Thirty-five minutes into his return to management, Sam Allardyce must have started wondering about the wisdom of abandoning a life of leisure.
The 66-year-old had said he accepted West Brom’s appeal for help on Wednesday partly because he grew bored of an existence in which the toughest decision he had to make concerned his lunch menu, but he certainly did not relish the pickle in which his new team found themselves here when their captain, Jake Livermore, was sent before half-time with his team already trailing 1-0 to an early goal by Anwar El Ghazi.
Things soon got more unpalatable for the man hired to haul West Brom out of relegation trouble, as Bertrand Traoré added another for Villa before El Ghazi claimed his second goal of the game with a late penalty.
In the time between Allardyce’s dismissal from his last job, at Everton in May 2018, and this first match in charge of West Brom, there has been one obvious development in football: VAR. Allardyce had said at his unveiling that he dreaded being caught up in controversies involving the technology, and that fear was realised before even one half had elapsed here when Livermore had a yellow card upgraded to a red after the referee, Martin Atkinson consulted the pitchside monitor and then, for reasons unclear, similar action was not taken moments later when Villa’s Kortney Hause was merely booked for lunging into Grady Diangana.
“I don’t know why the VAR didn’t tell the referee to look at it; it was a ankle- or leg-threatening challenge,” said Allardyce. “I find myself talking about VAR when I really didn’t want to.”
He had no quibble with the decision to send off Livermore, whose recklessness he condemned.
“I couldn’t be anything but upset when you tell the players when you first arrive that the one thing we can’t afford to do is have more sendings-off because we’ve already had two this season before I came,” said Allardyce, adding that his captaincy is up for grabs. “It depends now on who wants to be captain and how he can handle the armband.”
Allardyce has other worries, too. He had hoped to see some consistency of performance when he began his reign by selecting the same team that drew at Manchester City in what turned out to be Slaven Bilic’s last match. But the rare solidity that Albion showed at the Etihad was nowhere to be seen when they fell behind in less than five minutes at the Hawthorns.
Traoré created the breakthrough with a dainty cross from the right-hand corner of the home box, before El Ghazi finished with improvised excellence at the back post, angling his leg like a chicken wing before guiding the ball into the net with a beautifully feathered volley. It was an artfully taken goal but Allardyce lamented the defending. “It was hugely disappointing to lose such a soft goal,” he said. “We’ve got to stop that or we’ve no chance of getting out of trouble.”
At least Albion mostly restricted Villa to long-range shots for the remainder of the first half, apart from when Ollie Watkins headed just over from eight yards after a flowing move by the visitors and a fine cross from the right by Matty Cash.
But the hosts, admittedly deprived of their most creative player, the suspended Matheus Pereira, never looked capable of threatening at the other end. Emiliano Martínez had one shot to save all match, a harmless free-kick by Darnell Furlong after Hause’s tackle.
Villa could have played most of the second half in slippers. With Jack Grealish prompting brilliantly from a central role behind Watkins, the visitors appeared to be having fun. “At times it was like Jack was playing in the playground with his schoolmates,” said Dean Smith.
McGinn headed wide from a cross by Grealish in the 52nd minute. Sam Johnstone made two strong saves to stop El Ghazi from scoring after moves orchestrated by Grealish. Watkins had a goal ruled out after another sweet cross by Cash, VAR reprieving the hosts this time.
With 12 minute to go Allardyce changed tactics, introducing two substitutes and switching to a back three. West Brom improved and began to push Villa back a little. But not for long. Villa struck on the counterattack six minutes from time when Grealish released Traoré, who curled a nonchalant finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.
There was time for things to get worse for West Brom, as El Ghazi converted a penalty after the umpteenth foul on Grealish. This was only the second time in his long managerial career that Allardyce has lost his first match in charge of a club. He has a heck of a job trying to figure out how to get his first win with West Brom.