Hello Derby, my old friend…

Albion’s third away day of the season sees a second and final league visit to the East Midlands of the campaign. Awaiting Bilic’s unbeaten men at Pride Park will be a Derby County side who have started the season with a real mixed bag of results. Albion make the 50 mile journey in search of a third away win in as many games, but at a ground where the Baggies have only ever registered one league win. That solitary win at Pride Park is also the only away win at Derby in the league since the Second World War. While technically a midlands derby, both teams have plenty of rivals in closer proximity, so there is very little ill-feeling between the fan bases. That said, for myself, and for many baggies raised on Clement, Koumas and Kamara, the 2007 playoff final loss to Billy Davies’ soon-to-be record breaking side was one of the first in a long line of devastating footballing heartbreaks- hence the questionable title of this piece.

Fast forward 12 years and both clubs found themselves back in the playoffs once again, at the end of inconsistent seasons led by rookie managers (two in Albion’s case). Darren Moore has now taken charge of another of his former clubs in Doncaster Rovers, while Frank Lampard’s playoff final loss was enough to attract Europa League champions his former employers Chelsea. It may have taken West Brom 96 days to appoint a permanent successor and Derby just one, but now both clubs find common ground in beginning 2019/20 season with a vastly different landscape to the previous one. While Albion lament the losses of loanees Dwight Gayle, Harvey Barnes and Mason Holgate, Derby find themselves in a similar position, with Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori also returning to their parent clubs.

Derby have begun their period of transition with a renewal of inconsistency, with draws against Swansea and Stoke making them the only team to have taken points from the Jacks and the only team to have dropped points to the Potters. These two draws against Albion’s 2018 relegation companions came sandwiched between a promising opening day win against relegated Huddersfield and a frustrating loss to playoff hopefuls Bristol City, in which the Rams boasted 68% possession and registered 20 shots. One promising aspect of the Bristol City defeat was what can only be described as an absolute worldie from Jack Marriott. After the game Derby manager Philip Cocu insisted that the only reason that the Englishman is yet to start a game this season is that he is not 100% fit and the former PSV coach is trying to ensure he lasts the season.

The Rams could do with a bit more Marriott magic in the coming weeks, as the fixture list has not been kind to them. Having already played a relegated side and three promotion hopefuls, Derby will now play Albion, Brentford, Cardiff and Leeds in their next four league games- not to mention a tasty Carabao Cup match with arch rivals Forest in midweek. This game therefore takes on added significance, with Derby urgently looking to find some consistency in a very difficult, albeit early, period of the season.

Inconsistency has also been key for the Albion in the opening four games of the season. Coming from a goal down may make it look like one point saved against Reading on Wednesday night, but an xG of 2.08 to Reading’s 0.64 (infogol.net) shows that it will actually feel like two points dropped. It was a frustrating night going forward for Albion, with Austin and Zohore being denied from close range by Rafael Cabral and Matt Moore respectively. After the first four games of the season, Albion actually boast the best xGa (expected goals against) record in the division, which means that they concede less chances expected to lead to goals than any other team in the league. Despite this, Albion are yet to keep a clean sheet, which points to well taken goals from unlikely positions like that of Ovie Ejaria on Wednesday, or to individual errors like Johnstone’s vs Forest, who incidentally was excellent against the Royals. If Albion continue to dominate the ball and restrict opposition chances as the data suggests then there is cause for optimism at the Hawthorns.

One positive for Albion on Wednesday night was an encouraging cameo from Kenneth Zohore, topped off with a goal from the penalty spot. I would expect the Danish striker to get the nod ahead of Charlie Austin, who, like Derby’s Marriott is not up to 100% match fitness yet. However Bilic confirmed on Friday that Zohore was carrying a minor knock, but did not suggest it was serious enough to stop him from starting. Diangana struggled to make as much of an impact as he did at Luton, so it would not be surprising if the West Ham loanee were to return to the bench for the Saturday lunchtime kickoff. Darnell Furlong putting in an excellent display will also give Bilic a selection headache, but expect the impressive Nathan Ferguson to regain a starting berth, having been rested midweek.

One explanation for Albion’s lack of killer instinct in the final third has been that very few players have looked to be on the same creative wavelength as Krovinovic, but in the 21 minutes that he played, Matheus Pereira seemed to have an excellent understanding with the Croatian. Bilic has stressed the importance of working the deadline day signings into the side gradually, given their lack of match sharpness but having created a handful of openings and combining with Krovinovic to win the penalty, the Brazilian may be due a start.

Both times the two sides met last season Derby had the beating of a West Brom side lacking pace and composure in midfield. Since then, however, both clubs have seen an overhaul in personnel and management, so expect a different encounter. Sam Johnstone took to Twitter this week to defend himself from what he (and I) felt was unnecessary criticism from certain sections of the Albion fan base and therefore will be desperate to keep a clean sheet. Last season, though, Johnstone conceded seven goals in two games against Derby so it’s tough to imagine the likes of Lawrence, Waghorn, Bennett and Marriott (if fit), who all scored against Albion last season, not seriously testing the former Manchester United man once again. Albion looked like they edged closer to being a dangerous attacking side on Wednesday evening, with plenty of chances being created – a welcome change from the first three games of the season. With this in mind, I expect goals again from both sides at Pride Park, as has been the case in every Albion game this season, and all but one Derby game. With both sides still in the process of reinvention and rediscovery it can be difficult to predict how the game will go, but I fancy a score draw in what promises to be Albion’s toughest test yet this season. 2-2. Or who knows, it could be tight, tense and decided by a 2007 Stephen Pearson-esque tap in to nick it…

Predicted XI vs Derby.

Royal Visit to Smethwick

Albion’s first midweek league fixture of the long Championship season sees The Baggies host a new-look Reading side aiming for promotion, but tipped for relegation. The Royals travel to The Hawthorns in search of a first league win there since 1988, a record older than any of the 11 players who have started each of Albion’s first three games. However records are made to be broken, see Luton Town’s home form.

You may ask yourself, how is it that a team can be in the conversation for both promotion and relegation? That, however, is absolutely the case for Reading. The former Premier League club have recorded just one anomalous top 6 finish since their relegation from the top flight in 2012/13, occupying 20th position for the last two seasons. This season, there is an air of optimism around the Madjeski following a busy end to the summer transfer window, with the apparent model being: Sign people with class names and the lad who scored against us on Saturday. That’s exactly what Reading managed to do between their first and second fixtures of the season.

Following a 3-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in which Lucas Joao found the Royals’ net, they signed the Portuguese international for an undisclosed fee. Eyebrows were raised, though, when Pele and Puscas (not those ones) were signed from Monaco and Inter Milan respectively. The jury is very much still out on a Reading side who started the campaign with two losses, before putting Neil Warnock and Cardiff to the sword on Sunday afternoon, but there was more than enough to send Reading fans on Twitter berking mad during the 3-0 win. Ovie Ejaria and John Swift were impressive, with the latter creating a Championship season high 7 chances for his teammates, before getting on the scoresheet himself. The real danger man in this Reading team, however, is undoubtedly George Puscas, who scored a goal worthy of nomination for the award which honours his namesake. The Romanian would have capped a near-perfect performance with a hattrick too, had he not inexplicably scuppered a one-on-one just seconds before leaving the pitch to a royal standing ovation.

While Reading recorded their first win of the season, Albion, registered another 2-1 win away from home to start the season with 7 points from 9. Albion got one over on Graeme Jones in a quintessential game of two halves. A football cliché, I know. However in terms of scoreline, tactical approach, personnel, and attacking intent it was exactly that. Albion turned the game on its head in 6 second half minutes with a higher press and intensity that the first half was lacking following the introduction of debutant Grady Diangana. The on-loan West Ham youngster helped himself to a brace and entertained just over 1000 Albion fans at Kenilworth Road throughout the second half.

Both Albion goals came about through the combination of Sawyers-Krovinovic-Diangana, in that order. This will have delighted the travelling support, given that for the first 225 minutes of the season nobody has been on the same wavelength as the prodigal baggie or the Croatian Koumas. Replays of the Luton goal neither acquit nor condemn Semi Ajayi, who was left in a heap in the build up as Harry Cornick headed past a stranded Sam Johnstone from 12 yards. Whether Ajayi was tripped or fell over his own feet, it was a cheap goal to concede, the like of which Albion have to cut out if they wish to continue their good start to the season.

So, what can we expect on Wednesday night? Up to this point, Slaven Bilic has named an unchanged XI in all 3 league fixtures, with Kyle Edwards and Semi Ajayi also starting the Carabao cup exit against Milwall. This may signify changes for Albion as the workload starts to pile up, with match winner Grady Diangana almost certain to take the place of Kyle Edwards, who struggled to make an impact during his 45 minutes at Luton. Once again, expect to see both Zohore and Austin involved, with the Dane possibly getting the nod once again after an encouraging display on his third league start.

The game promises to be an interesting match up. Albion will look to continue their sustained-possession approach which has allowed them to record a league-best 701 passes in the opposition half this season; but with Reading looking electric on the counter attack against Cardiff, transition is key for West Brom. Joao and Puscas let chances go begging on the counter as the game became stretched on Sunday before John Swift put the final nail in the Cardiff coffin. It will be a challenging night for both full backs and Albion’s midfield, who will have to recover very quickly when the ball is given away. Consequently, it would not be surprising if Rekeem Harper plays some part at The Hawthorns to provide fresh legs. Although the academy product who was linked with a number of European giants in the summer is sometimes guilty of losing his man, so he will have to be alert to Ejaria, Joao, Puscas and Swift looking to exploit space during transition. Given his injury record in recent seasons, it would not be a surprise to see Matt Phillips start on the bench, with Matheus Pereira coming in for a first league start.

I think the first goal is massive, as this is a game that Albion will not want to go chasing. If Albion score first then it could test the confidence of a Reading side who are still trying to piece together their ambitions for the season. Conversely, if Reading make the breakthrough then Ejaria and Puscas could be free to express themselves like on Sunday, with John Swift serving up a conveyor belt of chances once more. Johnstone, who has been under fire from certain sections of the Albion fan base, will be desperate to keep a first clean sheet of the season. That said, Reading, like Albion, have found the net in all games in all competitions this season, so expect goals.

With Leeds hosting Brentford and Bristol City travelling to Derby, this could be a chance for Albion to pick up points while some of the other promotion favourites battle it out. BTTS looks nailed on once again and my score prediction is 2-1 Albion.

Possible starting XI for Wednesday night. Don’t be surprised if Austin or Harper start, though.

Enjoy Luton away…

A trip to Kenilworth Road beckons for Bilic’s baggies this Saturday, a day out which is used to tease Championship fans on social media, with many a tiresome exchange between local rivals featuring the title of this piece. This being the first league meeting in 12 years between the sides means that this will be the first visit to Luton’s historical ground for much of a generation of Albion fans. The last time Albion faced off against Luton was in the 2006/07 season, the thought of which sends a shiver down the spine of anyone who travelled to Wembley in the May of that season. Albion picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and eventually found Premier League security for 9 seasons (after further customary yo-yoing in the coming years). For Luton Town, however, the 2006/07 season signified the start of a disastrous downward spiral. Three consecutive relegations saw Luton drop out of the Football League for the first time since the 1920s, with three consecutive play-off defeats rubbing salt in the wounds of the former First Division club. This rapid fall from grace, accelerated by off the field problems, appears to be the driving force behind the notion that fuels the social media jibes at whoever happens to have Luton Town away on their fixture list.

However the current reality is this is a Luton side that have created a winning mentality and atmosphere around the club. The League One champions racked up an impressive 94 points in their first season back at the level, completing a double promotion which started with an 88 point haul under Nathan Jones in League Two in 2017-18. Although not really the point of the social media trope, nobody tends to enjoy Luton Town away on the pitch – with the Hatters currently boasting a 23 game unbeaten home run. The biggest challenge facing Luton in the coming season, however is the lottery of a new managerial appointment. The Hatters appointed chief recruitment officer Mick Harford to act as caretaker manager last season, presumably so as to rock the boat as little as possible after Nathan Jones was headhunted by Stoke City. Jones’ namesake and former Albion assistant head coach Graeme Jones is now in the hotseat.

The former Everton and Belgium number 2, who arrived at the Hawthorns following Belgium’s World Cup semi-final defeat to France is a controversial figure with certain sections of the baggies fan base. Many argued that it was clear to see the negative effect that Jones’ expansive, risk-taking approach had on the team and on Darren Moore, while others saw it as a perfect tonic after the dinosaur years under Tony Pulis. It is difficult to truly know the level of control Jones exerted during Moore’s fatefully short tenure at the Albion, but the 3-5-2 model which entertained and frustrated in equal measure last season was the same system Belgium used in the World Cup and has been seen in the early stages of Jones’ Luton side. Any Albion fans who saw the EFL curtain raiser between Luton Town and Middlesbrough will have shuddered at the sight of Luton gifting goals to the Teeside outfit, with Jones’ approach telling an all-too-familiar story for the Albion faithful.

The question on every Albion fan’s mind heading into our third league outing of the season is which striker will face up against Graeme Jones’ inevitable back three? There was a pretty telling statistic doing the rounds following Albion’s frustrating 1-1 draw with Milwall last Saturday: Kenneth Zohore had the fewest amount of touches of all the players who started a match in Gameweek 2 of the Championship. The not-so-great Dane managed just 12 touches in his 58 minutes of the Lions’ first visit to the Hawthorns last week, one of which was a guilt-edge chance to put Albion 1-0 up in the first half. Every Albion fan had to fight the overwhelming urge to say “Charlie Austin would never miss that!”, but quite frankly, Austin, who represents 25% of Albion’s deadline day quartet who will be chomping at the bit to make an impact this weekend, does not miss sitters. The former Southampton striker attested to this theory during Milwall’s second visit to the Hawthorns in 4 days, during the 2-1 reverse which saw Albion crash out of the League Cup at the first hurdle. Chances don’t tend to come much easier than the one Zohore squandered in the league fixture, but the Danish international must have been cursing his luck when he saw an unmarked Austin nod into an empty net from one yard out just 9 minutes into his Albion career.

So, what can Albion fans expect from the trip to Luton? West Brom travel to Kenilworth Road boasting the league highest average possession figures from the opening two matches of the Championship season and will -obviously- be up against a side who like to play their way out from the back. Expect Albion to buzz around with intensity against a Luton side who will look to beat the press in the shape of Krovinovic, Edwards, Phillips and probably league debutant Charlie Austin. Much like with the chance Zohore missed against Milwall, if Krovinovic wins the ball high up the pitch, he could thread a killer pass to Austin, who will be looking to get up and running for the season. At the other end of the pitch, Semi Ajayi and Kyle Bartley, who has made more passes than any other player in the league in the first two games (no, seriously), will have their work cut out keeping Luton’s James Collins quiet, something League One defences struggled to do last season as Collins netted 25 times for the Hatters. Add to this the fact that Luton have already scored a league-best 3 goals from set pieces and it looks certain to be a sterner defensive test than against a toothless Nottingham Forest and a resolute Milwall side, where lapses in concentration led to goals in both games. BTTS would have landed in each of Albion and Luton’s first two games this season, so that looks a safe bet to me. I’ll optimistically predict a 2-1 win for Albion and a goal for new boy Charlie Austin. No doubt the guarantee of goals and a reunion with Graeme Jones will ensure the travelling Baggies enjoy Luton away…