We are now a third of the way through the Championship season and all is good at B71. Slaven Bilic’s West Brom side sit atop the tree, boasting a points per game ratio of exactly 2.0, which is bonafide promotion form. With just one more game until the final international break for 3 months, Albion have still lost just once this season, however a Hull City team who swept Fulham aside at the weekend will hope to double the number in the Albion losses column. Here are 4 talking points ahead of Hull City vs WBA…
1- The real deal?
There were four different leaders of the Championship over the course of Gameweek 15, with Swansea, Leeds and then Preston enjoying brief stays at the summit, before Albion returned to where they began the weekend. The congestion in the upper echelons of the league table naturally raises questions over who might be the real deal and who is just along for the ride, like Albion ultimately were last season. Bilic’s team have impressed fans and neutrals alike with their approach and success over the course of the opening 15 fixtures, during which they have lost just once. The question still applies, of course, to Albion; are they champions elect or pretenders to the crown? The coming weeks will go a long way to answering this.
The trip to the KCOM is the last fixture before the final international break of 2019, which signifies a real change of pace in the Championship season. Recently, the fixture list has been kind to Albion, with their last 6 games being against 5 bottom half teams and 10th placed Charlton, who are still finding their feet following promotion. However, following the international break, some very testing fixtures begin to pile up. Albion first welcome Sheffield Wednesday, who sit just a point outside of the playoffs, before games against Bristol City, Preston and Swansea in the space of 10 days. These three sides all currently occupy a top 6 place and will be looking to this game against Albion as an opportunity to lay down a marker in their own right. An always difficult trip to Wigan then precedes the closest thing to a derby that Albion have this season at St Andrews, which will lead us nicely into the relentless festive period. Periods like this are why the Championship is often referred to as the most difficult league in the world, but they are also why it is the most exciting. Therefore 3 points before the international break would be invaluable, but Albion travel to a Hull City side who are bang in-form.
2 – Tigers on the prowl…
After winning just one of their opening 7 league fixtures, Grant McCann’s Hull side have taken 16 points from their last 8 games, equating to that golden two points per game ratio. Their league position (11th) may not flatter them but a run of three consecutive wins is testament to how dangerous this Hull side are. The most recent of those wins was courtesy of an impressive away victory at Fulham. The Tigers were clinical in a 3-0 win, which was also the first time any team has stopped Fulham from scoring at Craven Cottage this season. Hull managed just 25% of possession, which may suggest they were not good value for their win, however it was simply the case that Hull were comfortable to let a toothless Fulham side keep the ball. McCann’s side limited Scott Parker’s to just one shot on target throughout the game and scored thrice from their 5 shots on target, including one of the funniest goals you will see all season from Tom Eaves. There is nothing funny about the prospect of playing this Hull team at the moment, though.
The Fulham game was preceded by victories against Nottingham Forest and Derby, and there are not many teams in the division, if any, who would collect 9 points from those 3 games. Hull have averaged just 32% possession over the course of those three wins and with much of Albion’s approach this season built around ball retention, the hosts will not change their game plan. The onus will therefore fall upon a number of Albion players to stand out. Firstly, the wonderful trio behind the striker will have to be creative and clinical, which they usually are, to be fair. But given how much of the ball Albion are likely to have, the most important player on the pitch, as he so often is, will be Romaine Sawyers.
3- The Sawyers Effect
Sawyers himself described his playing style as marmite in an interview with the club this week, but from a fan’s perspective you can’t help but wonder what’s not to love? It is so rare that a player turns out in Albion blue and white with such elegance, intelligence and confidence on the ball. During a man of the match display against Stoke, Romaine Sawyers completed 86 passes. For context, that was twice as many as the next best Albion player (Livermore) and three times as many as Stoke’s most prominent passer in Cameron Carter-Vickers (28), who by the way, was extremely fortunate to not see red for his challenge on Grady Diangana. Romaine Sawyers is the metronome to this Albion team, which, for all its flair, relies on the rhythm he provides. If Diangana and Pereira are the keys which unlock opposition defences, Sawyers is the locksmith, carefully planning and enabling wave after wave of Albion approach play. There are plenty of players who can make dozens of passes per game in the Championship, but it is the air of careless inevitability with which Sawyers makes his which sets him apart from his peers.
The St Kitts and Nevis international was likened to Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric in commentary during the victory at Stoke for his willingness to receive the ball and make a positive impact in any position and at any stage in the game, which is an apt comparison to make. There is another way in which Sawyers is like Luka Modric too. You may remember Modric was once referred to as a 5-a-side player by a Sky pundit during the build up to the 2014 Champions League final. Fast forward 5 years and Modric has 4 Champions League winners medals and a World Cup final appearance as well as that Ballon d’Or, highlighting the naivety behind that particular comment. However in the role that Luka Modric and Sawyers play you are bound to be underappreciated. Neither player consistently scores goals, nor do they post Kevin De Bruyne assist numbers, but they are vital to the flow of a team. Although not on the same level as Modric, Romaine Sawyers is underappreciated in the same way the Croatian once was, and sooner or later he will be playing at a higher level, whether that is with Albion or not. The current Albion side is a symbol of reinvention, the beginning of a new cycle in which the club is finally regaining its identity as an exciting, positive force after a total disassociation from these core values in recent years. It is therefore fitting that the heartbeat and driving force of this side is one of our own – an Albion fan.
4 – Jared Bowen
In the last eight games, Hull City’s total of 16 points is only bettered by one team (Albion), which shows the dramatic upturn in form for the Tigers. The fact that Hull have also scored 23 goals this season, which is the second highest outside of the top 6, should be a warning to Albion’s leaky defence. One of the principal reasons for Hull’s proficiency in front of goal is danger man Jared Bowen, who notched 22 times last season. A total of 9 players scored 22 or more goals in the 2018/19 season; Pukki, Maupay, Abraham, Sharp, Rodriguez, Gayle, McBurnie, Adams and Bowen. The eagle-eyed reader will notice that 8 of these 9 players have, for one reason or another, moved on to play in the Premier League. This makes Jared Bowen the highest scoring player from last season remaining in the Championship and when you consider that the next best was Forest’s Lewis Grabban with 16 goals, it is truly staggering that Bowen is still playing Championship football. His influence also cannot be understated this season, the Englishman has played every league minute for the Tigers on the way to helping himself to 9 goals and 2 assists. This equates to direct involvement in 47% of his team’s goals.
Beating Hull City is not as simple as: stop Jared Bowen = win the game. Standout performers include Kamil Grosicki, who has played 72 times for Poland and 20 year old Leonardo da Silva Lopes, who has completed 90 minutes in all 3 of Hull’s impressive recent wins against promotion hopefuls, having previously only done so once this season. That said, if you can limit the effect that Jared Bowen has on the game, you can significantly limit Hull City’s overall effectiveness. Albion’s defence has looked much more assured on the road in recent weeks, but Bartley and Ajayi will require the kind of performance that shut out Wells and Hugill at QPR and Mitrovic at Fulham if they are to return south with a clean sheet.
So will the away end be boing-boinging or will they be mauled by the Tigers? This game has the potential to be a goal fest, with two of the most free-scoring outfits in the division colliding, however Albion’s approach away from home is far less expansive than at the Hawthorns. Albion’s away games have seen half as many goals as their home fixtures and you get the impression that Slaven Bilic is determined to make his side into one that is very difficult to beat on the road. With this in mind, Albion will be looking to keep the ball for as long as possible and restrict Hull City’s threat on the counter attack. It is important to point out that both Sawyers and Livermore are one yellow card away from suspension and this may not be the worst game in the world to pick up a cynical yellow for stopping a counter attack. It would spell suspension against Sheffield Wednesday, but may be worth it if Bowen and Grosicki are breaking at speed. It would also liberate them somewhat for the massive Bristol City, Preston and Swansea games. I expect Albion to keep it tight, but both teams tend to score when either of these two teams play, so I’ll predict a 2-1 win for the Baggies.