While Slaven Bilić’s team continues to break club records, a run of just one win in four games has brought out some of the doomsayers amongst Albion’s followers on social media. Although I certainly don’t see any reason to panic just yet, a comfortable win against Middlesbrough at the Hawthorns on Sunday would certainly put us all in a better mood ahead of Wednesday’s crunch clash against Leeds United.
It is, of course, important to put recent form into perspective. It is not unreasonable to say that Albion have been fortunate to pick up six points from their last four games, extending an unbeaten run to 14 games in the process. However, despite what some of the “twitterati” may be saying, the performances have not been “dreadful”, but they’ve not been at the level we have come to expect this season. Moreover, there is also nothing to suggest that the team cannot recover the form that has seen them lead the Championship for all but a few days since early October.
The one undeniable fact about the Championship, this season as any other, is that it is hugely competitive. As we have seen in recent weeks, when sides from either end of the table meet, there is often little to tell them apart. Conversely, when one of the better sides plays to their best, they can make any team not firing on all cylinders look very average indeed.
It is unreasonable to expect any team, particularly one at Championship level, to play at or near their best consistently through the season – what has made the Baggies’ recent below-par performances more noticeable is that they have come after what was their best display of the season against Swansea City. The contrast has been that much starker than it might otherwise have been.
Nonetheless, Albion remain three points clear of Leeds United at the top and eleven points ahead of Brentford in third. It could easily have been more, of course, were it not for two late goals which saw Albion surrender the lead and Leeds rescue a point, but no true Baggie could really complain at the current state of play.
The injury to Grady Diangana has not helped in the last two games, and the team have missed that little spark he can bring. Pereira has been stealing most of the headlines this season, but it seems clear that he and Grady have an excellent understanding and they play better together. The West Ham loanee is not expected to be fit for the clash with Boro and, while he may be back to face Leeds United on New Year’s Day, the spectre of a possible recall to the London Stadium remains.
Meanwhile, one possible way of bolstering the options on the wing has been taken away with the news that Jonathan Leko has suffered an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament that will keep him sidelined for the remainder of this season and beyond. As well as presenting an issue for both Albion and Charlton, where he was on loan, it is a massive blow for the player himself who had been enjoying a very good loan spell at the Valley.
Bilić has shuffled the pack over the festive period, although some changes have been forced. Kyle Bartley remains a doubt for Sunday having missed out on Boxing Day – that did at least give Hegazi a chance to play 90 minutes and I thought he put in a decent display, hopefully a sign that the dispute last week was overblown – while Nathan Ferguson was also sidelined having reportedly picked up a knock, but he is expected to be fit. There was a suggestion that he may have been suspended having picked up a fifth caution against Brentford, but the deadline for a suspension for five yellow cards passed in early December.
Gibbs was back in the side having missed the previous three matches, but he is a doubt having been forced off at Oakwell, while Matt Phillips and Kyle Edwards both dropped to the bench with Krovinović coming into the side behind a front two of Austin and HRK. The Croat took his chance to score his first goal in English football, but I’m not sure the change in formation really worked that well.
Johnstone, Ajayi, Livermore and Sawyers are the only players not to have been rested, or missed games through injury, in recent weeks, with Johnstone and Ajayi ever-presents in the Championship so far this season. Sawyers has made a few sloppy errors of late and I do wonder whether he will be given a game off, but I’m not expecting Ajayi to be rested given Bartley’s injury, while Livermore’s energy and physicality is difficult to replace from within the current squad.
As for Middlesbrough, it’s been a difficult season for Jonathan Woodgate as he takes his first steps in management, although there have been signs of improvement lately. Since the 4-0 defeat at Elland Road at the end of November, Boro have lost just once in six games, winning their last two at home to Stoke City and Huddersfield Town to pull themselves six points clear of the bottom three.
Boro won at the Hawthorns last season with Britt Assombalonga scoring twice, but the Congolese striker is a doubt for the visitors having sat out the last few matches. Meanwhile, Paddy McNair and Marcus Browne are suspended having both been sent off in their defeat to Swansea a fortnight ago.
Middlesbrough are yet to taste victory away from the Riverside this season while Albion’s home unbeaten run stands at 17 regular league matches (18 if you include the play-off semi-final against Aston Villa). The Baggies are looking to extend their overall unbeaten run to 15 matches.
It’s a sell out at the Hawthorns on Sunday, so let’s hope the Baggies put on a show to round off 2019 in style.
December 1978 was a month when Ron Atkinson’s Albion side truly announced themselves to the national consciousness. With the Three Degrees in the squad, they had started the season well and had been hovering around the top five for much of the season, but when November came to an end, they started their charge.
After defeating Mario Kempes’s Valencia in the UEFA Cup, their second match in the month at Everton was postponed, which meant that next up was the visit of Middlesbrough to the Hawthorns on 9th December 1978.
Ahead of the game, there was much talk of Ron Atkinson’s pursuit of Boro’ striker, David Mills. A £400,000 bid for Arsenal forward had been turned down, and Big Ron turned his attention to the highly rated Mills. However, he was ruled out of the trip to the Hawthorns through injury, so the Baggies fans didn’t get an early sight of the man who would become and Albion player less than a month later in a deal worth £516,000, Britain’s first half-million pound transfer.
As for the match itself, it turned out to be a fairly straightforward victory for Albion as goals in each half from Cyrille Regis and Len Cantello secured a 2-0 victory that kept them in 3rd place behind Liverpool and Everton. They would go on to win three successive away games in December, at Wolves, Arsenal and, most famously, 5-3 at Manchester United, and moved to the top of the table for the first and only time that season following a draw at Norwich City in mid-January.
The Baggies ended up finishing third behind Liverpool and Forest, while Middlesbrough finished 12th.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
19 Oct 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Robson-Kanu)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
2 Feb 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Rodriguez, Gayle)
Middlesbrough 3 (Saville, Assombalonga (2))
Last win at the Hawthorns
17 Apr 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Cox, Bednar)
Albion’s Record against Middlesbrough