Middlesbrough v West Bromwich Albion; Riverside Stadium, Saturday 30th July 2022, 5.30pm
The new season kicks off this weekend, in July thanks to the mid-season World Cup, with Albion facing a very tough opening fixture at Middlesbrough.
While Steve Bruce has been at the Hawthorns helm for a number of months, Saturday evening’s game will usher in something of a new era for the Baggies as the manager has had a pre-season to work with the squad and make a solid start on the rebuilding job he promised in the closing weeks of the last campaign.
While most of the personnel who take to the field at the Riverside will be familiar to Baggies fans, the formation and style of football will be markedly different to that seen under Bruce’s predecessor, Valérien Ismaël. Furthermore, the two new faces who have featured in pre-season for Albion have impressed and look to have given the side some much-needed creativity. With both having been brought in early in the close season, they have had time to get fully integrated with the squad and seem likely to be two of the first names on Steve Bruce’s teamsheet for the season opener.
While former Baggies boss, Ismaël, was back in the Black Country watching his Beşiktaş side get beaten 3-0 at Molineux, Albion rounded their pre-season off with an impressive victory against Bundesliga side, Hertha Berlin. The new boys were heavily involved with John Swift scoring the hosts’ equaliser and Jed Wallace providing the cross that Darryl Dike converted to secure the victory.
Dike himself is almost a new signing having not yet played even a combined 90 minutes of competitive football since he joined in January. His headed goal on Saturday, his second strike of pre-season, was a consummate finish and is hopefully a good sign for the forthcoming season. While the American international has enjoyed a full pre-season, he hasn’t played much competitive football in the last 12 months and it may take a while for him to get fully up to speed. In fact, he hasn’t played a full 90 minutes, competitive or otherwise, since October last year, but he will be eager to get up and running – not only to get Albion firmly in the promotion race but also, no doubt, with one eye on a spot in the USMNT squad that will face England at the World Cup in November.
Bruce has switched between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 in pre-season and I suspect he will continue to do so throughout the season. The main difference seems to be that, in a 4-3-3, Swift has tended to sit a little deeper on the left side of the midfield three, as opposed to operating as a true number ten as he has done in a 4-2-3-1.
The other new signing of the summer so far, Okay Yokuşlu, is highly unlikely to feature against Boro’ having not been involved in pre-season, so the midfield is likely to be made up of two from Livermore, Molumby and Mowatt. Skipper, Livermore, missed out against Hertha through illness but I would expect him to start if fit alongside Molumby. The young Irishman, officially a new signing having had his loan from Brighton and Hove Albion confirmed to a permanent deal since the end of last season, has played more pre-season minutes than any player bar Dara O’Shea and Darnell Furlong according to West Brom Statto.
Swift and Wallace would seem to be nailed on starters, with the other attacking players coming from Dike, Grant and Diangana. The latter two both did themselves no harm at all off the bench on Saturday, but Grant has been Albion’s top goalscorer in pre-season – I would expect all three to feature at some point during the game, particularly given that managers are able to make five substitutes in the Championship this season.
David Button seems to have hold of the goalkeeper’s jersey for the time being, while Townsend and Furlong would appear to be the first choice full backs. The centre-back pairing is less clear – Ajayi and O’Shea have played most frequently in pre-season, but Bartley missed a few games with injury and it was he the lined up alongside O’Shea on Saturday. With Kipré and Taylor having gone out on loan, and Kean Bryan still a long way from being fit, those are the only three senior centre backs available at present, and Although he has said that he is happy with his options in that position, I do wonder whether Bruce will try to get Matt Clarke back before the window closes assuming finances permit.
As for the opposition, they have made five signings so far this summer. Liam Roberts has joined from Northampton Town for an undisclosed fee, Darragh Lenihan and Kamil Conteh have moved on free transfers from Blackburn Rovers and Watford respectively while there are two loan signings, Ryan Giles from Wolves and Zack Steffen from Manchester City. Goalkeeper Steffen, left-sided Giles and defender Lenihan all started in their final pre-season friendly, an impressive 2-0 home win over last season’s Ligue 1 runners-up, Olympique Marseille.
Ryan Giles scored a hat-trick in their previous friendly, a 3-0 win at Morecambe – the 22-year-old is on his seventh loan spell from Wolves having previous gone to Shrewsbury, Coventry (twice), Rotherham, Cardiff and Blackburn.
Marcus Tavernier, younger brother of Rangers captain James, also started, and scored, against Marseille but there are a number of reports that he is about to join Premier League Bournemouth so he may not feature at the weekend.
Chris Wilder’s arrival at the Riverside in November last year coincided with a dramatic turnaround in form. The man Albion should have appointed last summer oversaw a rise from the bottom half of the table to genuine play-off contenders although a drop in form towards the end of the season saw them miss out eventually finishing seventh. With a pre-season under his belt, Wilder will be confident that his team can challenge more successfully this season and it is undoubtedly a tough opening match for the Baggies with most bookies having Middlesbrough as fourth favourites for promotion behind Norwich, Watford and Albion.
Those in charge of the match selections at Sky TV obviously see it as one of the bigger games of the weekend meaning that it will kick off at 5.30pm on Saturday evening. With Albion’s first home game having been moved to a Monday evening due to the Commonwealth Games, that will also be available on Sky but they have left us alone for the remainder of August. It remains to be seen whether the Baggies will remain a top draw for TV, but I suspect they may be.
So, here we go. New season full of optimism – let’s hope that it lasts a little longer than it did last season.
Saturday evening’s match will be the 100th meeting between the sides and the 95th in the league.
Albion have won just one of their last eight meetings with Middlesbrough, although that did come at the Riverside Stadium in October 2019 when Hal Robson-Kanu bundled the ball over the line inside the last ten minutes to fire Slaven Bilić’s team a deserved victory.
Before the current poor run of form, the Baggies had won four in a row against the Smoggies for the first time in the history of meetings between the sides. Those matches, were consecutive league doubles, the first in the Premier League in 2008/09 when the two clubs both finished on 32 points and were relegated. The following season’s double included a record 5-0 win on Teesside thanks to a Chris Brunt brace and further goals from Youssouf Mulumbu, Roman Bednár and Jerome Thomas.
Ayresome Park was rarely a happy hunting ground for Albion over the years – they won on just 6 of their 39 visits until the Teessiders moved to their new home in 1995. Five of those wins were before 1925 with the Baggies only post-war win at the venue coming in February 1952 when George Lee scored the only goal of the game.
Boro have never scored more than four goals against Albion, but they achieved that on four occasions at home, most recently when the Baggies suffered a “blip” in the Great Escape run-in of 2005 – a brace from Szilárd Németh and further goals from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Stewart Dowining saw the hosts run out 4-0 winners.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
22 Feb 2022 – League Championship
Middlesbrough 2 (McNair, Tavernier)
West Brom 1 (Molumby)
19 Oct 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Robson-Kanu)
Albion’s Record against Middlesbrough