West Bromwich Albion 1 - Watford 1
A really uplifting display that was as good as anything over the last couple of years and has allowed for some real optimism for the current season.
Rumours circulated about Dike’s injury before the game and it was confirmed by Bruce - a huge blow. The starting 11 therefore was probably about right with Grady coming in on the left. TGH not making the squad was perhaps my main gripe.
From the off and then for about 75 minutes the pattern was the same - we were all-action, aggressive, pressed all over the pitch and we created hatfuls of chances. We penned Watford in for large spells, earned loads of set plays but lacked quality finishing. Grant was the main culprit but not exclusive- too many lacked composure or didn’t get clean contact.
Watford by contrast had little to offer but a forward in Sarr who was very dangerous - his goal was total quality, he made desperate clearances into decent balls, was a constant threat with his pace and maximised tiny bits of fortune/minor mistakes on our part. Thankfully his penalty was rubbish but if he stays at Watford he’ll carry them a long way.
By the sound of Dike’s injury it might even be after the World Cup before we see him so there is a big challenge to the board now... we need a player who can come straight in to the team and score goals. How useful would a 5 million loan repayment be about now?
The news of Dike's injury would probably have a lot of Albion fans wondering where the goals were going to come from now, and the way this game played out only served to reinforce any concerns.
So with Dike out, and Yokusulu still not considered fit enough to start, a starting XI that might have contained three changes from the season's opener merely contained the one: Diangana getting a start on the left of the three behind Grant, with Phillips dropping to the bench.
Even though Diangana's trickery would draw a foul within the first two minutes, most of the early action, and it was all Albion action, would come down the right, two efforts of note being Furlong's drive tipped over by the keeper and Grant, with just the keeper to beat from 6yds out, only able to hit the keeper's legs.
Ajayi was looking very strong in covering any threat, although possibly just the one threat, from Watford's much talked-up front-three and Diangana and Townsend had combined well with the latter's strike forcing a corner before it's all come tumbling down.
Livermore lifted a ball forwards that Albion didn't win, and with the ball finally dropping to the feet of a Watford player just inside his own half, with three Albion players just inside theirs, there was no real pressure put on the ball. That slight hesitancy allowed the Watford player time to look up, see Button way off his line, and float the ball over him from 50-plus yards for an early goal of the season contender.
After that blip, it was back to all Albion again, and back to no end product again with Grant getting on the end of one of what total up to 14 or so attempted crosses, many of which were delightful, from the right by Wallace, but sending it wide from 6yds, and then, having been played in after Diangana picked a defender's pocket, the number nine's next effort, two minutes later, was deflected.
Five minutes after that and a long throw from the right was flicked on but travelled all the way across the 6yd-box without an Albion player getting a touch goalwards. Five later and Molumby plays Grant in but he can't get a shot off.
Our inability to convert our chances was put into perspective on the half-hour mark as Livermore underhits a pass and Watford break away down our right, however Townsend gets back to clear the danger at the left post, and then, ten minutes later, Button has to get his angles right after a long ball saw a Watford attacker advancing on our goal.
But then, two minutes into the four allowed for stoppages, Diangana curls a lovely ball, around and along the back of the Watford defensive line, and Grant's first touch gets the ball out from between his feet and into a one-on-one with the keeper and his second sees him finishing nicely. Cue a wild celebration that was probably 95% relief and a mere 5% exhilaration.
Second half pretty much followed the same script, with Diangana and Townsend combining to force the keeper in a block by the post just after the restart, followed by another Wallace delivery dropping to Grant, twelve yards out, whose shot on the swivel goes over the bar, and then twenty-five or so in to the half, Swift holds back and then run into space that Furlongs run has created, for the pull-back from Wallace, but Swift's shot, which found the net against Boro, goes over the bar this week.
Cue the "it's been all Albion, but" moment as Townsend's sliding tackle inside the Watford half sees the ball rebound into ours and sends the same attacker who had scored earlier scarpering away with Ajayi in pursuit. Semi has a bit of a grapple but when the Watford player goes down the box, the actual contact isn't considered enough to see him get a red, although the same attacker, who had scored sublimely from 50-plus yards now has a chance to make Albion play for their profligacy. If his first half strike was a goal of the season contender though, his second half pen must surely be the leader in the worst pen of the season rankings, being a weak misdirected shot that hits Button's knees as he dives to the right side.
The last twenty didn't really live to the first seventy with nothing other than three Albion substitutions worth of note, firstly Livermore giving way to Yokuslu, who showed a few nice little touches, then with Reach replacing Diangana after the latter looked to have pulled up whilst breaking away with five to go, and then Phillips coming on, for Furlong of all people, so as to get to play out the five minutes of stoppage time.
This was one we really should have won, but could equally have lost, so hard to know how to sum it up.
Whilst the 4231, with Diangana and Wallace operating as wingers on their natural sides (at last!) and Swift in the hole looks as good as it did before Bilic decided to change things before Val-ball blew it all away. Ajayi looks imperious at times, and the prospect of Yokuslu starting in the two will only add to what we've seen so far, however, even though it's still very early in the season, the slight worry that Grant's fine finish might be just a papering over of the cracks which a goalscorer who would have converted more of the swathe of chances we created would have filled, is still the one lingering doubt, but it certainly doesn't seem like we're going to see if Dike is that goalscorer for a while longer. Still a bit of the transfer window left though: not to mention Zohore.
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