Albion travel to Yorkshire on Tuesday evening for their first top flight fixture at Bramall Lane for 48 years desperately in need of a victory. Brighton’s unexpected win over Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday evening means that the Baggies are now nine points below 17th place.
That result, along with Newcastle United’s win at Everton, led some fans and pundits to declare that the relegation battle is done-and-dusted, but history teaches us all that it is far too early to rule out the chances for any of the bottom three. There is no doubt that it is a very difficult task for the Blades and Albion in particular, but it is by no means impossible, and Baggies fans will have been boosted by a couple of promising deadline day signings.
For any of the bottom three clubs to escape, they will need to ensure that they pick up points when playing the other clubs in trouble, and the Baggies get to give that a go for the second match in succession on Tuesday. Sam Allardyce had targeted four points from the matches against Fulham and Sheffield United, which means taking all three points away from Bramall Lane.
Chris Wilder’s side are still bottom of the table but are enjoying their best period of the season having won four of their last six games including two FA Cup victories and a Premier League win at Old Trafford. It means that the Blades will go into Tuesday’s game full of confidence.
Albion won the return fixture at the Hawthorns but were fortunate to do so as United missed a host of chances as was demonstrated by their xG rating of 3.37, the highest of any side not to score in the Premier League this season.
That statistic highlights the Blades’ principle issue this season – their actual goals are almost nine lower than their xG for the season, the biggest gap of any team in the division, suggesting that they are creating chances but not scoring them. Albion, by contrast, are almost three goals better off than their xG for the season of 14.13.
I expected the Blades board to be looking to address that problem with the signing of a striker during this window, but Chris Wilder has not been able to make any new additions suggesting that the club hierarchy have resigned themselves to relegation. However, I’m sure Wilder’s players will continue to put in the effort for the popular boss.
Allardyce has some decisions to make in terms of his team selection for the game, particularly given the first half performance against Fulham. I’m sure there will be no repeat of the back three that started that game, and I wonder whether there will be further changes in the back line. Conor Townsend must be in contention for a start given Gibbs’ poor display on Saturday, assuming he is fit enough to play 90 minutes, although the former Arsenal man will have fond memories of Bramall Lane having scored the winner there on Albion’s last visit.
We all assume that Mbaye Diagne will get his first start after impressing from the bench on Saturday, but we will have to wait to see the two deadline day signings. Defensive midfielder, Okay Yokuşlu, who joined on loan from Celta Vigo won’t join up with the team until later in the week while the loan deal for Ainsley Maitland-Niles wasn’t done in time for Tuesday’s match.
Those two new faces will mean that a few will be playing for their places at Bramall Lane. One of Jake Livermore or Conor Gallagher, will inevitably lose out for the Turkish international, Yokuşlu, and it will be interesting whether Allardyce will see Maitland-Niles as a full back or a midfielder – he’s probably more of a wing back than a full back, but Furlong hasn’t been overly impressive in recent weeks so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the young England international take over his position against Spurs on Sunday.
Albion finished the game on Sunday with Diagne through the middle with Grant and Phillips either side. I personally don’t think Grant is that effective out wide and I’d prefer to see Robinson on the left if he is fit – I thought he got a knock on Saturday which is why he went off at half time, although there has been no news of that from the club. Grosicki is another option, although given that Allardyce was happy for him to leave this month, I’m guessing he is down the list. Diangana is close to fitness, and could be on the bench. I also wonder whether Matt Phillips may be in contention to get a start – he was affected by COVID and may not yet be back to full fitness, but he has come off the bench in the last two games.
The big question for Tuesday’s game is whether Big Sam can get the team to play with the required intensity for an entire match. Albion have shown that they can compete at this level, but only in patches and only a series of strong 90-minute performances will be good enough. He has read the riot act twice in the last seven days, and it needs to get through – use it too often and it loses its effectiveness.
Although the latest two signings won’t be available, I actually think the fact that they have signed will be a boost for the squad – with Allardyce having been complaining about the difficulty of doing business this month, to get three fantastic deals over the line late in the window will be a real shot in the arm for the whole club. While the Blades have had no such boost.
It’s a massive game for the Baggies – I’m not going to label it as a must win, but three points would be massive. And, of course, it would finally put Albion’s Premier League Tuesday hoodoo to bed.