, Albion were fortunate not to fall behind – with only an excellent stop from Sam Johnstone keeping Cairney out.
There are many managers who, so early in a game, would have wanted to see how things unfolded.
They’d have too much faith in Plan A. But not Bilic.
Tactical tweaks saw Matheus Pereira sit on the excellent Reed.
Romaine Sawyers paid much closer attention to Cairney.
While Bilic also told his players not to press Fulham’s centre-backs, in non-dangerous areas he was happy for them to have the ball.
They still looked to play through Reed at every opportunity.
But in Bilic’s own words, he made sure the midfielder was going to have to do something “special” to open his team up.
From that point on, the half was much more even.
But Fulham then got the fortune you could argue their positivity deserved when Knockaert curled in with a misplaced cross shortly after the interval.
The Brighton loanee was good enough to admit post-match he didn’t mean it.
But Bilic responded again with Kyle Edwards, Filip Krovinovic and Hal Robson-Kanu all introduced from the subs bench in quick succession.
Robson-Kanu joined Charlie Austin up front in a more withdrawn number 10 role with Edwards and Pereira out wide.
Edwards – it has to be said – was electric with Steven Sessegnon unable to live with him.
It was the introduction of Robson-Kanu, though, ahead of Kenneth Zohore, that proved to be Bilic’s real masterstroke.
Reed, Reid and Cairney are all excellent midfielders. But none of them are defensive midfielders – and that is what Bilic exploited.
“Hal’s got that touch between the lines,” Bilic said.
“He’s swimming and roaming between the lines. He can turn.
“That’s Fulham’s strength, but they don’t have an old fashioned holding midfielder that’ll sit there and mark a number 10 – especially when that 10 is a striker.”
With Robson-Kanu finding those little pockets of space, the momentum began to shift. And it was Semi Ajayi who nodded in from a corner to draw Albion level.
There were complaints from Marcus Bettinelli that he was fouled by Austin.
But that was nonsense, the Albion striker did nothing more than make life difficult for the goalkeeper.
After that goal, Scott Parker described the game as a basketball match.
Mitrovic headed over from a corner.
Darrnell Furlong glanced a header wide from a corner.
But while both teams pushed in the final minutes, there was an overwhelming sense that everyone in the ground was delighted with a point.
For Albion and Bilic there is plenty to ponder. They need to start matches better and impose their game on their opponents for longer.
The starting XI also has to stop relying on substitutes to come on and turn the game – something Bilic is also fed up with.
“We’re like glasses, you know? Half full, half empty,” the Croatian said.
“We can be fitter than the opponent, we can have a better squad, our substitutions are always wow!
“I’m happy with that, but I’m not happy that we have to concede a goal to play.
“We’re not playing bad. But every time we concede a goal we start to play like ‘oh, this is going to be 80 per cent us now’.”
There may have been pluses and minus from the trip to the capital.
But the bottom line is this was an excellent point achieved on the road.
Good teams – successful teams– always find a way even when they are not at their best.
Not only did Albion do that, they did it at the home of a promotion rival.
Now the only team in the Championship with an unbeaten record – the momentum from that will give all the players immense confidence.
They just need to find a way to stop conceding that first goal. Once they do, this good Albion side will quickly jump to another level.