Their unbeaten start to the season remains in tact. They climbed above Fulham, surprisingly beaten at Blackpool on the same afternoon, to the summit of the division.
Yet West Bromwich Albion’s performance against Millwall prompted one or two questions in the early stages of Valerien Ismael’s tenure. They’d won four on the bounce before this outing at The Hawthorns, and have been relatively free scoring in the early advances of the campaign, but this was the poorest display of any of the first half dozen matches.
They’d taken the lead, too. Finally, despite first half frustrations and a penalty kick which Karlan Grant failed to convert, Albion breached the towering Millwall back-line when one of their own from the back, Kyle Bartley flicked home expertly the opening goal.
That, just out of interest, was in a similar fashion to Bartley’s opener against Millwall in Slaven Bilic’s first home game in charge back in August 2019. They were pegged back that day.
Two years, one month and one day on, the Lions did so again when Dan Ballard found the corner of the net from a Jed Wallace cross. The spoils were shared. Albion never really looked like carving out a winner, and had to ride their luck once or twice to ensure that the back door remained shut.
We need a Plan B
Well, judging by the comments of Ismael after this game, Plan B would appear to be to do Plan A better.
This was an especially testing first game back after the international break. The furore of the drama at Peterborough had died down while the players and the management took a few days of recuperation.
Millwall are awkward customers. There can’t be many teams, if any, who have a larger average height than Gary Rowett’s starting XI. Matt Smith and Jake Cooper alone are comfortably among the tallest individuals in the division.
So the idea of launching the ball into their defensive third, via long balls from the back and via the arms of Darnell Furlong who had taken on an appearance akin to Zorro, seemed like food and drink for their back three.
Some sides will come to The Hawthorns, surrender the ball and say ‘come on, break us down, any way you can!’ Albion, though, would rather be chasing the ball from the front and with fearsome intensity that would force the less rounded defenders in this league into mistakes. That intensity was absent.
Millwall are an extreme example, but they won’t be the last team to come to The Hawthorns this season and pose the question to Albion – can you hurt us with the ball itself?
Front three decisions to make
Albion’s front three have been fluidly utilised so far this season.
Ismael kept faith with Grady Diangana here, who had failed to impress at Peterborough a couple of weeks ago, and for 45 minutes the winger looked a little more on it. Baby steps. There is so much more still concealed under the bonnet of Diangana, which we’ve seen him produce previously, but even so the improvement was clear.
Playing on the right of the fluid front three, Diangana’s best moments in the first half came while he was on the left; his dragged shot wide of goal after being played in by Jake Livermore; his earning of the penalty on the stroke of the break.
So it was something of a surprise when he was hauled off at the break in order for Ismael and Albion to accommodate the bulkier Jordan Hugill, in the hope it’d give those Millwall towers more to think about in the jostle.
Callum Robinson, back from his Covid isolation, also got half an hour under his belt and looked as sharp as any of the other forwards who featured over the course of the game. Surely he’s a shoo in to return to the starting XI when Derby visit.
Momentum is still there…right?
I asked Ismael after the game whether or not he still felt as though the momentum was still with his team after their unbeaten start.
“Only if we can win on Tuesday. This is now our purpose. The next game is now very important for us,” he said. “We need to recover with only two days recover so I will give you the answer after Tuesday’s game.”
Top of the league, with 14 points from a possible 18 taken, and one of only three teams in the division who are still unbeaten after six games…but Ismael, like many supporters who watched on and were less than convinced, was loathed to suggest that the momentum had been maintained after coming through another match having not been defeated.
A win over Derby on Tuesday would mean a return of four points from a possible six from this particular Hawthorns double header, which isn’t necessarily something to be sniffed at.
Yet for many fans it’ll be all about the manner of the performance – get that right, and the result takes care of itself, but Peterborough and now Millwall have both posed serious challenges to Albion, their way of playing and whether they have the ability to overcome them.
Make sure you get your fix of all things Albion delivered straight to your inbox every day by signing up to our newsletter here.
Need Your Help Today. Your $1 can change life.