You didn’t think it would be easy, did you? The Championship is often called the best league in the world by many who cover it. While there is stylish football and talent aplenty in England’s second division, it is its drama which goes some way to justifying the hyperbolic tagline. It wouldn’t be a Championship run in without a few twists and turns. If defeat at Griffin Park was a twist in the wrong direction then Albion fans hope a trip to Hillsborough on Wednesday evening will be a turning point in the final chapter of the Championship season.
Still in the automatic promotion places (just) and with mainly bottom half clubs still to play, it is not quite panic stations yet for Albion. That being said, the Baggies will travel to an empty Hillsborough – a ground where they have not lost since 2006- in search of a much needed 3 points. One point from their opening two games compared to Brentford’s 9 points from 9 available has left Albion just two points ahead of the West London outfit. Albion simply must convert their game in hand to send a message to the chasing pack – they will not wilt under the pressure. Or so they hope.
1 – A bit of perspective…
Before the main body of this preview, I would like to try to offer an important bit of perspective, or reassurance, depending on how you view it. The Baggies have overachieved this season. The appointment of Slaven Bilic was not universally received with optimism, particualrly from those outside the club. Many Championship writers and pundits take on the unenviable task of predicting the table before a ball is kicked, and while this is admittedly incredibly difficult, very, very few predicted Albion to finish in the top 2. More than a few very knowledgeable EFL writers predicted that they would be chasing the playoffs at this point in the season as a best case scenario. Disarray is too strong a word, but there was very little cause for optimism at the Hawthorns following the play off loss to Aston Villa. The losses of Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle were much publicised and Albion’s dwindling and ageing squad was reinforced by a few bargain purchases (which now look very shrewd). Slaven Bilic had been out of the English game for a few seasons and had not been a success in the Middle East, which meant that his appointment was a risk. The club took this risk safe in the knowledge that it was a two year project which would ideally culminate in promotion, to coincide with the end of the clubs parachute payments. Judging by this, and frankly by any other measure, Slaven Bilic and this West Bromwich Albion side have been excellent – in the truest sense of the word.
When the season resumed Albion had a 6 point lead, they now have a 2 point lead, should they win on Wednesday night then it would be 5 points. A 5 point lead with 6 games to go would be an enviable position, would being the operative word, there. It may seem like the Baggies have been comfortably in the top 2 all season, but they have been seriously tested before. After matchday 29 Nottingham Forest had clawed back the lead to just 2 points. Just weeks later, after a resdiscovery of form, Albion found themselves 9 points clear of the the playoffs once more. Albion have been there to be shot at all season and they have handled it very well until this minor slump. Even if Albion were to be caught and leapfrogged this time, there is no telling if another side will fare as the team in the sights of the chasing pack. Yes, it has not been an ideal return to football for Albion, but it’s all part of the fun. Have faith in this excellent side and enjoy the ride, Baggies fans.
2 – When the going gets tough…
This Albion side have drawn more than their fair share of plaudits over the course of the season, from losing just one their opening 23 games, to sharing the goals around the squad with remarkable consistency. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Baggies’ season has been the ability to deliver in difficult moments, as evidenced by a league-high 24 points gained from losing positions. Comeback wins at Nottingham Forest and Luton Town set the tone for the season and Albion also dug deep against Blackburn, Huddersfield and Birmingham to take all 3 points from behind. In isolated situations Bilic has known how to help his side claw back into a game, but the loss against Brentford signifies the biggest question posed to his side this season. A disappointing run of results calls for a different kind of character display than going behind in a 90 minute game. Notions of self-doubt, the fear of failure and pressure are all amplified by the five day wait between games for the Baggies.
This week on social media has seen numerous Albion players take to social media in defiant mood. Matheus Pereira, Grady Diangana and Callum Robinson have all expressed their determination and belief in the squad ahead of the run in, which at the very least shows they will face the pressure head on. Slaven Bilic also held a team meeting at the training ground this week and reiterated what he expects from the players, before he issued a public call to arms through the club on Tuesday, encouraging his squad to handle the pressure at this pivotal side of the season. This is an exciting Albion squad who have flirted with greatness and success at times this season; they can achieve both if they stand up to be counted over the next seven games, starting with a tricky fixture against Sheffield Wednesday.
3 – Wednesday rediscovering their form?
Prior to the Covid-19 interruption, tricky is not the word I would have used to describe this fixture as there were few sides performing as consistently poorly as Sheffield Wednesday, with just 2 wins in 2020. However they do appear to have found some form behind closed doors, collecting 4 points from their opening 2 games against Nottingham Forest and Bristol City respectively. The atmosphere at Hillsborough hasn’t always been the most positive this season, with large sections of the fan base unconvinced by Garry Monk’s tenure thus far, despite a promising start initially. The break seemed to come at the right time for a Wednesday side who could yet face a points deduction which would take them precariously close to the relegation battle.
The resumption of the Owls’ season looked to be a continuation their misery after the first 92 minutes, until former Crystal Palace striker Connor Wickham buried a last-gasp equaliser in their opening game against Forest. The same player notched again just 13 minutes into their next fixture, after some excellent screening work from a corner allowed Wickham to nod home unopposed from 10 yards out. Incidentally, it may surprise Albion fans to hear the corner from which he scored the opening goal in that game was from the boot of former Albion loanee Jacob Murphy. Murphy has been much improved for Sheffield Wednesday this season when compared to his time at the Hawthorns last year. In the opening half of the season, Murphy and Kadeem Harris impressed pundits and fans alike with their direct and productive wing play for the Owls and although their creative output did dry up in unison with Wednesday’s dip in form, they remain a genuine threat to Albion’s full backs.
4 – All change?
Football fans are reactionary, never more so than when their team has lost and they are unhappy with the XI from the game. Social media was awash with people baying for the blood of underperformers from the Brentford game, with Saywers and Phillips bearing the brunt of the criticism for below par showings. In the case of Phillips, I do believe this may be one poor performance too many and he could drop to the bench to give way for another of Albion’s talented attack. I do, however, have sympathy with Sawyers, who was asked to be the primary ball mover in a midfield two which was destined to lose the battle for supremacy in the middle of the pitch. Despite a warm up injury forcing a change of personnel, Brentford’s midfield 3 enforced a very intense press on the Albion duo of Sawyers and Livermore and did not allow the Baggies to dictate the pace of the game- particularly in the first half.
Rather than ringing changes, Bilic may see success should he afford Filip Krovinovic a starting berth in a midfield 3. I will not linger too much on this point, for fear of repeating previous match previews, but the Croatian has shown his effectiveness as an 8 on numerous occasions this season and the 433 system has appeared to be the most effective for the Baggies in recent months. On the subject of changes, Kenneth Zohore’s second half cameo was a minor positive for Albion on Friday night and the Dane may feel he has earned himself a first start since the resumption of play. That being said, should Bilic opt for a 433, I imagine Hal Robson-Kanu would get the nod as the glue that holds the creative attack together in this system- a role which may not be best suited to Zohore.
After not being included in the matchday squad for the first two post-lockdown fixtures, Kamil Grosicki could come back into the squad with a point to prove. The same could possibly be said for departing club legend Chris Brunt, who will be hoping to feature against his former employers at Hillsborough. While a start is simply out of the question, Brunt’s set piece mastery could be pivotal in the final 15 minutes of any Championship fixture over the next month.