Costly errors have crept into the centre-back’s game lately; the kind that cannot be afforded as the Baggies battle for league survival
Burnley taking on West Bromwich Albion probably didn’t hold massive appeal for the neutral owing to the perceived dearth of quality of the teams; however, the game at Turf Moor produced one of the controversial incidents in a Premier League weekend filled with questionable calls.
Mike Dean went over to the pitch-side monitor and deemed that Semi Ajayi’s handball just inside the Albion’s half had prevented a clear goalscoring opportunity for Matej Vydra which resulted in the centre-back’s 30th-minute dismissal.
While many debated the occasionally intolerable referee’s decision, it was actually quite straightforward and a clear interpretation of the rules.
Replays showed that Ajayi moved his right arm towards the ball and stopped the Burnley forward from running through on goal. Despite the supposed distance from their 18-yard box, the location of the incident and stricter punishment for deliberate handballs meant the sending off was just.
That episode threatened to ruin Sam Allardyce’s afternoon in a must-win encounter, but his side rallied and fashioned out the best opportunities to win the game. Huge misses from Mbaye Diagne and Matheus Pereira meant West Brom could only reduce the gap on Newcastle United to 11 points with 13 games to play.
Allardyce seemed pleased with the reaction of his side to going a man down and hailed it as one of the best he’d ever seen from an under-manned group, although he rued their profligate finishing.
“We are showing how much we are improving,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live. “That was one of the best 10-man performances I have ever seen in my time.
“I have actually won a lot of games with 10 men, and this one well deserved a win with 10 men, but unfortunately we have to kick ourselves for missing golden opportunities.”
In a sense, it seems irreconcilable that the usually leaky Baggies have picked up two points from successive games largely due to their ineffectiveness in attack as opposed to allowing soft goals. While the arrival of Diagne has given them additional punch in the attacking third, their season-long defensive mistakes were always going to be a concern.
If the last couple of outings are evidence of what’s to come for the rest of the campaign, perhaps Allardyce’s recent call for his backline to become harder to breakdown has been heard. They kept Manchester United at bay in the 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns before limiting Burnley to very little on Saturday, evidenced by the pair’s respective expected goals of 0.42 and 0.54 per Understat.
Thus, Ajayi will breathe a huge sigh of relief that mistakes in both fixtures didn’t cost his colleagues. He had Craig Pawson’s reversal of an initial penalty award to thank against the Red Devils while there was a bit of fortune that Saturday’s red card came against a side with little invention up front.
Be that as it may, a meticulous analysis of both events may lessen the criticism of the towering centre-back. He was caught on the wrong side of Harry Maguire from Bruno Fernandes’ free-kick and briefly panicked by holding onto the England centre-back.
While the United defender looked to go down under minimal contact, Ajayi’s lapse in concentration could have seen the Albion hand the initiative to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team who hardly deserved to win.
The Nigerian should partly be absolved of blame for the sending off against Burnley, though, as the arched back pass from Connor Gallagher (under pressure from two players) put the defender in an awkward position with the onrushing Vydra.
Directing the ball into Ajayi’s left foot was the easier-to-complete pass while the alternative option to play the ball into touch for a Burnley throw-in will have allowed the visitors to regroup. In the end, the Chelsea loanee did neither and the West African nearly carried the can for an avoidable incident that put his side at a disadvantage for an hour.
As a consequence, Allardyce won’t have the ex-Rotherham United central defender available for this weekend’s visit of Brighton & Hove Albion, who’s due a return against an Everton side that have fared better on their travels this season.
The English manager will look to Niang to chip in with much-needed goals to match the effort he puts in by the Galatasaray loanee throughout games while hoping the defensive solidity demonstrated vs Man United and Burnley is sustained for the concluding part of the season.
The recent errors have put Ajayi in a bad light but Big Sam has to retain belief in the defender whose mistakes couldn’t have been more ill-timed for a West Bromwich side looking to achieve the impossible in the next three months by beating the drop.