Monday night sees Albion make the short journey to North Staffordshire, where a managerless (at the time of writing) Stoke City await. After playing Middlesbrough and Barnsley in October, the fixture against the Potters will mean Albion have played all of the bottom 3 in their last 4 games. Matches between the Baggies and Stoke City often take on a derby-like atmosphere, with the customary terrace goading and gloating amped up a notch or two. Stoke fans revelled in a period of head-to-head dominance which lasted longer than most Baggies will care to think about – 1 league win in 25 years, by the way. However in recent years the balance has shifted in favour of the West Midlands club. There will be plenty of subplot, but the fact of the matter is that this is the second time in 13 days that Bilic’s side has played a team in 24th position without a manager and failure to win again would be bitterly disappointing for a side with promotion ambitions. Here are 4 talking points ahead of Stoke vs WBA…
1 – Is it a rivalry?
In the social media age, many football seem reluctant to admit to any semblance of rivalry. It is now seemingly easier to feign indifference rather than entertain the prospect of a rivalry between two clubs, perhaps through fear of a barrage of ‘obsessed!’ replies in your mentions. Either way, the question of rivalry between the Potters and the Baggies is a genuine one, to which fans offer differing answers. A lack of close proximity means that it certainly can’t be considered a derby, but it is worth remembering that a large number of Albion fans live and work in Staffordshire, which puts bragging rights firmly on the table. The aforementioned on-field records create an edge of their own, even if the dulcet tones of ‘We always beat West Brom’ don’t emanate from the Boothen End with the same conviction that they once did. Names like Peter Odemwingie, James McClean and Saido Berahino have added spice to the occasion in recent years, not to mention a certain baseball-capped stalwart who has donned the tracksuit of both clubs. Additionally, the 17 year wait for a Potteries derby for Stoke and games against Wolves and Villa being at a premium in recent years for Albion contribute to the occasion, with regular WBA vs Stoke fixtures filling the void to some extent. One more quick point on the context of the match, before I drift into ‘obsessed!’ territory: Consider the fixtures against other midlands clubs from an Albion perspective. Do games against Derby or Forest catch your eye when the fixture list is announced? Do you take greater satisfaction in beating them than you would any other fixture? If you said no, now swap those teams for Stoke and ask yourself the same question. It does matter that little bit more and it is a rivalry (of sorts).
2 – Desperate times…
The cat is finally out of the bag, Nathan Jones miserable 9 month stint in the Potteries is over. There were promising signs for the Welshman in that period, with some Stoke fans reluctant to blame him for the underperformance of the playing staff. Wins against Swansea and Fulham gave Jones a stay of execution, but ultimately the Stoke hierarchy grew tired of a playoff chase in the xG table and acknowledged a relegation fight in the real one. At the time of writing, Stoke have yet to appoint a manager, with a number of suitors lined up, but the name on the top of the pile seems to be Preston’s Alex Neil. Conflicting reports are doing the rounds, detailing a game of managerial cat and mouse, the like of which Neil has played before – right Albion fans? Whether it results in the Scot swapping high-flying Preston for basement club Stoke or maybe even another contract extension, this is a decision that Stoke simply cannot afford to get wrong, in more ways than one. In footballing terms, the new manager will not be afforded the same grace period that Nathan Jones enjoyed (endured?) last season, Stoke need the appointment to have an immediate effect and they must put points on the board as a matter of urgency. Relegation is now a serious threat for the Staffordshire club, who have adopted a transfer policy designed for leaving the Championship through the ceiling rather than the trap door. The way Stoke City has been run as a football club since relegation is simply not sustainable without the success to support it, therefore the importance of this appointment cannot be overstated. A third-coming of Tony Pulis has been suggested by some, given his record of steadying sinking ships- but Stoke fans know the negative effects of appointing Pulis as well as Albion fans do. Both clubs picked up unattractive, anti-football tags which have lingered long after the Welshman’s departure. It could also be argued that both clubs owe the downward trajectory they have been on in recent years to trying to shake that Pulis hangover with ‘attacking’ managerial appointments – see Mark Hughes and Alan Pardew. Would Pulis guarantee survival? Almost certainly. Would it be the most popular decision? Certainly not.
3 – Strength in depth.
Slaven Bilic confirmed this week that Gareth Barry is edging closer to resigning for the Baggies, which would add some experience to the squad. This, however, has led to some Albion fans on social media – which admittedly does favour the sensational hot-take- to question whether it’s a signing that needs to be made. You can understand the logic, we look much fresher in midfield this season and he isn’t getting any younger, therefore it could be seen as a backwards step. However the formidable pairing of Livermore and Sawyers will be split up at some point. Sawyers is just one yellow card away from suspension, while Livermore has also picked up three bookings this season. As the games begin to mount up over Christmas, too, both midfielders will need a rest, not to mention the threat of injury which is only ever one poor challenge away- not that anyone ever gets near Romaine Sawyers. It is also true that Chris Brunt, Rekeem Harper and Semi Ajayi all offer cover in central midfield, but whether or not any of those covering midfielders could perform to the level to which Gareth Barry consistently does remains to be seen. Two areas of the pitch which have stood out for Albion this season are the full back positions and the 3 attackers behind the striker. It could be purely coincidental that these are also the positions with the most competition for places. But it might not be. The veteran would also add another dimension to Albion’s midfield, his inclusion would give Sawyers less defensive responsibility, or even allow Albion to alter the formation to a 433 if it were needed. Signing Barry and adding more cover centrally makes perfect sense.
4- Not the hero we deserve…
Much has been made of the underperformance of Albion’s strikers this season, with summer signings Austin and Zohore recording just one goal from open play between them. An unlikely hero has emerged from the shadows in recent weeks: Hal Robson-Kanu. The Welshman is often accused of ‘making a career’ of his Euro 2016 goal but his contribution, which is often off the bench, to Albion has perhaps gone under the radar at times. He enjoys a cult-hero reputation, but is also heavily criticised at times by some Albion fans. He has provided understated support for the likes of Rondon, Gayle, and Rodriguez, but now he is making a claim for a starting berth, maybe more convincingly than previous times during his Albion career. Robson-Kanu has always done a job for want of a better phrase, but two goals in his last three appearances (all off the bench) may have given Bilic a selection headache. The Albion head coach has been quick to defend Charlie Austin’s overall performances this season, even though the goals haven’t flowed for the former Southampton man. However goals win games and Hal Robson-Kanu may be a more reliable source of them at the moment. Some of Austin’s link-up play has been excellent, but he is not burying the chances that you expect a (once) clinical poacher to. Charlie Austin himself has praised the competition for places up front this season, claiming it spurs him to improve his own performance levels, but it now needs to spur him to score goals, as Albion simply cannot keep relying on the outstanding performances of Diangana, Pereira and Phillips.
The two midlands clubs have walked similar paths in recent years, sharing promotion in 2008, enjoying long Premier League stays, bearing the brunt of anti-football criticism under Tony Pulis, and being relegated in 2018. However since that relegation the paths of the clubs have diverged severely. Monday night presents an opportunity for Bilic’s Albion side to demonstrate the difference between where the two clubs are at this point in time. Albion are looking to regain top spot after initially losing it to Leeds on Saturday afternoon. To do so, Albion must be ruthless against the division’s bottom club on Monday night, something they have not been this season. I’ll predict a 2-0 win Albion against a Stoke side who are in total disarray.