4 Talking Points ahead of Hull vs WBA

Graphic by @RobPaddockWBA (Twitter)

We are now a third of the way through the Championship season and all is good at B71. Slaven Bilic’s West Brom side sit atop the tree, boasting a points per game ratio of exactly 2.0, which is bonafide promotion form. With just one more game until the final international break for 3 months, Albion have still lost just once this season, however a Hull City team who swept Fulham aside at the weekend will hope to double the number in the Albion losses column. Here are 4 talking points ahead of Hull City vs WBA…

1- The real deal?
There were four different leaders of the Championship over the course of Gameweek 15, with Swansea, Leeds and then Preston enjoying brief stays at the summit, before Albion returned to where they began the weekend. The congestion in the upper echelons of the league table naturally raises questions over who might be the real deal and who is just along for the ride, like Albion ultimately were last season. Bilic’s team have impressed fans and neutrals alike with their approach and success over the course of the opening 15 fixtures, during which they have lost just once. The question still applies, of course, to Albion; are they champions elect or pretenders to the crown? The coming weeks will go a long way to answering this.

The trip to the KCOM is the last fixture before the final international break of 2019, which signifies a real change of pace in the Championship season. Recently, the fixture list has been kind to Albion, with their last 6 games being against 5 bottom half teams and 10th placed Charlton, who are still finding their feet following promotion. However, following the international break, some very testing fixtures begin to pile up. Albion first welcome Sheffield Wednesday, who sit just a point outside of the playoffs, before games against Bristol City, Preston and Swansea in the space of 10 days. These three sides all currently occupy a top 6 place and will be looking to this game against Albion as an opportunity to lay down a marker in their own right. An always difficult trip to Wigan then precedes the closest thing to a derby that Albion have this season at St Andrews, which will lead us nicely into the relentless festive period. Periods like this are why the Championship is often referred to as the most difficult league in the world, but they are also why it is the most exciting. Therefore 3 points before the international break would be invaluable, but Albion travel to a Hull City side who are bang in-form.

2 – Tigers on the prowl…
After winning just one of their opening 7 league fixtures, Grant McCann’s Hull side have taken 16 points from their last 8 games, equating to that golden two points per game ratio. Their league position (11th) may not flatter them but a run of three consecutive wins is testament to how dangerous this Hull side are. The most recent of those wins was courtesy of an impressive away victory at Fulham. The Tigers were clinical in a 3-0 win, which was also the first time any team has stopped Fulham from scoring at Craven Cottage this season. Hull managed just 25% of possession, which may suggest they were not good value for their win, however it was simply the case that Hull were comfortable to let a toothless Fulham side keep the ball. McCann’s side limited Scott Parker’s to just one shot on target throughout the game and scored thrice from their 5 shots on target, including one of the funniest goals you will see all season from Tom Eaves. There is nothing funny about the prospect of playing this Hull team at the moment, though.

The Fulham game was preceded by victories against Nottingham Forest and Derby, and there are not many teams in the division, if any, who would collect 9 points from those 3 games. Hull have averaged just 32% possession over the course of those three wins and with much of Albion’s approach this season built around ball retention, the hosts will not change their game plan. The onus will therefore fall upon a number of Albion players to stand out. Firstly, the wonderful trio behind the striker will have to be creative and clinical, which they usually are, to be fair. But given how much of the ball Albion are likely to have, the most important player on the pitch, as he so often is, will be Romaine Sawyers.

3- The Sawyers Effect
Sawyers himself described his playing style as marmite in an interview with the club this week, but from a fan’s perspective you can’t help but wonder what’s not to love? It is so rare that a player turns out in Albion blue and white with such elegance, intelligence and confidence on the ball. During a man of the match display against Stoke, Romaine Sawyers completed 86 passes. For context, that was twice as many as the next best Albion player (Livermore) and three times as many as Stoke’s most prominent passer in Cameron Carter-Vickers (28), who by the way, was extremely fortunate to not see red for his challenge on Grady Diangana. Romaine Sawyers is the metronome to this Albion team, which, for all its flair, relies on the rhythm he provides. If Diangana and Pereira are the keys which unlock opposition defences, Sawyers is the locksmith, carefully planning and enabling wave after wave of Albion approach play. There are plenty of players who can make dozens of passes per game in the Championship, but it is the air of careless inevitability with which Sawyers makes his which sets him apart from his peers.

The St Kitts and Nevis international was likened to Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric in commentary during the victory at Stoke for his willingness to receive the ball and make a positive impact in any position and at any stage in the game, which is an apt comparison to make. There is another way in which Sawyers is like Luka Modric too. You may remember Modric was once referred to as a 5-a-side player by a Sky pundit during the build up to the 2014 Champions League final. Fast forward 5 years and Modric has 4 Champions League winners medals and a World Cup final appearance as well as that Ballon d’Or, highlighting the naivety behind that particular comment. However in the role that Luka Modric and Sawyers play you are bound to be underappreciated. Neither player consistently scores goals, nor do they post Kevin De Bruyne assist numbers, but they are vital to the flow of a team. Although not on the same level as Modric, Romaine Sawyers is underappreciated in the same way the Croatian once was, and sooner or later he will be playing at a higher level, whether that is with Albion or not. The current Albion side is a symbol of reinvention, the beginning of a new cycle in which the club is finally regaining its identity as an exciting, positive force after a total disassociation from these core values in recent years. It is therefore fitting that the heartbeat and driving force of this side is one of our own – an Albion fan.

4 – Jared Bowen
In the last eight games, Hull City’s total of 16 points is only bettered by one team (Albion), which shows the dramatic upturn in form for the Tigers. The fact that Hull have also scored 23 goals this season, which is the second highest outside of the top 6, should be a warning to Albion’s leaky defence. One of the principal reasons for Hull’s proficiency in front of goal is danger man Jared Bowen, who notched 22 times last season. A total of 9 players scored 22 or more goals in the 2018/19 season; Pukki, Maupay, Abraham, Sharp, Rodriguez, Gayle, McBurnie, Adams and Bowen. The eagle-eyed reader will notice that 8 of these 9 players have, for one reason or another, moved on to play in the Premier League. This makes Jared Bowen the highest scoring player from last season remaining in the Championship and when you consider that the next best was Forest’s Lewis Grabban with 16 goals, it is truly staggering that Bowen is still playing Championship football. His influence also cannot be understated this season, the Englishman has played every league minute for the Tigers on the way to helping himself to 9 goals and 2 assists. This equates to direct involvement in 47% of his team’s goals.

Beating Hull City is not as simple as: stop Jared Bowen = win the game. Standout performers include Kamil Grosicki, who has played 72 times for Poland and 20 year old Leonardo da Silva Lopes, who has completed 90 minutes in all 3 of Hull’s impressive recent wins against promotion hopefuls, having previously only done so once this season. That said, if you can limit the effect that Jared Bowen has on the game, you can significantly limit Hull City’s overall effectiveness. Albion’s defence has looked much more assured on the road in recent weeks, but Bartley and Ajayi will require the kind of performance that shut out Wells and Hugill at QPR and Mitrovic at Fulham if they are to return south with a clean sheet.

So will the away end be boing-boinging or will they be mauled by the Tigers? This game has the potential to be a goal fest, with two of the most free-scoring outfits in the division colliding, however Albion’s approach away from home is far less expansive than at the Hawthorns. Albion’s away games have seen half as many goals as their home fixtures and you get the impression that Slaven Bilic is determined to make his side into one that is very difficult to beat on the road. With this in mind, Albion will be looking to keep the ball for as long as possible and restrict Hull City’s threat on the counter attack. It is important to point out that both Sawyers and Livermore are one yellow card away from suspension and this may not be the worst game in the world to pick up a cynical yellow for stopping a counter attack. It would spell suspension against Sheffield Wednesday, but may be worth it if Bowen and Grosicki are breaking at speed. It would also liberate them somewhat for the massive Bristol City, Preston and Swansea games. I expect Albion to keep it tight, but both teams tend to score when either of these two teams play, so I’ll predict a 2-1 win for the Baggies.


4 Talking Points ahead of Stoke vs WBA

Graphic by @RobPaddockWBA

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…

1Is 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.

4 Talking Points ahead of WBA vs Barnsley

1- Winning ugly?
Albion consolidated their table-topping form with a 1-0 win at the Riverside on Saturday afternoon, but the general consensus following the game seemed to be that the Boro were unlucky not to get something from the game. Woodgate’s men had chances at 0-0 and really should have taken the lead, but Albion showed that if you don’t take your chances against them you will be punished. Albion weren’t at their best, which may have had something to do with Pereira starting on the wing, rather than in the number 10 role he has impressed in. However a glance at some of the stats tell you that Albion were good value for their three points. Albion enjoyed 67%(!) of the ball, recorded more shots inside the box (15) than any team in the division, and only QPR registered a higher xG figure than them (2.7). Romaine Sawyers was at his best too, effortlessly controlling the game and managing to complete more passes (83) than Boro’s entire midfield 5 combined (81). If these are the stats of a team who were not at their best on the day then you would be inclined to agree with Jonathon Woodgate’s post match claim that Albion will certainly be playing Premier League football next season.

2 – What a difference a year makes…
To the neutral it may look like not much has changed at the Hawthorns since this time last season; Albion are just one point better off, still scoring goals freely and struggling to keep them out at the other end. If you ask any Albion fan, though, the football is far more convincing and the league position justified, however last season some sublime attacking talent papered over some ultimately costly cracks. If there is a statistic that best highlights the balance to this side it is that 13 different players have scored for the Baggies in the opening 12 league games. The fact that 8 of the starting 11 on Saturday have all made their Albion debuts this season demonstrates the significant change which has taken place. However what perhaps show the difference between this season and last most effectively are the performances of the other 3 players in that starting 11; Sam Johnstone, Kyle Bartley and Jake Livermore. The Englishmen were singled out as underperformers at times last season, and whether or not it was justified, they were so often the scapegoats after poor performances. Think back to Livermore’s red card at Wigan, Bartley giving the ball away in the final third at… well, everywhere, and a number of costly Sam Johstone errors. While questions are still raised of them now and again, they each look like a different player this season. Johnstone, who has made nmore saves than any other goalkeeper in the league this season, turned in yet another convincing display, earning his second clean sheet in 3 away games at Boro. Kyle Bartley also looks far more at ease in a back 4 and a much leaner Jake Livermore has formed a formidable midfield partnership with Romaine Sawyers.

3- How the other half live…
On paper fixtures do not get more one-sided than Albion vs Barnsley. The Baggies are sitting pretty at the top of the table which is propped up by the South Yorkshire outfit. The two teams are perfectly contrasted not only in league position but also in terms of season results thus far; 7 wins, 4 draws and 1 defeat for Albion is mirrored by Barnsley’s return of 1 win, 4 draws and 7 losses. Barnsley have also scored less and conceded more goals than any other side in the league, which is a recipe for failure, if ever you needed one. Barnsley have recorded 13.2 shots per game, which only 7 teams can better, but the Tykes have failed to score in 5 of their 12 games, registering league-low average of 0.8 goals per game. So why is it that they seem to pose a reasonable threat with very poor output? Are they too trigger happy? Do they lack the quality to finish the chances? Are they just getting unlucky? The man tasked with working that out and turning a corner, at least for now, following the sacking of Daniel Stendel is caretaker boss Adam Murray. Albion themselves know the positive effect the appointment of a caretaker manager can have after the (moderate) success James Shan found at the back end of last season. Murray will be looking to build on the point Barnsley picked up against Swansea at the weekend by providing another upset. An unlikely win would lift the Tykes off the bottom of the table but Slaven Bilic does not seem like the kind of manager to take kindly to complacency, so expect a typically strong showing from Albion.

4- The fixture list
Having now travelled away to Leeds, Forest, Derby, Fulham, and QPR, as well as having hosted two of the relegated sides, Albion now begin a marginally kinder mini-run of fixtures that they have to make the most of. Their next four games are Barnsley, Charlton, Hull and Stoke. They aren’t easy games by any stretch of the imagination, particularly with Charlton exceeding expectations and Stoke possibly turning a corner under Nathan Jones, but they are the kind of games you have to look to be winning if you have automatic promotion ambitions. If the Baggies could pick up, say 8 or 9 points from this run of fixtures then they would still be in a strong position heading into the final international break of the year and subsequently a testing 14 day period where they play Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol City, Preston and Swansea. With those fixtures on the horizon, Albion may have to consolidate their league position somewhat before that point. Bilic could make one or two changes to his front four, but I would expect Albion to have too much for Barnsley going forward so I’ll predict 3-0 to the Baggies.

Possible XI vs Barnsley

3 Talking Points ahead of WBA vs Cardiff

As the dust settles from a heavyweight clash at Elland Road, the conveyor belt that is the Championship fixture list throws another tough match Albion’s way. The last time these two sides met it was in the Premier League, half a decade ago. It may have been a while ago but the match lives long in the memory. You know the one- the Pepe Mel days, that Amalfitano goal, Albion scoring a late winner, only for Cardiff to score an even later equaliser, the dressing room incident between Morrison and Berahino…yeah, that’s the one. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge of the Bluebirds that day, wonder what he’s up to now?

1 – Now is the time for character.
Albion’s unbeaten start is over, they do bleed after all. The Baggies earned plaudits for what was a very assured second half performance against a strong Leeds side, but that loss meant that Albion’s first visit to the summit of the Championship lasted just 3 days. Many people praised the character of this Slaven Bilic side during the 9 game unbeaten run in which they gained 15 points from losing positions. That, of course, takes character, but you may question how many of those salvaged points could be attributed to riding the crest of the unbeaten wave? When one wave crashes, it is inevitably followed by another and if you don’t refocus, this league will wash you up. The true character of this side will not be judged on how it responds to falling behind in games, but rather how it responds to disappointment in the context of the season. Losing to a promotion rival on Tuesday night was bitterly disappointing, but Albion fans will now be intrigued to see what the immediate response is.

2- Cardiff going under the radar?
With two losses in their first three games, Cardiff began their season at the wrong end of the table. An unbeaten run of 7 games since that point, including an unbeaten September, has steadied the ship in South Wales and the Bluebirds now find themselves just 2 points outside the playoff positions. Cardiff were amongst the preseason favourites for automatic promotion following their minimum 38 game stay in the top flight. Despite relegation at the first time of asking, Cardiff impressed at times last season, with pundits eating their words after pencilling Cardiff into 20th spot before a ball was kicked. It was an uphill struggle throughout the season and ultimately the Premier League was a bridge too far. The 2017-18 Championship runners-up fell short last season, but once again find themselves in a division they are better equipped for, which is cause for optimism. The primary source of optimism for Cardiff fans, however, is the manager. Neil Warnock.

3 – Warm Welcome for Warnock?
Cardiff’s early season form this season has been largely positive, with 4 wins, 4 draws and two losses, totalling 16 points. This form is in stark contrast to the beginning of last season, when the Bluebirds picked up just 5 points from their opening 10 games. When many clubs would have pressed the reset button, Cardiff decided Warnock was the best man for the job. The veteran manager, who is now firmly in the twilight of his career, also received a vote of confidence following relegation- and why wouldn’t he? Warnock’s EFL record speaks for itself and there is no manager who boasts more promotions (8) in English football. The Yorkshireman, however, is not a popular figure at the Hawthorns. Most Albion fans will not need reminding, but some younger Baggies will not remember the Battle of Brammal Lane. It is in infamous afternoon that saw Warnock’s Sheffield United side unable to finish the Division One match due to having less than 7 players on the field. Ultimately West Brom were awarded a 3-0 win and Sheffield United received a £10,000 fine. To this day questions are still raised over how the game ended, with many people questioning Warnock’s potential role in the Blades’ lack of players- particularly when Michael Brown and Robert Ullathorne limped off in the 77th and 82nd minutes respectively. Albion started that match 11 points behind leaders Wolves, with 8 games to go- but ended up securing promotion behind champions Manchester City. While it started an Albion surge towards the finish line in the 2001/2002 season, 16th March 2001 is not a day which is fondly remembered at the Hawthorns and the same can be said for Neil Warnock.

Cardiff will harbour hopes of a promotion push, but their current problem is glaringly obvious. 13 points from a possible 15 at home is a league-high and is certainly promotion form, however the Bluebirds are yet to win on the road. Two losses and three draws on their travels is more like relegation form, with just 4 teams collecting less points away from home. While Albion lost midweek at Elland Road, they do still boast an unbeaten home record for the campaign. The Baggies have been beaten at home just twice this calendar year and there few places more difficult to pick up your first away win of the season than the Hawthorns. Bilic will be hoping his side bounce back formidably on Saturday, in what is their first Saturday 3pm kick off since August. I expect Albion to show their character and record their third home win of the season against a Cardiff side who don’t travel well. 3-1 Albion, a fresh Charlie Austin to score first.

5 Talking Points ahead of Leeds vs WBA

A Championship season is defined by how a team handles the big occasions, the big tests. In the second half of last season Albion failed to handle them; Sheffield United at home, Villa in the playoffs and spectacularly Leeds away. Leeds -Bielsa’s Leeds- away is the test these days the second tier, the benchmark, if you like. This is not to say they will win the league, nor is it to say they are unbeatable, but if you ask any Championship fan if they would ‘take a point’ at Elland Road almost every single one would say yes. That speaks volumes about the animal that Bielsa has created in his first 16 months in English football. Coming through games against Derby, Fulham and QPR unscathed has been a good barometer of Albion’s realistic ambitions this season, but Slaven Biliç would have had this Leeds game circled on the calendar from the moment the fixtures were announced. With Albion unbeaten and sitting pretty at the top of the tree and Leeds still huge favourites for the title, games don’t usually come this big less than a quarter of the way through a season.

1 – Bielsa vs Biliç
Loco Bielsa vs the Rockstar. If I told you that two managers with experience of managing at major international tournaments were locking horns on a Tuesday night you would be forgiven for assuming it was a Champions League game. That says all you need to know about the quality and magnitude of the Championship nowadays. Gone are the days when success in the Championship was attributed exclusively to British managers and long-ball football is now far more difficult to find at Championship grounds. Bielsa and Biliç embody the shift in culture in the division in the same way that Farke, Nuno Espirito Santo and Jokanovic have in the past. Both will be hoping that next year’s fixture list will pit them against one another in the Premier League and it is a distinct possibility.

2 – The best is yet to come
There is a feeling that although the table makes for excellent reading from an Albion point of view, there is still room for improvement in terms of performance levels. Conversely, while Leeds have posted (comfortably) the best underlying numbers in the division, they have failed to convert their dominance into points, particularly in recent losses to Swansea and Charlton. Both teams are still finding their feet in the context of this season; I have no doubt that they will both improve and they will look to this game to kick-start that. A win for either side would be a statement win, the kind of victory on which good form can be built (see Albion post-Leeds 4-1 last season).

3– They can’t both have the ball
The hallmark of both of these sides has been to keep the ball and dictate the pattern of play. It goes without saying though, that something has to give when they come up against one another. The midfield battle will be fascinating, with Romaine Sawyers facing what will be his toughest test yet in terms of finding time and space to dictate the game the way he usually does. But the Albion fan turned Albion hero can take confidence from the fact Leeds themselves were reportedly so impressed with his displays for Brentford last season that they tried to sign him in the summer. Albion fans will have breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing that Pablo Hernandez, the man who scored inside the first minute in this fixture last season, has been ruled out by injury. That said, regardless of personnel, Leeds will move the ball quicker than any side in the division and that could expose a midfield two of Sawyers and Livermore, even if the latter does look noticeably more mobile this season. This will put an onus on Matheus Pereira to work hard defensively, something that isn’t one of his primary attributes.

4- Come of age test for Fergie
It’s no secret that Marcelo Bielsa leaves no stone unturned when scouting the opposition, which ruffled a few feathers during his first season in the Championship, to say the least. He won’t have to turn many stones to find one particular aspect of this Albion team he will be looking to exploit. We have an 18 year old centre-back, turned right-back, turned left-back playing week in week out on Sky Sports. Despite being mightily impressive, you can fully expect this to be Nathan Ferguson’s toughest test yet in an Albion shirt, up against Helder Costa and Stuart Dallas down the Leeds right hand side. While a strong performance against Leeds may be a coming of age moment for him, this game certainly isn’t make or break for the young defender – far from it – with Ferguson being possibly the standout performer for Albion this season. However if he repeats his recent performance levels he can add Bielsa to his ever-growing list of admirers. Fergie made a rare journey towards the opposition penalty area against QPR on Saturday, scoring his first Albion goal in doing so, but he may find himself having to exclusively show his defensive skills, which have been immaculate thus far, on Tuesday night.

5 – Just as big for Leeds
Leeds might be the benchmark for the division and Tuesday night will be the acid test for Albion’s automatic ambitions, but this game is huge for the hosts. Leeds have hit a mini-slump in form, with one win in their last 4 games. Leeds made a habit of losing in bursts last season, which ultimately cost them automatic promotion. The West Yorkshire outfit lost 4 in 7 games in early 2019 and then 5 of their last 9 to limp towards third place. The obsessive Bielsa will be fully aware of this and will look to nip it in the bud this season. In addition, the Argentine will want a performance that backs up the numbers and acclaim Leeds have received this season. Leeds United haven’t won any of the 3 matches they’ve played against the current top 6 this season, so they will be desperate to show how good they truly are against the league leaders.

While the 10th game of a 46 game season decides almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, Tuesday night will be a spectacle. The best the EFL has to offer. Led by two renowned coaches. Under the lights. It’s not quite worth £39 a ticket (I had to mention it) but it’s not far off to be fair. It’s difficult to see one team running away with it like Albion did last November and Leeds did in March, so I’ll predict 1-1, which I think most fans of both teams would settle for.

Albion to cement lofty ambitions at Loftus Road?

London calls for the Baggies for the second time in as many away games. Albion will be looking to extend their record as the only unbeaten side in the division against a QPR side who are bang in-form. The R’s are level on points with Albion, behind only on goal difference. Every season there are teams who nobody tips that end up in the top 6 and there are early signs that QPR could be one of those teams. Both fixtures against QPR last year are among the more memorable of Darren Moore’s short tenure at the Hawthorns. The 7-1 last August which announced Albion as free-scoring promotion contenders was Moore’s first home win, while the the 3-2 at Loftus Road was to be his last victory as Albion head coach. While the former may live longer in the memory, the latter was a much better game of football, which saw Jake Livermore strike decisively at the death.

This season, however, QPR are a different animal. The appointment of former Brentford and Rangers boss Mark Warburton has seen a change in fortune for last season’s 19th placed team. Despite tasting defeat twice, the West London outfit have amassed as many points as their unbeaten opponents, thanks in no small part to a four game winning run that they are still on. A team that keep winning against a team that won’t lose, something has to give and one record will end on Saturday lunchtime. While Albion have not exactly been an immovable object at times this season, QPR have certainly been an irresistible force, courtesy of a lethal strike partnership and the promising Eberechi Eze in midfield.

21 year old Eze has impressed with silky dribbling in the final third and 3 goals in his first 8 this season, just one shy of his total during the last campaign. If you somehow didn’t see it, go and find his goal against Stoke from the opening day and you will see the danger he poses. No player has scored more goals this season than QPR strikers Nakhi Wells and Jordan Hugill (5 each) and only Albion themselves have scored more times than their hosts. The attacking trio have had a monopoly on goals for the R’s this season, with Eze, Hugill and Wells accounting for 93% of their goals.

QPR have, of course, been impressive thus far but the 5 wins they have amassed have all come against teams who are currently in the bottom half, including a faltering Stoke side and Wigan, who frankly everyone beats at home. The onus is therefore on Albion to show they are a cut above those pushing for the playoff places with victory at Loftus Road, which would take them to the top of the tree, at least for a while. The (recent) historians among the Albion fan base will remember lifting the title at Loftus Road in 2007/08 after a 2-0 win to hold off Stoke in second place. A win on Saturday wouldn’t be quite that significant but taking top spot for a while would be quite a statement heading into what would be a mouth-watering clash at Elland Road in midweek.

Two of Albion’s goalscorers last time out in Phillips and Furlong are former QPR players, but the former QPR player who is yet to score this season will attract the most attention. Charlie Austin was lethal for QPR, where he became known to many as a second-tier hitman. Although he couldn’t find the net, Austin turned in a solid performance against Huddersfield, showing signs he might finally be getting up to speed after -by his own admission- being off the pace during the early stages of his Albion career. Ahead of a return to his old stomping-ground, Austin gave a refreshingly honest interview to Albion’s media team, in which he said he is feeding off healthy competition for places and the time has now come to show the Albion fans who the ‘real’ Charlie Austin is. Albion’s number 15 spoke of very highly of his new teammates insisting that although they were pleased with the start, they have not yet shown the form they are capable of.

With neither side managing to keep a clean sheet this season and Albion (3.13) and QPR (3.25) games featuring considerably more goals per game than the league average (2.46), goals are almost guaranteed. Albion will be desperate for that elusive first clean sheet, but you wouldn’t bet on it coming this weekend. Once again, as with every Albion game this season, BTTS looks to be a certainty. With both teams vying for the chance to end the game in top spot you can expect a hard-fought encounter, but I think Albion will have too much for the R’s defence and I’ll predict 3-1, with Charlie Austin to score against his former employers.

Predicted XI vs QPR

Time to kick on…

One side unbeaten. The other looking for their first victory of the season. A formality, right? You would be forgiven for assuming as much, but change is inevitably accompanied by hope. A Huddersfield team armed with a clean slate, low expectations and the intangible allure of the new manager bounce is not to be taken lightly. The Baggies welcome winless Huddersfield on Sunday afternoon, a team with whom Albion have an awful lot in common. Blue and white striped kit? Check. New era underway following boardroom changes? Check. Ill-fated relegation following a mid-season managerial departure and thoroughly regrettable appointment? Check. It is, however, another parallel which catches the eye ahead this week’s edition of Albion Month on Sky Sports. Interest in the Cowleys.

It is no secret that the Danny and younger brother Nicky Cowley were among the names considered for the vacant managerial post at the Hawthorns this summer. Of course, the move across the Midlands never materialised. Albion opted for Bilic, making older Cowley and Lincoln City head coach Danny a shoo-in following an early season managerial casualty. Some questioned whether the Albion job would be too much too soon for the brothers, and social media critics have been quick to profess their new job is also too big for them, drawing unfounded comparisons to Nathan Jones’ situation at Stoke (which is a topic for another day). The important thing is that the Huddersfield hierarchy believe they have their man (men), but there is no denying the magnitude of their task. The Cowleys inherit a side with just two wins in 10 months (both against Wolves), with a genuine ‘stop the rot’ brief. An indicator of just how poorly things are going in South Yorkshire that, amazingly, just 8 games into the season, Huddersfield have already managed to lose on every day of the week but Thursday – no prizes for guessing why not. Danny Cowley was quick to curb expectations at the John Smith’s Stadium, using his first press conference to reaffirm that their ambition is to secure survival, but what will he bring to the table and what can we expect from Huddersfield?

If their time at Lincoln is anything to go by, expect Huddersfield to be well-drilled and defensively solid. The Cowleys’ Lincoln side boasted the second best defensive record in the league, as one of just two sides to concede less than 1 goal per game on the way to amassing 85 points. Their record would have made for even better reading were it not for an end of season lapse in form which saw them fail to win any of their last 5 fixtures, after the title had realistically already been decided. With the January transfer window far, far in the distance, the onus will fall on the likes of fan favourite Christopher Schindler, former Villa man Tommy Elphick and promising young goalkeeper Kamil Grabara to deliver the solidity that the Terriers have been lacking. While the Cowleys will be looking forward to bringing in reinforcements in January, it’s important to note that this is not exactly a team bereft of talent. Alex Pritchard, Fraizer Campbell and Karlan Grant in particular would not look out of place in a top 6 side and even bottom half Premier League teams. One of Huddersfield’s (many) problems is they simply do not score enough goals- and when they do it’s only ever Karlan Grant. If the Cowleys can keep Grant firing and lighten his load by sharing the goals around the team, this Huddersfield side should have more than enough to distance themselves from the relegation zone.

Albion will be looking to extend Hudderfield’s worst ever start to a season and their own fine start. Despite being largely outplayed at Craven Cottage, the Baggies’ unbeaten run continued and the table makes for pleasant reading, with Albion occupying a playoff position, which, admit it, you would have taken before Bilic’s tenure. Up to this point, Albion’s moderate success has been built on character, willingness and tactical flexibility when they have fallen behind. Albion have taken a league-high 12 points from losing positions, falling behind in 6 of their opening 7 fixtures, which demonstrates belief in their ability if nothing else. This habit may be one Albion are looking to shake, but what Huddersfield wouldn’t give for a win from behind – something they haven’t managed in 991 days heading into Sunday since a 3-2 win against Preston in April 2017.

As exciting as it is to be the last team standing, there comes a time when you have to lay down a marker and announce yourself as promotion contenders. There’s no time like the present. With the Fulham game beginning a run of four consecutive appearances in front of the nation on Sky Sports, this is a perfect opportunity to show the rest of the league what Albion are about, as it were. The best way to do so would be to to pick up a statement win, put three or four past a struggling side and keep a clean sheet. The Blackburn game threatened to make this statement, but lapses in concentration meant the scoreline flattered the away side. New manager or not, this is a Huddersfield side bereft of confidence and is exactly the kind of team you must chew up and spit out at home if you are to be promoted automatically. Points picked up against the likes of Huddersfield are pivotal. When Albion were relegated two seasons ago, frustrating home and away losses to David Wagner’s side not only blackened the dark clouds over the Hawthorns, but mathematically speaking they made all the difference. The Terriers stayed up, finishing – you guessed it – 6 points above Albion.

With Hegazi rumoured to be in the final stages of recovery, there will be an unspoken pressure on Albion’s mainstay centre-back pairing of Bartley and Ajayi, who are yet to keep a clean sheet. Despite some strong individual performances from each of them, as a partnership they have been rough around the edges. Maybe the imminent return of the Nesta of the Pyramids will be the motivation Bartley and Ajayi need to finally keep a clean sheet. You do have to say, though, that both centre backs were outstanding against Fulham and kept Mitrovic very quiet. But for a Matt Phillips-esque cross-cum-shot from Anthony Knockaert, they would have had that elusive clean sheet.

Right ok, shall we address the elephant in the room? Charlie Austin is miles off the pace. Whether it be arriving too late to get on the end of a cross or not sorting his feet out, the former Southampton man has not exactly impressed thus far. It is plain to see why this is a man with just 2 goals (yes, two) in his last 31 league appearances. While Zohore has his critics, he will be ready to pounce if Austin doesn’t get up and running very soon. The number 9, in terms of squad number, must be watching Austin and wondering what all the fuss is about, as are many Albion fans. That being said, we are repeatedly told that Bilic’s nominal number 9 has the prowess to find a good run of form from nowhere so let’s hope that is the case. Austin will be seeing Huddersfield at home as the perfect game to get up and running for the season, something that would help Albion’s promotion hopes no end.

The Baggies could find themselves as low as 11th by the time they kick off on Sunday lunchtime and as high as an unlikely 1st by the final whistle. Such fine margins and an unbeaten run to protect make Albion’s fourth home game of the season perhaps the most important yet. I don’t expect this to be the comfortable statement home win Bilic’s side have been crying out for, but they should have enough to get over the line. I fancy Albion 3-1, with this incredible BTTS run continuing.

Predicted XI vs Huddersfield

Mowbray’s Rovers Return

Albion’s third home match of the campaign sees them welcome a Blackburn side who are finding their feet after starting the season with two losses. Blackburn took 4 points from Albion last season, including a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns that saw Rovers end the game with an outfielder in goal. A Craig Dawson header accompanied with a sulky non-celebration put the Baggies ahead before Albion (obviously) gave the ball away in their own final third and Harrison Reed did not spare Kyle Bartley his blushes. Criticisms that Albion didn’t test the makeshift goalkeeper enough, or weren’t direct enough that day seem to pertain now, even with new personnel and under a new manager. Last season at times it felt like our plan was get from front to back as fast as possible and trust the strikers to deliver. Crucially though, this season, while there are cries of ‘have a go’ or ‘test the keeper’, Albion are building an identity. They appear to be a very well balanced side whose only, missing component, crucially, is goals. It seems strange to question the attacking output of a side who have scored in all 6 games this season, however Kenneth Zohore penalties against Reading and Derby have papered over cracks in the final third. Albion simply aren’t penetrative enough, but with a wealth of attacking talent and such sustained possession, this should just be a matter of time.

Blackburn are settling into the season game by game, taking 7 points from their last 9, keeping three consecutive clean sheets in doing so. This may raise the eyebrows of a few Albion fans, who will be shocked to hear of a Tony Mowbray side keeping so many clean sheets. Mowbray brought an attacking flair and excitement to the Hawthorns during his tenure, but the memorable 2007/08 season in which Albion won the Championship never saw Mowbray’s side keep three consecutive clean sheets – a staggering statistic for title winners. Such defensive solidity may also surprise some after Rovers lost Charlie Mulgrew on loan to Wigan, but this has opened the door for Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams to continue a formidable centre-back partnership which has kept 7 clean sheets in 13 games.

While names like Lenihan and Williams may not jump off the team sheet, there is one man in the Blackburn ranks who every Albion fan will know the name of. Not only did Bradley Dack net the winner in a 2-1 win at Ewood Park on New Year’s Day, but every transfer window Albion fans (among many others) on social media voice a desire to sign the talented attacker. There are not many who would have suspected Dack to still be at Blackburn Rovers for at least another calendar year after that New Year’s Day goal, but a slump in form saw him score just five more league goals after that one. He has started this season much slower than last, with no goals in his first 5 league games, compared to the 3 he had at this stage of last season. Make no mistake, though, there is plenty of firepower in the Blackburn frontline. The likes of Danny Graham, Stuart Downing and Sam Gallagher are all proven at this level, even if goals have been at a premium for them so far, with Graham the only attacker to score for Blackburn this season. This solitary goal for a Rovers attacker was from the spot, something Kenneth Zohore knows all about.

The Albion number 9 got up and running for the season against Reading with a point-saving penalty, before proving lightning strikes twice with the same trick against Derby. Let’s not kid ourselves, Pereira dived to win the penalty against Derby, but what’s important is that he had forced the defender into a position where he dived in inside his penalty area. Krovinovic had played the ball to the Brazilian before he won the penalty, returning the favour for the ball Pereira played him to win the penalty against Reading. The records will show that Zohore has two in two from the spot, but watching the games will show that the combination of Krovinovic and Pereira is effective, to the point where Pereira has gone from knocking on the door to the verge of kicking it down.

One man who did not feature against Derby was Wednesday night starter Charlie Austin. What will surely go down as one of Kieran Gibbs worst afternoons in an Albion shirt meant that Albion could not roll the dice in the same way they had been in previous games, by bringing on three attackers in the second half. That will have been no doubt frustrating for Austin, who appears to just be in need of some match sharpness to reach the form everyone will be hoping for. Of course, the knock-on effect of Gibbs hobbling off after giving away Derby’s first penalty was that goalscorer Zohore remained on the pitch much later than he otherwise might have done…so thanks, Kieran.

As the inevitable murmurs of ‘can we play two up top?’ start to surface, both strikers will desperate for the nod on Saturday, before heading into the international break. Austin in particular will be itching to get off the mark, as I suspect it would feel like a long international break for the former Southampton marksman if he enters the first recess with no league goals. Despite this, I would expect Zohore to start against Blackburn and -all being well this time- Austin to feature from the bench as Bilic has shown he is fully prepared to reward good performances with appearances, see Ferguson and Diangana.

Albion will welcome a Blackburn side buoyed by victories against Boro and Hull, before a good point against Cardiff. One man who will be confident of a result will be Mowbray, who appears to be showing signs of tempering his all-out-attack approach that endeared him to so many at the Hawthorns in his first two seasons. Speaking of temper, Mowbray, like Bilic at Derby, saw red in midweek, so expect the game to be competed as fiercely on the touchline as it will be on the pitch. I think this will be the game where things start to click into place for Albion (inconveniently before the international break) and I predict Bilic’s side will record their first home win of the season with a 2-0 scoreline, with what would be the crowning moment of the early-season undefeated run. You might say, a coronation on Mowbray’s Rovers Return (sorry, I really tried not to).

Predicted XI vs Blackburn

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.