Hello Derby, my old friend…

Albion’s third away day of the season sees a second and final league visit to the East Midlands of the campaign. Awaiting Bilic’s unbeaten men at Pride Park will be a Derby County side who have started the season with a real mixed bag of results. Albion make the 50 mile journey in search of a third away win in as many games, but at a ground where the Baggies have only ever registered one league win. That solitary win at Pride Park is also the only away win at Derby in the league since the Second World War. While technically a midlands derby, both teams have plenty of rivals in closer proximity, so there is very little ill-feeling between the fan bases. That said, for myself, and for many baggies raised on Clement, Koumas and Kamara, the 2007 playoff final loss to Billy Davies’ soon-to-be record breaking side was one of the first in a long line of devastating footballing heartbreaks- hence the questionable title of this piece.

Fast forward 12 years and both clubs found themselves back in the playoffs once again, at the end of inconsistent seasons led by rookie managers (two in Albion’s case). Darren Moore has now taken charge of another of his former clubs in Doncaster Rovers, while Frank Lampard’s playoff final loss was enough to attract Europa League champions his former employers Chelsea. It may have taken West Brom 96 days to appoint a permanent successor and Derby just one, but now both clubs find common ground in beginning 2019/20 season with a vastly different landscape to the previous one. While Albion lament the losses of loanees Dwight Gayle, Harvey Barnes and Mason Holgate, Derby find themselves in a similar position, with Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori also returning to their parent clubs.

Derby have begun their period of transition with a renewal of inconsistency, with draws against Swansea and Stoke making them the only team to have taken points from the Jacks and the only team to have dropped points to the Potters. These two draws against Albion’s 2018 relegation companions came sandwiched between a promising opening day win against relegated Huddersfield and a frustrating loss to playoff hopefuls Bristol City, in which the Rams boasted 68% possession and registered 20 shots. One promising aspect of the Bristol City defeat was what can only be described as an absolute worldie from Jack Marriott. After the game Derby manager Philip Cocu insisted that the only reason that the Englishman is yet to start a game this season is that he is not 100% fit and the former PSV coach is trying to ensure he lasts the season.

The Rams could do with a bit more Marriott magic in the coming weeks, as the fixture list has not been kind to them. Having already played a relegated side and three promotion hopefuls, Derby will now play Albion, Brentford, Cardiff and Leeds in their next four league games- not to mention a tasty Carabao Cup match with arch rivals Forest in midweek. This game therefore takes on added significance, with Derby urgently looking to find some consistency in a very difficult, albeit early, period of the season.

Inconsistency has also been key for the Albion in the opening four games of the season. Coming from a goal down may make it look like one point saved against Reading on Wednesday night, but an xG of 2.08 to Reading’s 0.64 (infogol.net) shows that it will actually feel like two points dropped. It was a frustrating night going forward for Albion, with Austin and Zohore being denied from close range by Rafael Cabral and Matt Moore respectively. After the first four games of the season, Albion actually boast the best xGa (expected goals against) record in the division, which means that they concede less chances expected to lead to goals than any other team in the league. Despite this, Albion are yet to keep a clean sheet, which points to well taken goals from unlikely positions like that of Ovie Ejaria on Wednesday, or to individual errors like Johnstone’s vs Forest, who incidentally was excellent against the Royals. If Albion continue to dominate the ball and restrict opposition chances as the data suggests then there is cause for optimism at the Hawthorns.

One positive for Albion on Wednesday night was an encouraging cameo from Kenneth Zohore, topped off with a goal from the penalty spot. I would expect the Danish striker to get the nod ahead of Charlie Austin, who, like Derby’s Marriott is not up to 100% match fitness yet. However Bilic confirmed on Friday that Zohore was carrying a minor knock, but did not suggest it was serious enough to stop him from starting. Diangana struggled to make as much of an impact as he did at Luton, so it would not be surprising if the West Ham loanee were to return to the bench for the Saturday lunchtime kickoff. Darnell Furlong putting in an excellent display will also give Bilic a selection headache, but expect the impressive Nathan Ferguson to regain a starting berth, having been rested midweek.

One explanation for Albion’s lack of killer instinct in the final third has been that very few players have looked to be on the same creative wavelength as Krovinovic, but in the 21 minutes that he played, Matheus Pereira seemed to have an excellent understanding with the Croatian. Bilic has stressed the importance of working the deadline day signings into the side gradually, given their lack of match sharpness but having created a handful of openings and combining with Krovinovic to win the penalty, the Brazilian may be due a start.

Both times the two sides met last season Derby had the beating of a West Brom side lacking pace and composure in midfield. Since then, however, both clubs have seen an overhaul in personnel and management, so expect a different encounter. Sam Johnstone took to Twitter this week to defend himself from what he (and I) felt was unnecessary criticism from certain sections of the Albion fan base and therefore will be desperate to keep a clean sheet. Last season, though, Johnstone conceded seven goals in two games against Derby so it’s tough to imagine the likes of Lawrence, Waghorn, Bennett and Marriott (if fit), who all scored against Albion last season, not seriously testing the former Manchester United man once again. Albion looked like they edged closer to being a dangerous attacking side on Wednesday evening, with plenty of chances being created – a welcome change from the first three games of the season. With this in mind, I expect goals again from both sides at Pride Park, as has been the case in every Albion game this season, and all but one Derby game. With both sides still in the process of reinvention and rediscovery it can be difficult to predict how the game will go, but I fancy a score draw in what promises to be Albion’s toughest test yet this season. 2-2. Or who knows, it could be tight, tense and decided by a 2007 Stephen Pearson-esque tap in to nick it…

Predicted XI vs Derby.

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