After an international break seemingly dominated by positive tests, Albion return to action on Saturday evening with a trip to Old Trafford hoping to build on the positive performance from their last outing against Spurs.
United are obviously one of the Premier League’s top sides, but perhaps it is as good a time as any for the Baggies to be facing them. Solksjaer’s team are without a league win on their own turf this season and he is without several first team players including Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo, while there are also concerns over the fitness of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Victor Lindelof.
Bilić, meanwhile, welcomes back three players who tested positive for COVID-19 before the international break in Callum Robinson, Matheus Pereira and Branislav Ivanović although he did reveal in Thursday’s press conference that two other players had since tested positive and may miss out on Saturday evening.
With the identity and availability of those two players unknown at the time of writing, it makes predicting the starting line-up and formation even more difficult than usual.
The 3-5-2 formation Bilić used against Spurs definitely ticked a few boxes. Having three at the back and three in central midfield definitely made Albion look much more solid than they have done in most games this season, while having a dedicated man to support Grant did make him less isolated. However, it does present selection quandaries for the head coach amongst the attacking players.
Assuming Grant starts, he will be supported by either Pereira or Robinson with Diangana not really suiting a formation without wingers. Bilić could play both Pereira and Robinson, but that would probably mean Krovinović missing out as I would be surprised if he opts to leave out either Livermore or Gallagher. Obviously, if one of those is unavailable, it’s anybody’s guess.
Ivanović, Ajayi and O’Shea would be the first choice back three, assuming Bilić goes that way, and unless Gibbs has been particularly impressive in training, I wouldn’t expect to see any changes at wing back.
However, given the Croat’s tendency to surprise us this season, he will probably throw some sort of curve ball like Matt Phillips at wing back or starting Charlie Austin, but if 3-5-2 is the formation, I would suggest that the main choice will be who supports Grant. Pereira would seem more likely, but Robinson has performed more consistently this campaign, so the Brazilian may find himself on the bench for a league game for what would be the first time since the infamous away game at Wigan last December.
With United struggling for defensive players, Albion do need to ensure they don’t just sit back and try to nick a point. Their recent record at Old Trafford is actually pretty good as you can read in my article on the history of this fixture with the Baggies having picked up ten points from their last five visits. If you’re looking for other omens, the last time Albion played a Saturday evening fixture, as opposed to teatime, they won at the home of another big six team, Liverpool in the FA Cup in January 2018.
In terms of the result, it remains a free hit – United are firm favourites despite their recent trials at home and they will see this as the perfect fixture to break their duck. It is the performance that needs to be kept at the levels we saw against Spurs – the fans’ reaction to that game was positive despite the result, and Bilić needs the same again ahead of a massive game with Sheffield United next weekend.
If the players can maintain those levels, maybe Lady Luck will shine on us this time around.