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The Nigeria international was close to impassable in Slaven Bilic’s last game in charge, and will be influential under the Baggies’ new management

For Semi Ajayi, the past five days have witnessed an absolute whirlwind of activity.

On Tuesday, the towering defender scored his first ever Premier League goal, swivelling on the edge of the box and squeezing a finish beyond Ederson, to earn West Bromwich Albion a highly improbable draw against Manchester City at the Etihad. Barely 24 hours later, Ajayi had a new manager holding the whistle between pursed lips and cracking the whip in training.

Alright, alright…so, ‘his’ goal was ultimately given as an own-goal, his finish adjudged to have been skewing just wide before City defender Ruben Dias deflected it past his own goalkeeper.

So, there had already been rumblings of a possible sacking for Slaven Bilic, meaning the installation of Sam Allardyce on Wednesday would not have come as a great surprise.

Those caveats hardly detract from a potentially pivotal week, though.

To events at the Etihad first. Often, when Pep Guardiola’s men are held (especially by weaker opposition), their own output and application can be called into question. The story of Tuesday night was different, however: City were maxing out their creative bandwidth, fashioning openings and firing off shot after shot to no avail. In their way was a dogged rearguard action, marshalled by Ajayi who threw himself in the way of everything and repelled multiple deliveries into the box.

What little that did creep through found Sam Johnstone in inspired form.

Slaven Bilic Man City vs West Brom Premier League 2020-21

It was a performances that emphatically answered the doubts around his aptitude at the highest level in the Premier League.

The Baggies have the worst defensive record in the division, and along the way Ajayi has had his fair share of iffy showings; from being given the runaround by Harvey Barnes on opening day, to getting turned with embarrassing ease by Richarlison, to getting caught out of position by Patrick Van Aanholt, to almost scoring past his own goalkeeper in defeat to Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium.

This most recent showing against City also seemed to suggest that his failings may have had more to do with a team-wide dysfunction.

A greater emphasis on solidity resulted in arguably his finest outing of the season so far, and also bodes well for an Allardyce future.

The former England boss is, against his more vehement protestations, very much a relegation specialist, parachuting into perilous terrain and leading teams out of the brush by any means necessary. That often entails an emphasis on defensive shape and discipline, as well as maximising set-pieces. Minimum risk, just about enough reward to evade the drop.

Sam Allardyce

Ajayi has now demonstrated his suitability within the sort of low-block that will come to define the Baggies’ escape bid, but at the other end, he could prove just as influential.

Last season, the Nigeria international scored five goals in the Championship for West Bromwich as they earned automatic promotion.

For the most part, these came about via set-pieces, Ajayi towering over opposing defences at the far post to devastating effect.

It is a facet of his game that has not translated to the Premier League so far, despite the fact the Throstles have scored three goals from set-pieces this term – more than seven other teams.

Semi Ajayi of West Bromwich Albion

Under Allardyce, that may be set to change; this is, after all, the same manager who kept Sunderland up in 2015/16 by scoring more set-piece goals than any other side in the league, and made Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United fearsome prospects from dead balls.

Under the former England boss, the likes of Abdoulaye Diagne-Faye and Abdoulaye Meite have posed significant threats in opposing penalty areas, and Ajayi seems primed to join that club.

The 27-year-old will no doubt rue the departure of Bilic, as it was the Croatian manager who took a punt on him, signing him from relegated Rotherham United at the end of the 2018/19 Championship season. It is under Bilic that the former Arsenal youth prospect began to truly resemble a top performer, and the timing of his exit will have come as a surprise.

However, Ajayi will have little time to dwell on it: on Sunday, the Baggies welcome high-flying Aston Villa, precisely the sort of team Allardyce will relish frustrating. Another positive result would signal the dawn of new possibilities.

 

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December 20, 2020
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