After a gentle if ultimately frustrating introduction to post-lockdown football, Albion move onto what is surely the toughest game of the run in with a trip to Brentford.
Thomas Frank’s team had no opportunity to ease into the run in as they opened with a key clash against promotion hopefuls, Fulham, and passed that test with flying colours taking all three points with two second half goals. That result puts them within a point of the Cottagers, but still eight points behind the top two.
The Bees still have a tough task to win automatic promotion but their positive result coupled with Albion and Leeds dropping points will have increased their hopes. However, they will surely need to beat the Baggies on Friday if they are to have any chance of a top two finish and, with Fulham visiting Leeds on Saturday, it could be a pivotal weekend in the race for automatic promotion.
For Slaven Bilić’s team, the minimum target is to not lose this match thereby maintaining the eight-point gap to Brentford, and with many Albion fans of the opinion that the Bees are the best team to have visited the Hawthorns this season, there is a general feeling that may be easier said than done.
There is no doubt that the west London club has an impressive front line – the “BMW” of Saïd Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Ollie Watkins is considered by many to be the most potent in the Championship and, with 47 goals between them, more than 70% of the club’s total, it is hard to argue with that assessment. However, despite that firepower, Frank’s side have still managed to lose eleven games this season, more than double the number that the Baggies have lost, and while only one of those has come since January, that was a defeat to strugglers Luton Town.
It will certainly be a tough game for Albion, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the Baggies are top of the league for a reason. Slaven Bilić may only be able to call on one player to have reached double figures on the goalscoring charts this season, his team have scored just two fewer goals than Brentford with eighteen players having found the net this season, seven of them having scored five or more.
The ability to find goals from all over the team has more than made up for the lack of a prolific striker and, despite the fact that the Baggies have surprisingly failed to find the net in their last three games, the Albion faithful should have confidence that they are far more likely to find the net than not in any game. Only six times have the Baggies failed to score this season compared to the eleven occasions on which Brentford have drawn a blank. Both teams have frequently impressed this season, but Albion have done it more regularly.
Bilić opted to switch formations back to a 4-2-3-1 for the visit of Birmingham, and also played two attacking full backs, something he has been reluctant to do for most of this season. Unfortunately, that emphasis on attack did not bring goals against a stubborn defence, but I believe that is down to the lack of that esoteric concept of “match sharpness” rather than any tactical deficiency. Nonetheless, Brentford will pose more of an attacking threat than Blues, and I fully expect a slightly different approach for Friday’s game.
Reverting back to a 4-3-3 would seem to be an obvious ploy. We could see the return of Dara O’Shea at right back but that’s not necessarily a given – for me, Furlong is a good defender and should be able to show the discipline required.
The main changes will affect the front line. Matheus Pereira is considered by most to be at his most effective in the number ten position. There is no doubt that he was Albion’s best player last weekend, but while he has the potential to influence the game more often in a central position, I also thinks that makes him easier to pick up – a central defensive midfielder has more scope to track him wherever he goes. Putting the Brazilian in a wider starting position makes it more likely that a full back or winger will need to “hand him off” to a teammate as he wonders, and it is in those moments of potential misunderstanding that Pereira may be able to find an opportunity for a little extra space.
Furthermore, moving Pereira wide allows Bilić to bring in Filip Krovinović into the centre of midfield, one of the most impressive performers in Albion’s fabulous February, and a perfect foil for the Brazilian. The pair linked up superbly in that spell that brought the Baggies boss the Manager of the Month award and they developed the kind of understanding that Pereira developed with Diangana earlier in the season.
The West Ham loanee missed out on a starting spot last week and, when he came on, he did look very rusty. An additional week’s training should have helped, as it will have helped the entire squad, and he could well get that slot on the left side of the front three on Friday evening.
There has been a suggestion from some quarters that Jake Livermore should be swapped out of midfield after his display against Blues. Personally, I don’t think anyone should be singled out for criticism from that match due to the unique nature of the circumstances, and I also feel that Livermore thrived in a 4-3-3 when he was given greater licence to get forward. A switch back to that formation could be just what he needs.
His midfield teammate, Romaine Sawyers, was probably the stand out performer against Birmingham and I can’t see him not starting.
Albion’s bench will be very strong once again and it will be interesting to see whether Kamil Grosicki makes it this time. There is such a wealth of options in forward positions that it is impossible to include everyone even when nine substitutes can be named, but perhaps he will get the nod over Zohore or Edwards on Friday night.
I don’t think he should be too concerned, however, as there is no doubt that the full squad will be needed in the coming weeks. Albion are a little fortunate that they don’t play again until Wednesday, but that will be the longest break between games until the end of the season.
As for Brentford, the “M” of the BMW, Bryan Mbuemo, missed Saturday’s game with Fulham having tested positive for COVID-19 last week – he should be available assuming he has remained asymptomatic and tests clear this week. Emiliano Marcondes had a massive impact last week having come off the bench to claim a goal and an assist and that could have earned him a starting spot. Winger, Sergi Canós, and forward, Nikolaos Karelis, are doubtful having both missed much of the season through injury.
This is a key match, but any suggestion that it is a “must-win” for Albion are wide of the mark. Even a defeat would be recoverable, albeit an unwelcome blow to confidence, but it is Brentford who need to win. Anything less than three points would surely leave them with much too much to do to catch the top two.
Having said that, however impressive Brentford may have been on occasions this season, this is a match that the Baggies can win. The bookies may have the Bees as favourites, but 23/10 for an away win sounds like a decent price to me.
Friday evening will make history as it will be the final time that the Baggies will visit Griffin Park as Brentford move to a new stadium next season. It will be just their ninth visit to ground which famously has a pub on each corner and I, for one, am very disappointed at not being able to make one more trip there.
The stadium opened in September 1904 but it was more than three decades before Albion made their first visit. When the Throstles made their first visit to that particular part of west London in April 1936, they were struggling at the wrong end of the table despite having finished in the top ten and reached the FA Cup final the previous season.
With just two games of the season to go, they sat in 18th place three places above the drop zone but level on points with Aston Villa who occupied one of those two relegation spots, albeit having played one more game. Villa had won 3-0 at the Hawthorns a few weeks earlier and and it was a titanic battle in the bottom half with just four points separating them and 11th places Middlesbrough. The Bees, meanwhile, were enjoying their best ever league season and sat in an impressive sixth place.
The visitors made a great start to the game when the legendary Billy “Ginger” Richardson put them ahead in the fourth minute. It was his 38th goal of the season – he scored in the final game to make it 39 goals in 41 league games for the campaign, a club record that still stands today.
Albion failed to hold on to the lead for long and the Bees levelled in the 10th minute through Billy Scott. The hosts were now well on top but Albion ‘keeper, Billy Light, produced a number of good saves to keep the scores level. He couldn’t keep out Bobby Reid’s header on the half hour, however, and Brentford went in at the break 2-1 up.
Light was called into action on several occasions in the second half, but Albion remained well in the game and perhaps deserved the equaliser that Stan Wood scored with two minutes to go.
If the Albion players had a wireless on hand after the full time whistle, they may have heard that Villa had been defeated in their last game of the season 4-2 at home to bottom side Blackburn Rovers which meant that the point secured First Division football for another season. Villa were relegated along with Blackburn, two of the League’s founder members dropping out of the top flight for the first time.
They celebrated with a fine 3-1 win at St Andrew’s the following weekend to finish 18th with a remarkable tally of 89 goals scored and 88 conceded – in fact, only champions, Sunderland, scored more goals that season banging in 109! Football was fun back then!
Meanwhile, Brentford signed off with a 6-0 over Derby County to secure a fifth place finish which remains their best ever final league position.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
21 Dec 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Furlong)
Brentford 1 (Dalsgaard)
Last meeting at Brentford
16 Mar 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Edwards)
Albion’s Record against Brentford