The Nigeria international was unfortunate against Leeds, and a lack of defensive fortitude at The Hawthorns could open him up to greater scrutiny
Christmas has not proven an especially wonderful time of year this season for West Bromwich Albion.
The Baggies remain in good stead for promotion to the Premier League, but one win in six has seen them surrender a lead at the top of the EFL Championship, and they now trail Leeds United on goal difference at the summit of the table.
Their meeting with Marcelo Bielsa’s side on New Year’s Day saw the spoils shared; the Baggies were effectively nullified by Leeds, and were pegged back after substitute Patrick Bamford’s header was deflected past Sam Johnstone early in the second half.
It was a cruel gut-punch in more ways than one; not only did it prevent The Albion from taking a lead into 2020, it also marked a personal nadir for one of their more impressive performers so far this term.
Nigeria international Semi Ajayi suffered the ignominy of seeing his name next to the letters ‘OG’, and has been at the heart of the lack of fortitude in defence that now threatens to undermine a previously strong position.
That is not to suggest, however, that he is solely to blame.
Indeed, since his transfer from Rotherham United last summer, the 26-year-old has proven a revelation for Slaven Bilic’s side: quickly earning the trust of the Croatian manager and forming an understanding with Kyle Bartley, he has kept Egypt international Ahmed Hegazy (when fit) out of the side, and has even pitched in with goals at the other end.
His fourth of the season, a flicked finish off a knockdown from a set-piece, had put the Baggies ahead at the Hawthorns against their nearest challengers, before the unfortunate own goal. He has elevated the side’s menace from set-pieces (no other side has scored more from dead-ball situations), and that has further served to cement his popularity amongst the West Bromwich faithful.
So far this season, Ajayi has played every single minute in all competitions; not bad for a bargain signing from the relegated Millers.
However, that run has only taken in five clean sheets in 27 matches, fewer than any of the other five clubs currently occupying the promotion and play-off places. For context, Leeds have kept 13; Fulham, the leakiest of the number in theory, have kept seven. The Throstles’ last shut-out was eight matches ago, a 1-0 away win at Preston North End.
Not for them, the cagey approach, which is fair enough. Bilic has always espoused a more expansive playing ideal, and while they were winning, there was little to cavil about. However, one win in six, and two leads surrendered in a week have brought into focus the fact that all is not honky-dory at the back.
Defence is very much a collective endeavour, of course, and again there is no justification for laying it all at the feet of one player. Remarkably, West Bromwich post distinctly unimpressive metrics for tackles and interceptions per game: the Baggies are rock bottom in the Championship on both scores (13.4 and 7.9 respectively), and are middling in terms of committing fouls.
This suggests a predilection for sitting back and keeping a solid shape, trusting the defence to make clearances. While effective, it can also be tasking on the concentration levels of the individuals, an effect that is heightened as games come thick and fast and an attack that now appears to be slowing down.
So perhaps it just is that easy: fatigue is the culprit then.
While both Bilic and Bielsa were keen to emphasize the positives on Wednesday, the consensus is that it is Leeds, who have emerged stronger for the experience, leaving WBA with all the questions.
Crucially, it may well have served as an inflexion point for Ajayi – the own goal was unfortunate, but it was a reminder of just how high the stakes are. In much the same way that the narrative of a player’s performance can turn even within the same game, a defender’s estimation can suffer from precisely such a moment of misfortune, especially if West Bromwich continue to falter.
It will be interesting to see how he is received, by both sets of fans, when the Baggies travel to face former side Charlton Athletic in FA Cup action this weekend. It was at Sparrow’s Lane that the Nigeria international began his career, before he turned down a contract to trial with Arsenal as a 19-year-old. The reception, for all that Ajayi is hardly one to thumb his nose at the Valley crowd, is likely to be frosty.
The honeymoon for the Nigeria international is very much over.