The Baggies return after the international break largely refreshed but with a big hole in their side after the serious injury that Dara O’Shea picked up in the Republic of Ireland’s match with Portugal last week. Dara has been one of Albion’s most consistent performers over the past two years, even if not all of his head coaches believed in him, and his displays so far this season means that his loss will be keenly felt.
When coupled with the hamstring injury to fellow centre back Matt Clarke, it means that there will be changes in the back three for the visit of Millwall on Saturday. As the extent of O’Shea’s injury emerged, the club moved quickly to sign another centre back in the shape of free agent Kean Bryan.
A product of the Manchester City academy, Bryan spent time on loan at Bury and Oldham Athletic before moving to Sheffield United on a free transfer in the summer of 2018. He featured little for the Blades in his first two seasons and spent a short spell on loan at Bolton Wanderers in 2020. He made fifteen appearances for United last season with his Premier League debut coming at the Hawthorns in a 1-0 defeat in November 2020. When offered a new contract by the club in the summer, he opted to leave on a free transfer. It has been reported that Albion, along with a number of clubs, were in touch with Bryan during the window but no deal was forthcoming but, as a free agent, he was able to be signed outside of the window. He has two sons with Coronation Street actress, Brooke Vincent.
Looking ahead to Ismaël’s choices for the back line on Saturday, there seem two clear options. It seems unlikely that Bryan will come straight into the side given the Frenchman’s desire for his players to get up to speed with the system and to the right level of fitness. If he is keen to put a left-footer on the left side of the back three, he could opt to put Townsend in with Reach coming in at wing back. Personally, I think this won’t happen due to the aerial threat offered by Millwall strikers Jed Wallace and Matt Smith. Townsend has improved in the air but I would still worry about him put up against the Lions attack. The more likely option is for Semi Ajayi to play on the left with Cédric Kipré coming in on the right side with Bartley in the middle.
Kipré has had a strange Albion career and a difficult start to the season. Ismaël made plenty of positive noises about his countryman in the lead up to the opening game and started him at Bournemouth, ahead of Ajayi, for his league debut – on a difficult night at Dean Court he made errors in the build up to both Cherries’ goals, although it would perhaps be unfair to blame him entirely for both, and was immediately relegated to the bench for the next match. He failed to make the squad at Peterborough and, while it may seem to be a complete about turn were he to start on Saturday, I’m not sure that Big Val has much of a choice. While we may not have seen the best of Kipré, he has impressed at this level before at Wigan, and he has all the attributes to be a decent Championship centre back. For me, if he doesn’t start on Saturday, the writing may be on the wall for his Albion career.
The rest of the side should pretty much pick itself – I don’t expect Hugill to start and, assuming Robinson has returned from international duty unscathed, my front three would be Grant, Robinson and Phillips. Mowatt and Livermore will inevitably continue in the middle of the park.
With just one win in their opening five league games, Gary Rowett’s side have endured a difficult start to the season. Their first victory came in their last outing, a 2-1 home win over Blackpool thanks to a last minute winner by skipper, Jake Cooper. That came following successive defeats, 2-1 at home to Fulham and 3-1 at Cardiff, after drawing their opening two games.
Jed Wallace is the Lions’ talisman and top scorer while Albion fans will also remember Matt Smith who scored Millwall’s equaliser in the league match at the Hawthorns two seasons ago. Rowett has another attacking option in Benik Afobe who is trying to resurrect a career that stalled following his big money move to Stoke City. Afobe, a product of the Arsenal academy, has never been able to repeat his form for Wolves between 2014 and 2016 that earned him a move to Bournemouth, then in the Premier League. Now on loan from Stoke City, he scored consolation goals in each of the Lions’ defeats this campaign.
Rowett generally plays a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 with Wallace joined up top by either Smith or Afobe. The Stoke loanee has started all five games and will sit just behind the front two if Smith plays. The Millwall boss may opt to match Albion up completely as Peterborough did and play with a front three, but will he feel that his team can match the Baggies’ intensity?
We could also see Millwall’s deadline day signing, Sheyi Ojo, who joined on a season long-loan from Liverpool. Now 24, this is the winger’s seventh loan spell away from Anfield and spent last season at Cardiff City where he scored five goals in 42 appearances and also registered seven assists, although his chances were limited once Mick McCarthy replaced Neil Harris in the hot seat.
Loan signings Ojo and Afobe were joined at the New Den this summer by two free transfers, goalkeeper George Long and former Wolves midfielder Scott Malone, while Millwall also paid a reported £1.8m to Middlesbrough for another former Wolves midfielder, Northern Irish international George Saville, who has returned to the Lions for his third spell at the club. Malone and Saville have been ever-present in the Lions’ midfield this season in what has been a relatively settled line up in which eight players have started every league game in this campaign.
The Championship can always throw up surprises and, with an injury-hit back line, the Baggies may not be as solid defensively as they would like, but this is a game that Albion should be winning if they are to be challenging for the top two. A fifth straight league victory would see this season’s side continue to match the best start to a season made by any Albion team, most recently by Ossie Ardiles’ class of 1992.
Millwall may have spent just four seasons in their history in a higher division than Albion but they have the edge in the head-to-head record having recorded 17 victories to the Baggies’ 15. All the league meetings between the sides have taken place in the second tier with the first such encounter coming at the Den in October 1928.
Millwall’s first ever visit to the Hawthorns came in the return fixture in April 1929 when goals from Tommy Glidden, Jimmy Edwards and Joe Carter helped Albion to a 3-2 victory. Glidden and Carter doubled their goal tallies on the Lions’ next visit a year later, as did the Baggies as Ginger Richardson and Stan Wood were also on target as the hosts won 6-1, their biggest ever win over Millwall.
There have been precious few highlights in this fixture for Baggies fans in recent years, however, with Albion having won just five of the last nineteen meetings. The last two meetings at the Hawthorns took place just three days apart as the two were drawn together in the League Cup. The visitors earned a draw in the league match while Charlie Austin’s debut goal for the Baggies was not enough to prevent a 2-1 victory for the visitors in the cup tie.
Albion’s biggest win since the infamous 5-1 League Cup victory in 1983 came in March 1995 when a hat trick from Andy Hunt saw Alan Buckley’s team beat Mick McCarthy’s Millwall 3-0.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
9 Feb 2020 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Krovinović, O’Shea)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
13 Aug 2019 – League Cup 1st Round
West Brom 1 (Austin)
Millwall 2 (Bradshaw, O’Brien)
Last win at the Hawthorns
22 Sep 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Gayle, Gibbs)
Albion’s Record against Millwall
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