1- Winning ugly?
Albion consolidated their table-topping form with a 1-0 win at the Riverside on Saturday afternoon, but the general consensus following the game seemed to be that the Boro were unlucky not to get something from the game. Woodgate’s men had chances at 0-0 and really should have taken the lead, but Albion showed that if you don’t take your chances against them you will be punished. Albion weren’t at their best, which may have had something to do with Pereira starting on the wing, rather than in the number 10 role he has impressed in. However a glance at some of the stats tell you that Albion were good value for their three points. Albion enjoyed 67%(!) of the ball, recorded more shots inside the box (15) than any team in the division, and only QPR registered a higher xG figure than them (2.7). Romaine Sawyers was at his best too, effortlessly controlling the game and managing to complete more passes (83) than Boro’s entire midfield 5 combined (81). If these are the stats of a team who were not at their best on the day then you would be inclined to agree with Jonathon Woodgate’s post match claim that Albion will certainly be playing Premier League football next season.
2 – What a difference a year makes…
To the neutral it may look like not much has changed at the Hawthorns since this time last season; Albion are just one point better off, still scoring goals freely and struggling to keep them out at the other end. If you ask any Albion fan, though, the football is far more convincing and the league position justified, however last season some sublime attacking talent papered over some ultimately costly cracks. If there is a statistic that best highlights the balance to this side it is that 13 different players have scored for the Baggies in the opening 12 league games. The fact that 8 of the starting 11 on Saturday have all made their Albion debuts this season demonstrates the significant change which has taken place. However what perhaps show the difference between this season and last most effectively are the performances of the other 3 players in that starting 11; Sam Johnstone, Kyle Bartley and Jake Livermore. The Englishmen were singled out as underperformers at times last season, and whether or not it was justified, they were so often the scapegoats after poor performances. Think back to Livermore’s red card at Wigan, Bartley giving the ball away in the final third at… well, everywhere, and a number of costly Sam Johstone errors. While questions are still raised of them now and again, they each look like a different player this season. Johnstone, who has made nmore saves than any other goalkeeper in the league this season, turned in yet another convincing display, earning his second clean sheet in 3 away games at Boro. Kyle Bartley also looks far more at ease in a back 4 and a much leaner Jake Livermore has formed a formidable midfield partnership with Romaine Sawyers.
3- How the other half live…
On paper fixtures do not get more one-sided than Albion vs Barnsley. The Baggies are sitting pretty at the top of the table which is propped up by the South Yorkshire outfit. The two teams are perfectly contrasted not only in league position but also in terms of season results thus far; 7 wins, 4 draws and 1 defeat for Albion is mirrored by Barnsley’s return of 1 win, 4 draws and 7 losses. Barnsley have also scored less and conceded more goals than any other side in the league, which is a recipe for failure, if ever you needed one. Barnsley have recorded 13.2 shots per game, which only 7 teams can better, but the Tykes have failed to score in 5 of their 12 games, registering league-low average of 0.8 goals per game. So why is it that they seem to pose a reasonable threat with very poor output? Are they too trigger happy? Do they lack the quality to finish the chances? Are they just getting unlucky? The man tasked with working that out and turning a corner, at least for now, following the sacking of Daniel Stendel is caretaker boss Adam Murray. Albion themselves know the positive effect the appointment of a caretaker manager can have after the (moderate) success James Shan found at the back end of last season. Murray will be looking to build on the point Barnsley picked up against Swansea at the weekend by providing another upset. An unlikely win would lift the Tykes off the bottom of the table but Slaven Bilic does not seem like the kind of manager to take kindly to complacency, so expect a typically strong showing from Albion.
4- The fixture list
Having now travelled away to Leeds, Forest, Derby, Fulham, and QPR, as well as having hosted two of the relegated sides, Albion now begin a marginally kinder mini-run of fixtures that they have to make the most of. Their next four games are Barnsley, Charlton, Hull and Stoke. They aren’t easy games by any stretch of the imagination, particularly with Charlton exceeding expectations and Stoke possibly turning a corner under Nathan Jones, but they are the kind of games you have to look to be winning if you have automatic promotion ambitions. If the Baggies could pick up, say 8 or 9 points from this run of fixtures then they would still be in a strong position heading into the final international break of the year and subsequently a testing 14 day period where they play Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol City, Preston and Swansea. With those fixtures on the horizon, Albion may have to consolidate their league position somewhat before that point. Bilic could make one or two changes to his front four, but I would expect Albion to have too much for Barnsley going forward so I’ll predict 3-0 to the Baggies.