West Bromwich Albion 1 - Reading 0
Plan A in the time of COVID
Not even the absence of four players due to COVID can seemingly cause a deviation from Plan A, although, in shuffling the ten, Snodgrass now surplus to requirements, senior outfield players available to him, Ishmael not only found a line-up that could, but for the lack of a goal-scoring striker, have racked up way more than the one goal they needed to beat a Reading eleven not exactly brimming with first-choice players either, but may have stumbled upon a centre-mid pairing that offers more, by way of creativity, than his first-choice there.
Reach was asked to deputise for Townsend, the latter's absence seeing him unable to deputise for the lack of a left-sided centre back, whilst Livermore got to fill the hole created by the lack of right-sided one. Up front, it was never going to take much managerial acumen to choose between Robinson and Hugill for the "line-leading: and right-sided roles, which meant that the one-real gap to fill was out at wide-left-mid, and, no doubt on the back of his performance at right centre-mid in the previous game, Gardner- Hickman got asked to fill it.
The first half was a catalogue of Albion players lining-up to display their inability to trouble the keeper, either in failing to hit the target with "shots" from inside or outside the box, or worse still, failing to even get a shot off, after a decent display of the high press saw Reading coughing up the ball in all kinds of promising areas, although when Robinson finally got one that looked as though it was going to cross the line between the posts, Andy Carroll, one time Albion-transfer-linkee answer to our line-leading deficiencies, just about managed to get his feet out from being entangled in the back of his own net and, depending on how you saw it, was either tripped, or dived, into making a headed, goal-line clearance a couple of feet off the ground, with both feet off the ground.
Although that clearance was probably the only moment worthy of mention for Carroll, Reading did have a couple of half chances, on the break into the space in the full back areas but Reach, Bartley and Livermore always seemed to be able to hold things up in time for the cavalry to arrive, and prevent anything by way of a real chance.
I thought our tempo dropped a bit after the break, although two good chances, straight out of the "Albion player cuts in from the left but can't hit the target" playbook - Robinson and Gardner-Hickman being the guilty parties - would come and go just before the hour (Wot: no pointless substitutions?!) before Grant - no more guilty that anyone up on the high and handsome charge on the day - thought better of shooting and drove in a fierce low cross that Robinson, arriving at the near post, connected with in a way that saw the ball go up, but for once not over, and the lead, that all the territorial advantage suggested we should have had long before then, was finally ours.
Given that Robinson had finally scored, and would pull a fine save out of the Reading keeper, whilst once again executing the "Albion player cuts in from the left" play with ten to go, it seemed a bit odd that he should get pulled so as to give Tom Fellows a run, but what would Plan A be without at least one meaningless substitution.
What makes this 1-0 win all the better was that Fulham and Bournemouth both dropped points, although a little of that gloss got rubbed off with the latter losing all three to Blackburn, who thus remain just the one point behind us.
The margin of victory, though, merely serves to flag up the need for a need for a goal-scoring option to be acquired in January, although perhaps the biggest question the game threw up was how we're going to give the, once again, impressive Gardner-Hickman enough football to see him seeing his future with us. On this display, he looks a better home-developed choice, as wide-left cover for Townsend, than Reach, who we went out and brought in specifically to fill that role, not that Reach looked out of place when asked to do a more defensive left-sided job at the back, but will TGH be happy with a 3rd-choice place in the squad?
Given the circumstances with the players available there can’t really be any complaints or criticisms today - to get a win and be so dominant when we were so depleted was impressive.
I think we were helped by poor Reading were and how little ambition they showed to get at us given our back 3. I was pretty amazed they played into our hands instead of getting someone up there with Caroll. The one time they did get it up and wide quickly they got in but their player made a total hash of it and his attempt was so bad it went for a throw.
Apart from a couple of periods we were well on top but didn’t take our chances, over played or picked the wrong pass for the final ball but generally we were good and having a couple of midfielders in the back line definitely improved our passing out.
We know this already but a decent striker would’ve had 2 or 3 again from the chances and situations we created. It looked like it just might not happen for us but the young man Gardner-Hickman did brilliantly to anticipate, intercept, take a couple of players out and sent Grant scampering away and thankfully Robbo got enough to flick it home.
Like most people in the ground I’d have liked to have seen Cleary get 20 mins for Hugill but I guess we needed his height to defend set plays. One for another day.
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