Two of the relegated sides meet at the Hawthorns on Wednesday evening for an early meeting of two of the pre-season promotion favourites. However, the two have experienced very different starts to the season with Albion sitting as one of ten clubs to have earned four points from their opening two matches having scored five goals, Sheffield United have just one point and are yet to find the net in the league.
Like the Baggies, the Blades appointed a new boss over the summer with Slaviša Jokanović taking over from interim boss, Paul Heckingbottom. The Serb has good Championship pedigree having led both Watford and Fulham to promotion to the Premier League in recent years, but he has so far struggled to get his new charges firing. He named four strikers in his starting line up for Saturday evening’s game at Swansea, but they managed just two shots on target between them.
The only time United have scored this season was in their EFL Cup tie with League Two Carlisle United, and even then they managed just one goal, a first for the club for Rhian Brewster since his £23.5m arrival in October 2020. They have been solid at the back, conceding just once in their three competitive matches this campaign, but as an attacking force, the Blades certainly need some sharpening.
While there has been just one goal in the Blades’ two league games, Albion fans have seen nine in their two matches as the Baggies seem to have adapted well to Ismaël’s philosophy in attacking areas, but they are still struggling to get things right at the back.
In a fantastic atmosphere at the Hawthorns, Albion dominated the first half against Luton Town on Saturday and were probably worth more than the 2-0 lead they took into the break. The lengthy injury stoppage early in the second half seemed to affect the Baggies’ momentum and, although they added a third shortly after the restart, they struggled to regain their dominance and two defensive errors saw the visitors reduce the arrears and left the home crowd nervously praying for the final whistle.
While it is definitely a work in progress for Ismaël, the signs are very promising and few Albion fans would have turned down four points from the opening two games. If they can follow up with another win on Wednesday evening, it would be a more than satisfactory start to the campaign.
That the Blades have not started well means that it could be a good time to play them. Their resources and evident quality in the squad suggest that they should get it together eventually and I still expect them to be one of Albion’s main challengers this season. I’m certainly not expecting an easy game.
Big Val has a few decisions to make, not least because it is his first midweek fixture of the season. The demands he places on his players inevitably make it more difficult to keep the same starting line up when playing three games inside eight days. There were only two changes to his starting line up on Saturday – Sam Johnstone taking his spot between the sticks and Matt Clarke coming in for Cédric Kipré. Clarke would more than likely have started at Bournemouth were it not for the injury he picked up on the day, so Ismaël does seem fairly settled in his starting eleven and it will be interesting to see whether he changes anything for Wednesday.
Not only has the first eleven barely changed, but Big Val has also only used three payers as substitutes. Matt Phillips and Kenneth Zohore have come on in both games while Semi Ajayi replaced Matt Clarke on Saturday. Phillips seems the most likely option to come into the starting line up having been a regular starter in pre-season. Zohore has done little to warrant a starting spot and his performances have only given strength to Albion’s need for a striker, while Ajayi’s introduction seemed to weaken the Baggies defence – while officially in the 84th minute, the stoppage time meant that there was more than 20 minutes to play and it was certainly the hosts’ most uncomfortable period of the match.
Adam Reach is another option for Ismaël to consider. It would seem that the man signed on a free transfer from Sheffield Wednesday is more likely to be an option at left wing back rather than as one of the front three, and with Townsend having had a difficult day on Saturday, it could be that we see Reach make his Albion debut against the Blades.
With Robert Snodgrass still building up his fitness, there are few other options without dipping into the U23 squad. Romaine Sawyers and Rayhaan Tulloch are the only other outfield names in the official first team squad, and Sawyers has been told he can leave, while 18-year-old right wing back, Ethan Ingram, is the only other player to have been named on the bench so far this campaign.
As a result, I don’t expect Ismaël to change too much for this match but, while it’s clear Albion are looking to bring in a striker before the end of the month, I do wonder whether one or two more bodies might be needed. The Frenchman does have a reputation for blooding young players, but he hasn’t been tempted so far and it remains to be seen whether he feels that any of the youngsters are close to being ready for the first team.
The physical demands he puts on players means that he will have to rotate when the team is playing midweek, and the current first team squad looks to be lacking in depth to be able to do that successfully. That is an issue that will be resolved, or not, in the next fortnight.
More immediately, the Baggies will test Val-ball against one of the better sides in the division, albeit one that is struggling to find form under a new manager. It will also be a first test of the squad fitness with Ismaël lacking options to rest too many of his first team, and it will be interesting to see if there is any drop in intensity in the latter part of the game.
With no team having won both games so far, another win will keep the Baggies level with the early pace setters and, if they can do that having played two of the pre-season promotion favourites, it will be a great start for Valérien Ismaël.
The Blades hold the edge in the head-to-head statistics in the league with 42 wins to the Baggies’ 41 but the goals tally is all square at 143 each. Albion have a much better record in cup meetings with five wins to United’s one.
Recent meetings have been close with Albion’s 3-1 win at the Hawthorns in January 2010 the only time that there has been more than one goal between the sides in the last nine encounters. On that occasion, a penalty from Graham Dorrans and a second from Roman Bednar gave Albion a 2-0 lead at the break – that was reduced by another spot kick from Darius Henderson for the visitors before Jerome Thomas found the net to secure the points for Roberto di Matteo’s side.
The Baggies have twice beaten the Blades 4-0, the most recent coming in November 1987 when goals from veteran striker, Andy Gray, Don Goodman, Bobby Williamson and Tony Morley secured the points. That remains Albion’s record league win in this fixture, but in the FA Cup in 1935, they thumped the Blades 7-1, with Ginger Richardson grabbing a hat-trick, during a cup run that would be ended by the visitors’ city rivals, Sheffield Wednesday, in the final at Wembley.
United’s best win at the Hawthorns came on the opening day of the 1989-90 season when a brace from Tony Agana and another from Brian Deane saw Dave Bassett’s team win 3-0 to kick off a campaign that would see them promoted to the top flight.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
2 Feb 2021 – Premier League
Sheffield United 2 (Bogle, Sharp)
West Brom 1 (Phillips)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
28 Nov 2020 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Gallagher)
Sheffield United 0
Albion’s Record against Sheffield United
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