Numerically, the first round of post-resumption fixtures was a success for Albion. They began the day second in the table, behind a Leeds side who restarted with an uncharacteristically, yet somehow predictability poor performance in a 2-0 loss to Cardiff. Albion finished the weekend top of the tree. They also held a 6 point advantage over 3rd placed Fulham, who restarted their campaign with a 2-0 loss of their own. Albion moved 7 points clear of them. The Baggies also dominated possession and attempts statistics in their own game, but truth be told, it was somewhat of a false start for Bilic’s side as they welcomed a Birmingham City side who were content to take what was a very good point on the road. Albion will be looking to shake off any residual cobwebs on Friday night in what promises to be the antithesis of the opener against Blues. There are few places in English football which are more difficult to go to than Brentford’s Griffin Park. From a unique fan experience, to a recent lineage of technical excellence on the pitch, a trip to Brentford jumps off the fixture list as notoriously difficult in the Championship.
This away day in West London will be like no other before, though, as Griffin Park hosts its first competitive fixture post-lockdown. Bilic, who has been open in expressing the view that home advantage is currently non-existent, will be hoping his side can benefit from the behind closed doors setting, and truly get their season up and running once more. At times this season, Albion have struggled to break down the league’s more resolute defences if they set up in a low-block, but Brentford will not be intimidated into altering their own attacking brand of football.
1. “Would you take a point?”
Not all points are created equal in a Championship season. A point against Brentford would be considerably better received than the point against Birmingham, for example. This is not only because it is a more difficult game on paper, but obviously because it would also take two points off the side who look most likely to catch the current top 2. Furthermore, unless you have been living under a rock, I shouldn’t have to remind you that second placed Leeds will host third placed Fulham, which guarantees more dropped points in the top four. There is no getting away from the fact that a point would suit Albion far more than it would Brentford, who would then have to claw back an 8 point deficit in the final 7 games.
However, all the noises from the Albion camp suggest that this is a game they will be trying to win in order to take a massive stride towards promotion, rather than trying to contain their talented hosts. A win would put Albion 10 points clear of Fulham and 3 points clear of Leeds before they play at 3pm on Saturday afternoon. Such a cushion over 3rd place would, in all likelihood, be insurmountable for a Fulham team who are running out of time to put a barnstorming run together to sneak back into contention. Brentford’s ever-positive approach and Albion’s fight fire with fire mentality should make for one of the most exciting and open games since the Championship resumed.
2. If the league was played on paper…
Brentford’s Moneyball approach was one of the most fascinating and important features of the Championship in the 2010s and in this season in which we have entered a new decade, Brentford fans and board members will hope to see the culmination of the hugely successful approach through promotion to the Premier League. The exemplary transfer acumen, money-making and ambition have begun to pay off in a big way for the West London side. Astonishingly, Brentford have scored more goals (66) than every side in the division and conceded less goals (33) than all but Leeds this season. That is unequivocally title-winning form. However Brentford find themselves 8 points off the summit of the league. The fact they have scored more than any other side can be explained by the fact that when the Bees are firing on all cylinders, they are quite simply irresistible. With a front 3 that could well all be playing Premier League football next season, with or without Brentford, the goals tend to come in bunches for Thomas Frank’s side. Scintillating displays including a 7-0 win against Luton, a 4-0 statement at Ashton gate and a 5-0 drubbing of Sheffield Wednesday stand out and perhaps show why the stats make such good reading for Brentford.
The fact of the matter is, though, that Brentford simply have too many off days. The form the Bees have shown at times has been frightening, but they have won 3 games in a row just once this season, and they quite often flatter to deceive at pivotal points in a Championship season. They have lost 11 games this season, which is more than double Albion’s total of 5. However there does appear to be a slightly different feel to this Thomas Frank side than there has been to past Brentford iterations and it speaks volumes of the progress at Griffin Park that a playoff campaign is the minimum expectation with 8 games to go in the regular season. The Baggies were very sluggish in their first outing after the lockdown and if they are not back up to something like a competitive degree of match sharpness, then the Bees, who looked reasonably sharp in a 2-0 win at Craven Cottage, have the potential to embarrass Albion in a way they haven’t been since the 4-0 loss at Elland Road last season.
3 – Sawyers key in a midfield 3
One man who did not look sluggish against Birmingham was former Brentford captain Romaine Saywers. The former Albion academy product has dictated games with effortless regularity since he returned to the Hawthorns a man, having left a boy. It was during his time at Griffin Park that the St Kitts and Nevis international dropped deeper into midfield and developed his metronomic style that draws comparisons to elite level dictators of play like Luka Modric.
Sawyers would have been afforded a warm welcome off the pitch on his first visit to Griffin Park since leaving last summer, had this game not been set to take place behind closed doors. However on the pitch, Friday night’s game will be one of the season’s strictest appraisals of Albion’s Sawyers-led midfield. Slaven Bilic opted for a 4231 formation in the Baggies’ opener in a bid to blow Blues’ defence away with excellent attacking support. I firmly believe, however, that this game will be won and lost in the midfield, where Albion should look to consolidate by incorporating Filip Krovinovic into a midfield 3 and playing Pereira on the right-wing. The switch to 433 earlier in the season triggered an upturn in defensive form and Albion have kept 6 clean sheets in their last 9 games. This kind of defensive solidity will be key in winning a midfield battle against tidy midfield 3 of Christian Nørgaard, Josh Dasilva and Mathias Jensen.
4. Selection headache
The Baggies never truly got going in the 0-0 with Birmingham, and looked devoid of creativity at times, which has not been a criticism levelled regularly at Albion this season. Birmingham’s compact approach made it very difficult for the likes of Robinson, Pereira and Phillips to create, and all of the supporting cast who appeared from the bench suffered the same fate. We may see Diangana start instead of Robinson, and Krovinovic in for Phillips but whichever of Albion’s attackers start the game on Friday night, they are certain to have considerably more space than against Blues. Kamil Grosicki will be looking for a first appearance since the resumption as he did not make the enlarged matchday squad last time out. Dara O’Shea may come back in at full back for Darnell Furlong to provide defensive solidity against Brentford’s devastating counter attacks. It is difficult to know how this game will go, it could be a tale of two sides struggling for match sharpness, or it could be a slobber-knocker. I will hope for the latter and predict a 2-2 draw. Whether Albion clinch promotion from here or not, the Baggies’ final ever visit to Grifin Park, lamentably behind closed doors, will no doubt be looked back on as crucial either way.