Slaven Bilić takes his team to the south coast for what had been referred to by some as the game when Albion’s season can really start. The three tough opening fixtures had led to expectations that the Baggies would still be without a point heading into their fourth league game, but an impressive display against Chelsea means that the first point is already on the board and there are high hopes that they can add to that total at St Mary’s.
After impressive post-lockdown form over the summer when they picked up 18 points from a possible 27, losing just once, Ralph Hasenhüttl will have been hoping to continue that into the new campaign. An opening day defeat at Crystal Palace was followed by a home defeat to Brentford in the Carabao Cup and a 5-2 reverse to Spurs, also at St Mary’s. The Saints managed to get a win at Turf Moor last weekend thanks to Danny Ings’ early goal and they will surely be hoping to build on that against the bookies’ (now) second favourites for relegation.
Having had a positive impact when he joined in December 2018, Hasenhüttl found himself under pressure last autumn as Southampton dropped into the bottom three after a poor run of form including that infamous 9-0 home defeat by Leicester City. The club kept faith with him and he turned it around, but his tenure so far has been characterised by streaks of good and bad results, and Baggies fans will be hoping that last week’s win at Burnley is a blip in a poor run of form that will continue on Sunday.
Bilić will have taken lots of positives from last weekend despite the Chelsea come back and, while the wait for a striker goes on, he has been able to welcome Filip Krovinović back to the Hawthorns this week and he has Conor Gallagher available for a Premier League match for the first time.
The big question that poses is whether the Croat will choose to move away from the 3-4-3 formation he has used for every league game so far. One of the key concerns has been that the midfield two can tend to get overrun with most opponents playing three in the middle, and that seemed to be the case at times in the first two games. Against Chelsea, it was less apparent as Romaine Sawyers, in particular, upped his performance levels, but does that formation perhaps ask too much of the midfield pair?
Obviously, having three central defenders offers an extra level of security at that back and does allow both full backs to attack without being left too short in defence. It was a feature of Bilić’s back four last season that one of the full backs was always more defensive. Darnell Furlong has arguably been one of Albion’s better performers so far this season and he was often the one to lose out to either O’Shea or Ferguson – it would be harsh to drop him this season to facilitate a change in formation. Kieran Gibbs remains suspended this weekend which means that Townsend will deputise once again, unless Bilić does go to a back four and switched O’Shea to left full back.
I think that, if Albion do switch to a three in midfield, one of them will need to sit as a true defensive midfielder. Arguably, the only man in the Baggies squad who is a natural in that role is Sam Field, and Bilić’s comment this week that the academy product will have a big part to play this season does suggest that he is considering a three-man midfield. Livermore can play that role but is perhaps better suited in a box-to-box role, while neither Sawyers nor Harper have the defensive discipline to fulfil that position in the Premier League. I’ve not seen a huge amount of Gallagher, but my impression is that he is more of a box-to-box type while Krov is definitely a creative playmaker.
It will be truly fascinating to see which way Bilić goes on Sunday, and how well it works. I’m not expecting to see too much change anywhere else on the pitch and I think that Gallagher and Field are the only players likely to be brought in to change the starting eleven.
One other implication of the comment about Field could be the future of Rekeem Harper. He has indicated that he wants to stay to fight for his place, but he is probably sixth in line for a midfield that may only have two spots – a loan to the Championship could be to his and the club’s benefit.
Looking ahead to the game, while it is Albion’s first game against a side not expected to be challenging for the top six, it is certainly not an easy one. In Danny Ings, the have the Premier League’s joint second highest goalscorer from last season (22 goals) and he already has three this campaign. However, their game against Spurs suggests that they are prone to conceding on the break which could play into the hands of Albion’s quick front three just as it did for Kane and Son.
The team need to take confidence from their performance against Chelsea and, if they can take the first halves against Everton and Chelsea and combine them into one ninety minutes, they could be on to a first league win of the season!
Southampton has rarely been a happy hunting ground for the Baggies with just five wins on forty visits to the home of the Saints. Having said that, two of those victories have come in the last seven years.
The 3-0 win in April 2013, inspired by Romelu Lukaku, was Albion’s first win on Saints’ soil since 1969, while on the final day of 2016 they earned a 2-1 win thanks to a fierce strike from Hal Robson-Kanu.
Matt Phillips was the other goalscorer that day and he and HRK are the only Baggies players involved that day that are still at the club less than four years later. Former Baggie, Shane Long, opened the scoring for Southampton in that match and he is one of eight of the Saints players who played in that match that remain that St Mary’s. Jay Rodriguez came off the bench that day while Virgil van Dijk received a late red card.
Unsurprisingly, that 3-0 win in 2013, when Lukaku was joined on the scoresheet by Marc-Antoine Fortuné and the aforementioned Shane Long, is the Baggies’ record away win at Southampton. The previous win, and previous best win, was achieved in August 1969 at the Dell when a late double from Colin Suggett secured the points for Alan Ashman’s team.
Perhaps the most famous Albion win at the Dell came the previous season in the FA Cup fourth round. Having drawn 1-1 at the Hawthorns, Ashman took his team to the south coast for the replay. Frank Saul opened the scoring for the hosts but the Baggies were soon back on level terms through Jeff Astle. Tony Brown put the visitors in front just before the half hour and it stayed that way until Southampton equalised through Hugh Fisher eight minutes into the second half. With extra-time beckoning, Jeff Astle became the Baggies hero as he scored with two minutes to go to secure a place in the fifth round. That was Astle’s fourth FA Cup goal of the season – his ninth was the winner against Everton in the final.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
17 Feb 2018 – FA Cup 5th Round
West Brom 1 (Rondón)
Southampton 2 (Hoedt, Tadić)
Last meeting at Southampton
21 Oct 2017 – Premier League
Southampton 1 (Boufal)
West Brom 0
31 Dec 2016 – Premier League
Southampton 1 (Long)
West Brom 2 (Phillips, Robson-Kanu)
Albion’s Record against Southampton
|Premier League Record|