West Brom, Southampton give us more play-off pain after Norwich, Leeds snoozefest

Jason Soutar
Adam Armstrong in action during West Brom v Southampton
Adam Armstrong in action during West Brom v Southampton

After the snoozefest between Norwich City and Leeds United, we got a more entertaining Championship play-off semi-final when West Brom met Southampton. The bar was set very low, mind. We said it was more entertaining, not actually entertaining.

Play-off football is supposed to be the best. Well, it was most certainly not on Sunday. At Carrow Road, Leeds and Norwich played out a dismal goalless draw in their semi-final first leg, a result Daniel Farke and his players will be pretty content with.

The unfortunate thing for me is that my colleague, Will Ford, touched on everything I could have in his piece on Sunday’s early kick-off, which allowed him to write a sufficient amount of words on a dull 0-0 draw that had no noteworthy moments. This gives me a task similar to the one West Brom and Norwich have in their away legs next week.

The opening exchanges between West Brom and Southampton provided some hope. The hosts came flying out of the traps, clearly looking for an early goal, such is the importance of the home team winning the first leg. They caught out Russell Martin’s tiki-taka back five a few times in the first half, with Saints struggling to settle due to the Baggies’ high-paced start.

Carlos Corberan’s men could not transfer their effective game plan off the ball into clinical finishing – or even effective chance creation – on it. This meant the first decent chance fell to the visitors. Kyle Walker-Peters found himself in lots of space as his team grew into the match following a difficult opening 20 minutes, but dragged his shot wide of Alex Palmer’s post.

As Southampton improved, West Brom’s patterns of play would start from deeper positions, looking to use their front three against the Saints’ back three in transition, as opposed to catching them out trying to play out from their goalkeeper as they did well at the start of the game.

The slower tempo suited the visitors and their patient passing style became a lot better than in the opening exchanges and after West Brom failed to capitalise on their early dominance, you got the feeling this one would die down and finish 0-0 or – if we were lucky – 1-0 either way.

Although the Baggies started the match on the front foot and massively unsettled Martin’s players, it was Southampton who went into the break with the feeling they should be in front. Flynn Downes had a big chance one-on-one with Palmer and Adam Armstrong – who has scored 21 goals this season – spurning the rebound, striking the ball into the side-netting.

Saying that, Grady Diangana had a big chance with a close-range header before the break, an opportunity that was well stopped by a 34-year-old Alex McCarthy.

Unfortunately for those of us waiting for some iconic play-off drama, we did not get any of that at the Hawthorns on Sunday afternoon.

Excluding a few seconds of jam-packed action after 79 minutes, we were simply not entertained. At least it was better than the Carrow Road rubbish. And Yann M’Vila came off the bench. That’s a nice name for you Premier League folk reading about the second tier for a change.

The passage of play we mention came when Tom Fellows had a superb run down the right flank, pulling back for Diangana who produced a fine save from McCarthy. Southampton raced up the other end and Palmer pulled off an outstanding save with his foot after a shot towards his net was deflected. That was the best moment of individual brilliance in a game lacking that and pretty much everything else, except many Zs.

While it is disappointing for us neutrals, it is completely understandable that managers would be incredibly reluctant to throw the kitchen sink at a first leg that could leave you facing a brutal uphill battle in the second leg.

Instead, we effectively have two one-legged semis at Elland Road and St Mary’s, with the two superior Championship teams in a strong position to go to Wembley. It doesn’t always end up going that way, though. Even if Sunday’s matches left us wanting so much more, there is always drama to be had in the play-offs.

Perhaps that is said in vain hope more than anything else after Sunday’s depressing advert for the *actual* Best League in the World. It was uncharacteristically, yet understandably, horrendous. The lack of quality from all four sides will need to change. Not just for their promotion hopes. But for our sanity.

More: Championship Team of the Season