The Championship is often described as a marathon in that it is a 46 game war of attrition for those with promotion ambitions. Ordinarily this would be accurate – but these are not ordinary times. The 46 game slog has been unavoidably dissected to leave just a quarter of the season to play following an unprecedented 3 month gap. The 2019/20 Championship marathon is no more, all that remains is a relentless sprint-finish which will see the Baggies play 9 games in just over a month. It is therefore vital that Bilić’s side hit the ground running against a Birmingham City side, who have very little to lose, both in the context of the match as underdogs, and generally in the context of the season.
One benefit of the Covid-19 suspension of play is that each club will benefit from an unusually injury-free side heading into the most pivotal point in the season. Kieran Gibbs is said to be back to full fitness, after he struggled to shake off recurring injuries before the intermission, which should see the former Arsenal man slot back into the side as the attacking yin to Dara O’Shea’s defensive yang. Crucially, however, the dazzling Grady Diangana is fully fit and ready to be called upon to torture Championship defences once more, as he looks to recapture the form which has endeared him to the Albion faithful during his loan. The return of the West-Ham loanee does, however, pose quite a selection headache to Slaven Bilić, who has what can only be described as an embarrassment of attacking riches at his disposal. While Diangana was injured, January signing Callum Robinson slotted back into a Championship line-up as if he had never left, and Filip Krovinovic found success as a number 8 in a 4-3-3 – as opposed to the 4-3-2-1 in which Diangana excelled in the early part of the season. The change in formation led to a rediscovery in form for the side, so it is difficult to envisage the return of the 4-2-3-1 simply to accommodate a frighteningly talented combination of Matheus Pereira, Grady Diangana and Callum Robinson. It is far more likely that Krovinovic will start on Saturday afternoon to help win a crucial midfield battle against a dogged Blues midfield featuring the likes of Ivan Sunjic and Gary Gardner, which will mean one of Robinson or Diangana will not be afforded a starting berth.
West Bromwich Albion will also boast a staggering array of attacking talent among the substitutes, with the likes of Kamil Grosicki, Matt Phillips, Kyle Edwards and Charlie Austin likely to take up a space on the socially-distanced bench. If you have paid close attention to Albion this season – as I imagine most readers of this blog will have – then you will know why the luxury of being able to use five substitutes in a game may appeal to the Baggies manager. Slaven Bilić has demonstrated his ability to change football matches with substitutions throughout this season, perhaps no more evidently than in the reverse fixture at St Andrew’s in December when Charlie Austin helped himself to a brace from the bench. I doubt whether there is a manager in the league who will benefit more from the rule change, or make more of the attacking options on their substitute bench during this Championship season reprise. There is, of course, the added benefit of a lot of games in a short period of time, so any players who do not start, or even appear off the bench on Saturday, will know that their chances of playing time in the immediate future are more than likely.
Usually when previewing a game, the most logical course of action is to visit the form table and try to break down any patterns that have developed in recent weeks and months. However there is no recent form from which to draw any kind meaningful conclusion, given that neither side have played a competitive game of football in over 3 months. In addition, there are times in football where the form table goes out of the window, so to speak, including for derby matches and for season run-ins. I therefore subscribe to the view that the fact Birmingham lost their last game after a 13 game unbeaten run or the fact that Albion are top of the 8 game form table have no bearing on the outcome of this game. With this in mind, I enlisted the help of , football league expert and Bluenose Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab on Twitter) for a word on Albion’s first post-lockdown opponents.
As many Blues fans will, Gabriel warmly welcomes the return of the Championship, eager to see the conclusion to a Birmingham season which has seen them consolidate their status as a mid-table side, rather than the “perennial relegation fodder” they were from 2014-2018 as Gabriel so bluntly put it. This change in expectations is thanks to the work of Gary Monk and the outgoing Pep Clotet. Clotet’s stay in the Second City will be remembered as short but sweet by many Bluenoses, as the former Birmingham assistant leaves an exciting side behind, with the likes of Bela, Crowley and Sunjic all impressing this season. There is, of course, one man, or perhaps I should say boy, that has drawn more admiration than anyone else at St Andrew’s this season (Coventry players included). That is, of course, 16-year-old Jude Bellingham, who was very impressive in the reverse fixture. Bellingham has attracted attention from some of the biggest clubs in the world and I therefore had to ask the opinion of someone who sees him play every week to try to understand what all the fuss is about.
Gabriel understandably held little back in his praise for the Stourbridge born talent, highlighting an attitude and tenacity beyond his years, but above all, a remarkable versatility on the pitch. This versatility, Gab points out, is demonstrated by the fact that in the games in which Bellingham became Blues’ youngest player, became their youngest scorer and turned what Gab describes as his finest Blues performance, he played three very different positions. On his Birmingham debut against Portsmouth in the League Cup, the record-breaking youngster was deployed as a false 9 – a position which Gab could see Bellingham growing into due to his intelligence and link-up play. Bellingham went on to become Birmingham City’s youngest ever goalscorer against Charlton in September, this time playing off the left. It is, remarkably, in a deeper midfield role that Blues fan Gabriel declares Bellingham “produced the game of his life” in a win against Middlesbrough in October, which shows a flexibility akin to a playground footballer, which Bellingham would actually have been just last year. This versatility is naturally unpredictable, but whoever matches up against the starlet on Saturday will have their hands full as the 16-year-old may look to take advantage of some rusty older legs.
As previously alluded to, Albion’s visit to St Andrew’s earlier in the season was decided by some Charlie Austin heroics, but Birmingham were arguably the better side that day. They won the midfield battle for 60 minutes and Lukas Jutkiewicz caused havoc for the Albion back line, before Bilić outfoxed the Birmingham bench with a switch to a back 3. The Duke will be sure to pose a threat once more with his hold up play and aerial prowess, particularly in tandem with the January addition of strike partner Scott Hogan from Aston Villa (!), who has been among the goals since his Second City move. Gabriel is sceptical of the possibility of a 4-4-2 against Albion, as ” it will be hard to deny space for the likes of Sawyers and Pereira”. It is difficult to disagree with this. A midfield 3 of Livermore, Saywers and Krovinovic has the potential to pass rings around most 2-man midfields, so we may see Blues try to consolidate in the centre with an extra body, perhaps the versatile Bellingham. If the likes of Pereira, Sawyers, Diangana and Robinson are afforded too much space, they will punish a defence at this level, as they have shown countless times this season.
Bluenose Gab reluctantly predicts a 2-1 win for the home side in Saturday’s meeting, which will be broadcast live on Sky, as it was scheduled to originally. There is, of course, the small matter of a West London derby which precedes the West Midlands clash. Should Fulham overcome Brentford in the early kick-off, there will, all of a sudden, be massive pressure on the the Baggies squad a they would head into their 3pm game just 3 points ahead of Fulham. Regardless of any effect the early result may have on proceedings, I will echo the thoughts of the knowledgeable Gab Sutton and predict a narrow 2-1 Albion win, with Grady Diangana scoring to make it 2 from 2 against Blues this season.
Although we can’t be there to sing them home, the best Albion side in a decade is now about to embark on the most important 9-game run in many of these players’ careers. What a pleasure it is to see this side once again, especially as it was feared we would not. Cherish it. Enjoy it. Stay safe, Baggies fans.