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.


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

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…