The panic button may have been pressed by many Baggies fans on social media, but Slaven Bilić will remain calm and collected ahead of what has become a crucial trip to Hillsborough. Just one point and no goals scored from Albion’s two games following the restart has left many supporters fearing a late season collapse from Bilić’s boys.
While there has been precious little to encourage the doubters in the past two performances, it takes a very short memory to forget how good this group of players were in February, let alone the record of one defeat in the first half of the season that saw the Baggies on top of the table at Christmas with 50 points.
I don’t believe that these players have become bad players but nor do I believe that they are world-beaters. I think there is a good argument that the Baggies squad is one of, if not the best in the Championship and, if they perform to their something close to their best in the next seven games, they will be promoted. They have been way below that in the past two games, but I have faith that they can recover that form.
I’ve read numerous comments in the past few days from Albion fans that this player is rubbish, that player has never been any good, so-and-so is too slow, etc., ignoring the fact that those players have been instrumental in putting the Baggies in a very strong position. Most fans have their favourite players and far too many have players that they love to hate – with most players below par in the past couple of matches, it is those deep-seated dislikes that have risen to the fore.
I’ve always tried to take a measured view on the merits of individual players and the overall team performances in individual games and, while the games against Blues and Brentford were obviously disappointing, they were hardly the dire displays that some would have you believe. Albion dominated a dogged Birmingham side but didn’t quite have the sharpness and spark to break them down while against the Bees, one of the best sides in the division, they lost to a single goal in a game of few chances.
Obviously, when compared to the performances at home to Swansea or away to Millwall or Bristol City, they are disappointing and, at such a crucial time of the season, they are certainly unwelcome, but there is still much to be positive about for Baggies fans.
The next two fixtures offer a great chance for the Throstles to pick up much much needed victories. Sheffield Wednesday earned a useful victory on Sunday at Ashton Gate, but that is only the second win in their last eleven games, a run that has seen them fall out of the race for the play-off positions.
Garry Monk has also some staffing issues to contend with after their top scorer, Steven Fletcher, fellow striker, Fernando Forrestieri and defender, Morgan Fox, all rejected the opportunity to extend their contracts which will expire on Tuesday evening. At the time of writing, four more players, all on loan, are yet to have their agreements extended past the end of June. Connor Wickham and former Baggie Jacob Murphy who scored and provided the assist, respectively, for the Owls’ opener against Bristol City, along with Alessio Da Cruz and Josh Windass could, theoretically, be unavailable. However, given that they wouldn’t be available for their parent clubs if recalled, the expectation is that they will remain at Hillsborough until the end of the campaign.
Wickham also scored in the first post-lockdown game against Nottingham Forest, his first goals for the Owls since joining in January, and is seemingly relishing the new 3-5-2 formation that Monk has employed since the restart.
They will present a very different test to Brentford and it will be interesting to see what approach each manager takes. The Owls are now well clear of the bottom three but also eight points off the play-offs with six clubs between them and 6th placed Cardiff City. Obviously, they will be confident after taking four points from the last two games, but should Albion get an early goal, will they have the motivation to respond?
The Baggies, meanwhile, should have no problems with getting themselves up for what has become a very important game. While the gap has only reduced by one point to the chasing pack with two games chalked off, the lack of a win, or even a goal, is a little concerning.
I had expected Bilić to start Friday’s game in the 4-3-3 formation that had been successful in the period immediately prior to the lockdown, but it wasn’t until half time that he adopted it. The period immediately after the break was Albion’s most impressive of the 180 minutes of football so far and, had Zohore’s shot gone a few inches lower, that match could have been very different.
I don’t expect the Dane to start at Hillsborough, however, as I still feel that Hal Robson-Kanu is the best option in that central role – he is the most accomplished of the Baggies strikers at holding up the ball and bringing the attacking players around him into play. That tactic has been a hallmark of Albion’s success this season – the Welshman rarely stands out but he is one of the most important players in the side.
Filip Krovinović will surely start this match with Pereira switching out to the right hand side. Sawyers and Livermore have come in for criticism in the past week or so, but I don’t see a viable alternative from the start. You could perhaps switch Krov with one of them and leave Pereira central, but the pair have worked well together for so much of the season that I don’t feel the case to change that is strong enough.
At the back, perhaps Darnell Furlong could miss out having been left a little wanting for Brentford’s goal. Dara O’Shea did little wrong in February and March and can feel unlucky not to have kept his place, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them start on Wednesday evening.
It is the wide forward players which are perhaps the most open for change. Phillips has not impressed – at his best, he will take players on and get to the byline, but he seems lacking in confidence and is has just not produced in the past two games. Diangana has been a bit hit-and-miss, as has Callum Robinson while Kyle Edwards has also failed to make an impact as a substitute. Kamil Grosicki, who has failed to make the nine-man bench in either game, is another option – Bilić must have his reasons for not using him so far, but I would be surprised not to see him in the squad for a third match.
I also wonder whether there might be a place for Chris Brunt – with delivery from set pieces particularly lacking in the last two games, having the club’s most consistent exponent on the bench would seem a sensible option.
Of course, whatever I and others may feel and speculate, it is Slav and his coaching team that are working with the players each day, and I trust their judgment to make the right choices. It is down to the players to produce it on match day, something they have done more often than not.
The Baggies have remained unbeaten against Sheffield Wednesday for the last seven meetings, including three at Hillsbrough. Their last defeat at Wednesday was in November 2006 when goals from Glenn Whelan, Madjud Bougherra and a penalty from Steve MacLean saw the Owls win 3-1 – Jason Koumas found the net for the visitors.
Three years later, Roberto di Matteo’s side achieved a club record victory at the venue when a Simon Cox brace and another from Jerome Thomas put them 3-0 up at the break. Former Wednesday winger, Chris Brunt, added a fourth for the visitors in the second half.
The two clubs met in the 1935 FA Cup Final with the Owls winning 4-2 at Wembley, but the Baggies gained revenge with another impressive victory at Hillsborough later in the year when Stan Wood (2), Teddy Sandford, Jack Mahon and Ginger Richardson all found the net in a 5-2 victory.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
23 Nov 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Robson-Kanu, Austin (pen))
Sheffield Wednesday 1 (Fletcher (pen))
Last meeting at Sheffield Wednesday
3 Oct 2018 – League Championship
Sheffield Wednesday 2 (Reach, Forrestieri)
West Brom 2 (Pelupessy (o.g.), Barnes)
Last win at Sheffield Wednesday
28 Nov 2009 – League Championship
Sheffield Wednesday 0
West Brom 4 (Cox (2), Thomas, Brunt)
Albion’s Record against Sheffield Wednesday