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…