What a difference a goal makes. With each of the 37 minutes that passed before Charlie Austin’s penalty at Hillsborough, the tension rose and seeds of doubt continued to sprout visibly throughout a tense Albion XI. A naive pull back from an out of position Moses Odubajo gave Austin the chance to show just how stone cold he is. Then, as if the shackles were lifted, the second half saw wave upon wave of free-flowing attacks from the Baggies, reminiscent of their pre-lockdown best.
Slaven Bilic will be hoping this second half performance is a sign of things to come and that the Baggies have well and truly turned a corner in their Championship run-in. Sunday sees Albion welcome Hull City to an almost empty Hawthorns. The Tigers are another team who have just recorded their first post-resumption win after a run of poor form. Although poor form perhaps doesn’t quite express just how bad Hull’s form had been before the 2-1 win over Neil Warnock’s Boro. The Tigers’ victory on Thursday evening ended a run which saw them collect just 3 points in a 13 game winless period dating back to January. With results once again going against the Baggies on Saturday afternoon, they have just a two point automatic promotion cushion ahead of Sunday’s game and any pressure they stood up to against Sheffield Wednesday is firmly back on.
1 – Defensive solidity
Despite just losing one game before Christmas, one valid criticism levelled at this Albion side is that they conceded too many goals. They were winning games but had to score 2 or 3 to do so every time. It took 9 games for Albion to record their first clean sheet and they have been hard to come by at times this season. An upturn in defensive form has seen Albion keep 7 clean sheets in their last 11 games, with the 433 formation affording the back four some much needed cover at times. Albion’s current total of just 38 goals conceded can only be bettered by Leeds and Brentford, which is testament to the progress that Bilic has made defensively.
It was the Baggies’ defensive solidity which impressed on Wednesday evening, with the hosts getting the better of the midfield battle at times, but struggling to carve an opening through a solid Albion back line. It was, by some margin, Ahmed Hegazi’s best performance of the season and perhaps his finest in an Albion shirt. In addition, Dara O’Shea and Kieran Gibbs turned in very accomplished displays to help keep Sam Johnstone’s workload to a minimum. Semi Ajayi was afforded a rare rest and the defensive display in his absence could warrant more time on the sidelines for the Nigerian, but Hull will likely offer considerably less than Wednesday on the attack and therefore I expect him to slot back in for his ball playing ability, if nothing else.
2 – Hope for Hull?
Hull were one of the most vocal clubs in favour of curtailing the season and ending on points per game during lockdown as this would have seen them stay up on a technicality. You need only consult their recent form – or watch a Hull match – to see why. The Tigers were in freefall before lockdown and the break certainly came at the right time for them. Hull did not take well to the restart, either. They lost a crucial 6 pointer to Charlton, before twice throwing the lead away in a 3-3 draw with Birmingham, who looked like they couldn’t score 3 goals in 900 minutes, let alone 90 when they turned up to the Hawthorns one week prior. They did, however, record their first win since January against Boro in what Hull manager Grant McCann will hope is the start of a run to propel them away from a very congested relegation battle.
It is difficult to see how the Tigers could capitalise on this spark against Albion, though. Hull have conceded 69 goals and have not kept a clean sheet since New Year’s Day, a run of 14 games. Only bottom club Luton have conceded more goals and since the January departures of match winners Jared Bowen and Kamil Grosicki, the goals have somewhat dried up for the Tigers. Other than two anomalous and hectic high scoring draws (4-4 vs Swansea and 3-3 with Blues), Hull had failed to score more than once in any game in 2020, until the midweek win over Middlesbrough. At this stage of the season, it is often said that performances don’t matter, but Hull were not good value for their first post-lockdown win and will have to raise their performance level against an Albion side coming off the back of an excellent second half display at Hillsborough. In truth, there will be little pressure on Hull who may see this as a free hit sitting just outside of the relegation zone and having collected 4 points from their last 2 games.
3 – Hull to frustrate the Baggies?
Many of the relegation threatened teams who have played the Baggies this season have employed a low block with numbers behind the ball. Because it works. The likes of Barnsley, Charlton, Boro, Stoke and Wigan have all taken points at the Hawthorns through disciplined play out of possession. Setting up your stall, so to speak, and challenging Albion to break you down has been the blueprint for many sides at the Hawthorns and Hull will recognise this. Whether the Tigers will be as defensive as some sides have been remains to be seen as it does go against their natural approach somewhat, but a low block has been successful against Albion too many times for Grant McCann to ignore. Additionally, no team has scored more goals through counter attacks (6) than Hull in this season’s Championship, therefore inviting Albion pressure on could see success for the Tigers.
One of the primary reasons that Albion have struggled against a low block is that much of their creative output is based on intricate passing or needle-threading through balls, which are made considerably more difficult by defences who restrict space in and around the penalty area. If Hull do frustrate Albion in the first half, Slaven Bilic will be able to call upon attacking reinforcements such as Callum Robinson or former Tiger Kamil Grosicki, who both looked very sharp in the 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday. A moment of magic can be the difference in an attack vs defence match and the Baggies manager has the luxury of more than his fair share of players capable of producing those magic moments. I’ll predict a 2-1 Albion win, with Kamil Grosicki netting the deciding goal from the bench against his former employers.