One side unbeaten. The other looking for their first victory of the season. A formality, right? You would be forgiven for assuming as much, but change is inevitably accompanied by hope. A Huddersfield team armed with a clean slate, low expectations and the intangible allure of the new manager bounce is not to be taken lightly. The Baggies welcome winless Huddersfield on Sunday afternoon, a team with whom Albion have an awful lot in common. Blue and white striped kit? Check. New era underway following boardroom changes? Check. Ill-fated relegation following a mid-season managerial departure and thoroughly regrettable appointment? Check. It is, however, another parallel which catches the eye ahead this week’s edition of Albion Month on Sky Sports. Interest in the Cowleys.
It is no secret that the Danny and younger brother Nicky Cowley were among the names considered for the vacant managerial post at the Hawthorns this summer. Of course, the move across the Midlands never materialised. Albion opted for Bilic, making older Cowley and Lincoln City head coach Danny a shoo-in following an early season managerial casualty. Some questioned whether the Albion job would be too much too soon for the brothers, and social media critics have been quick to profess their new job is also too big for them, drawing unfounded comparisons to Nathan Jones’ situation at Stoke (which is a topic for another day). The important thing is that the Huddersfield hierarchy believe they have their man (men), but there is no denying the magnitude of their task. The Cowleys inherit a side with just two wins in 10 months (both against Wolves), with a genuine ‘stop the rot’ brief. An indicator of just how poorly things are going in South Yorkshire that, amazingly, just 8 games into the season, Huddersfield have already managed to lose on every day of the week but Thursday – no prizes for guessing why not. Danny Cowley was quick to curb expectations at the John Smith’s Stadium, using his first press conference to reaffirm that their ambition is to secure survival, but what will he bring to the table and what can we expect from Huddersfield?
If their time at Lincoln is anything to go by, expect Huddersfield to be well-drilled and defensively solid. The Cowleys’ Lincoln side boasted the second best defensive record in the league, as one of just two sides to concede less than 1 goal per game on the way to amassing 85 points. Their record would have made for even better reading were it not for an end of season lapse in form which saw them fail to win any of their last 5 fixtures, after the title had realistically already been decided. With the January transfer window far, far in the distance, the onus will fall on the likes of fan favourite Christopher Schindler, former Villa man Tommy Elphick and promising young goalkeeper Kamil Grabara to deliver the solidity that the Terriers have been lacking. While the Cowleys will be looking forward to bringing in reinforcements in January, it’s important to note that this is not exactly a team bereft of talent. Alex Pritchard, Fraizer Campbell and Karlan Grant in particular would not look out of place in a top 6 side and even bottom half Premier League teams. One of Huddersfield’s (many) problems is they simply do not score enough goals- and when they do it’s only ever Karlan Grant. If the Cowleys can keep Grant firing and lighten his load by sharing the goals around the team, this Huddersfield side should have more than enough to distance themselves from the relegation zone.
Albion will be looking to extend Hudderfield’s worst ever start to a season and their own fine start. Despite being largely outplayed at Craven Cottage, the Baggies’ unbeaten run continued and the table makes for pleasant reading, with Albion occupying a playoff position, which, admit it, you would have taken before Bilic’s tenure. Up to this point, Albion’s moderate success has been built on character, willingness and tactical flexibility when they have fallen behind. Albion have taken a league-high 12 points from losing positions, falling behind in 6 of their opening 7 fixtures, which demonstrates belief in their ability if nothing else. This habit may be one Albion are looking to shake, but what Huddersfield wouldn’t give for a win from behind – something they haven’t managed in 991 days heading into Sunday since a 3-2 win against Preston in April 2017.
As exciting as it is to be the last team standing, there comes a time when you have to lay down a marker and announce yourself as promotion contenders. There’s no time like the present. With the Fulham game beginning a run of four consecutive appearances in front of the nation on Sky Sports, this is a perfect opportunity to show the rest of the league what Albion are about, as it were. The best way to do so would be to to pick up a statement win, put three or four past a struggling side and keep a clean sheet. The Blackburn game threatened to make this statement, but lapses in concentration meant the scoreline flattered the away side. New manager or not, this is a Huddersfield side bereft of confidence and is exactly the kind of team you must chew up and spit out at home if you are to be promoted automatically. Points picked up against the likes of Huddersfield are pivotal. When Albion were relegated two seasons ago, frustrating home and away losses to David Wagner’s side not only blackened the dark clouds over the Hawthorns, but mathematically speaking they made all the difference. The Terriers stayed up, finishing – you guessed it – 6 points above Albion.
With Hegazi rumoured to be in the final stages of recovery, there will be an unspoken pressure on Albion’s mainstay centre-back pairing of Bartley and Ajayi, who are yet to keep a clean sheet. Despite some strong individual performances from each of them, as a partnership they have been rough around the edges. Maybe the imminent return of the Nesta of the Pyramids will be the motivation Bartley and Ajayi need to finally keep a clean sheet. You do have to say, though, that both centre backs were outstanding against Fulham and kept Mitrovic very quiet. But for a Matt Phillips-esque cross-cum-shot from Anthony Knockaert, they would have had that elusive clean sheet.
Right ok, shall we address the elephant in the room? Charlie Austin is miles off the pace. Whether it be arriving too late to get on the end of a cross or not sorting his feet out, the former Southampton man has not exactly impressed thus far. It is plain to see why this is a man with just 2 goals (yes, two) in his last 31 league appearances. While Zohore has his critics, he will be ready to pounce if Austin doesn’t get up and running very soon. The number 9, in terms of squad number, must be watching Austin and wondering what all the fuss is about, as are many Albion fans. That being said, we are repeatedly told that Bilic’s nominal number 9 has the prowess to find a good run of form from nowhere so let’s hope that is the case. Austin will be seeing Huddersfield at home as the perfect game to get up and running for the season, something that would help Albion’s promotion hopes no end.
The Baggies could find themselves as low as 11th by the time they kick off on Sunday lunchtime and as high as an unlikely 1st by the final whistle. Such fine margins and an unbeaten run to protect make Albion’s fourth home game of the season perhaps the most important yet. I don’t expect this to be the comfortable statement home win Bilic’s side have been crying out for, but they should have enough to get over the line. I fancy Albion 3-1, with this incredible BTTS run continuing.