On Friday evening, Albion’s chance of automatic promotion seemed to have been all but extinguished following the desperate defeat to Huddersfield Town but, less than 24 hours later, it was back in their own hands after Brentford were beaten by Stoke City.
I always felt that the Bees’ remarkable run would have to come to an end at some point but, with only two games left, it was looking as if that might not happen before the end of the campaign. Pressure, however, is a powerful thing and, just as it had paralysed Albion’s players on Friday night, it affected Thomas Frank’s side on Saturday afternoon and they handed the initiative back to the Baggies.
Of course, that puts the pressure back on Slaven Bilić’s team – that second spot is now theirs to lose. However, both Brentford and Fulham know that they would be kicking themselves should Albion slip up again and they didn’t get the result to take advantage, so there is an element of pressure there for them too.
Any regular readers will know that I didn’t see Friday evening’s performance coming. I still feel that, while the preceding two draws had not been the desired results, Albion had been playing well and creating chances and my confidence was well placed. Evidently, however, the pressure told and the team just didn’t perform.
After the equaliser, I thought that they would go on and win the game. The minutes before half time were much better but, after the break, the levels dropped once again and, while Huddersfield didn’t deserve to win the game, neither did the Baggies.
The pressure will still be there on Wednesday – the question is whether the players respond differently and get the right result this time.
There are a few differences. Firstly, Albion are at home. With the fans there, I would have very few doubts that the boys could get the win but, even without us to cheer them on, the familiarity of playing at the Hawthorns is at least a small advantage.
Secondly, QPR have nothing to play for. That could mean that they play with more freedom, but I think that would play into Albion’s hands – they prefer to play against a side that will come onto them. Furthermore, if they listen to most of their fans, they would be happy to lose to prevent either of their west London rivals from being promoted, their manager, Mark Warburton, left Brentford in acrimonious circumstances and they will also receive an extra payment for Darnell Furlong should Albion win promotion. All reasons why they might not try too hard, but that is probably wishful thinking.
Thirdly, Albion must surely learn from Friday night, take the negative feelings that they experienced and work out how to counter them. I’m sure the nerves will still be there, but hopefully they can learn how to cope with them better.
There were plenty of recriminations on Friday evening, and there have been lots of views expressed on social media of radical changes that Bilić should make to the team and the approach. I think that the Croat has made one or two mistakes recently, but I’m not expecting any massive change in tack at this stage.
For me, his two biggest mistakes in the Blackburn and Huddersfield games was to withdraw Jake Livermore. He has been criticised for below par performances since the restart, and it’s true that he hasn’t been at his pre-lockdown levels, but I still think that his presence on the pitch is huge, even if he, himself, isn’t playing that well. His absence in that last 20 minutes at Ewood Park was, in my opinion, a significant factor in the breakdown of discipline which could have cost us what is now a vital point.
At the John Smith’s on Friday, Bilić withdrew his skipper at half time and I felt that his absence after the break had a negative effect on the team as a whole – there was no one in the centre of the park to drive the team forward, to pick them up when they were obviously struggling to cope with the situation.
However, in some ways, I understand the decision. Romaine Sawyers, who has come in for some severe criticism in some quarters, is seen by Bilić as key to the way Albion play. His ability to keep the ball moving, even if it isn’t always forward, has been a cornerstone of the team’s success this season. However, he didn’t play well at Huddersfield and some have suggested that he should be dropped. I’m not sure I agree, and, moreover, I’m fairly sure that Bilić will not leave him out. Only once this season, in the home match against Middlesbrough, has Sawyers not started a league game when available and only once has he been substituted.
There have also been numerous calls for Chris Brunt to start, but while I love Brunty, I can’t see that being considered. Slav has made it fairly clear that he doesn’t see him as a starter and he is not going to change that view for the most important game of the season. He is a great man to bring on from the bench when you need someone to calm the game, and I probably would have brought him on in place of Sawyers on Friday at some point, but he hasn’t got the legs to do 90 minutes and I’d prefer to see him on at the end. It would be great if he could be involved at some point given that, if results go the way we hope, it will be his last game, but there is no room for sentiment in this match.
In fact, I don’t expect to see too many changes in personnel at all for this game. Perhaps the most obvious would be a shuffle around of the front four. Matt Phillips has not performed well in his two recent appearances – he is a great player when playing with confidence, but he’s lacking at the moment and he hasn’t produced anything of note in the last two games. Bilić’s dilemma is that both Grady Diangana and Kamil Grosicki operate best on the left, and it is a compromise to put Diangana on the right, or to put Pereira on the right and bring Krov into the middle. On form, I think I would do just that and leave the Pole on the bench.
That leaves the decision about who to start up top. I think I would go with Robson-Kanu. Austin hasn’t really done it for me in his recent starts, I really think he needs to play in a two, and I haven’t seen enough from Callum Robinson to try him through the middle. HRK is a great foil for those around him and let’s not forget that he is enjoying the best goalscoring season of his career. There is no ideal solution from the current squad, but the Welshman is the best option in my opinion.
The selections in defence are also interesting. Bilić has rotated his central defensive partnership since the restart with Hegazi and Ajayi having each started six of the eight games and Bartley four. Most coaches tend to keep the same partnership where possible, and Slav has done that most of the season with the Egyptian being the man left out most frequently. He has had a change of approach since lockdown, perhaps influenced by the schedule (although he has been happy for Sawyers and Pereira to play every game), or perhaps choosing players to suit the opposition. I’m not sure it has really helped the defensive unit, and I do think that a lack of stability in central defence can have a negative impact on the goalkeeper.
As for the full backs, Dara O’Shea is challenging Pereira for Albion’s player of the post-lockdown period and he didn’t look out of place when he was moved over to left back on Friday. Conor Townsend has struggled in some games recently, particularly from a defensive point of view, and perhaps O’Shea is a viable option on the left with Furlong coming into the side on the right. However, with Eberechi Eze, Rangers’ most potent threat, playing on the left, perhaps we would want the best defensive full back on the right side. Futhermore, I don’t see that this match is the time to start experimenting.
In summary, despite the desperate performance we saw on Friday evening, I do not expect wholesale changes and Bilić is likely to stick to the same tactics and personnel that have put the Baggies in what is undoubtedly a strong position over the course of the campaign. The challenge for Wednesday is more psychological than tactical – as a football team, Albion are better than QPR and they have more talented players overall. The question is whether they can demonstrate that under what will, once again, be severe pressure.
One final thought. I’m sure I was with the majority of Albion fans at the start of the campaign in hoping for another play-off place. Automatic promotion was certainly not the expectation, at least not this season, given the players we lost last summer. Slaven Bilić has done a fantastic job and, while it would be devastating to lose a top two spot on the final day having been there since September, it is important to remember the expectations from the start of the campaign.
Albion have won six of the last eight league meetings with QPR including their record victory over the Rs achieved last season when Darren Moore’s attacking team hit the heights with a 7-1 victory.
The other two matches were in the 2014/15 season in the Premier League in which QPR earned a league double over the Baggies, including a 4-1 win at the Hawthorns, but were relegated nonetheless.
Wednesday’s game will be just the 48th meeting between the sides with Rangers not having played second tier football until after World War II – the clubs first met in the Second Division in November 1948, a 2-0 win for Albion at Loftus Road thanks to goals from Davy Walsh and Frank Hodgetts.
The most famous meeting between their sides was just their third. The League Cup Final of 1967 was a painful one for Baggies fans as Third Division Rangers came from 2-0 down to win 3-2. A 1-0 FA Cup Semi-Final defeat in 1982 was just as painful for the Albion faithful and I have seen it suggested by a Rangers fan on social media that they owe us one this week for those two results, and also, of course, not wanting to see either of their west London rivals promoted!
Perhaps the most relevant previous meeting was in April 2008 when Albion needed victory over QPR to secure the Championship title. Goals from Kim Do Heon and Chris Brunt secured a 2-0 victory – it would be nice to see Brunty involved this week as a final send off.
|Queen’s Park Rangers||L||W||L||L||D||W|
All competitions; most recent game on the right
28 Sep 2019 – League Championship
Queen’s Park Rangers 0
West Brom 2 (Ferguson, Pereira)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
18 Aug 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 7 (Phillips (2), Gibbs, Rodriguez (2 pens), Gayle, Robson-Kanu)
Queen’s Park Rangers 1 (Lynch)
Albion’s Record against Queen’s Park Rangers