Seven games into the Championship season, Slaven Bilić’s team remain unbeaten but they are still looking for their first clean sheet of the season. In fact, Albion have gone behind in six of their seven league games so far including all three of their victories, and I’m sure that the head coach would be delighted to record his first shut out as Baggies boss.
In theory, this weekend’s fixture presents the perfect opportunity. Having been relegated from the Premier League last season, Huddersfield Town have started this campaign poorly and are yet to win a game. In fact, their winless run extends to eighteen games in all competitions and the only team they have beaten in their last 36 matches is Wolverhampton Wanderers. But let’s hope it is not all Black Country sides they have the Indian sign over, having also done the double over Albion the season before!
There is, of course, the chance that Albion could be the victim of a new manager bounce. Jan Siewert was sacked after their home defeat by Fulham last month and, over the international break, Danny Cowley was appointed as Town’s new manager. Linked with the top job at the Hawthorns over the summer, Cowley was heavily touted to be Steve Bruce’s replacement at Sheffield Wednesday in the weeks leading up to his move to the Kirklees Stadium, but Garry Monk was appointed at Hillsborough and Cowley ultimately chose to move to West Yorkshire, rather than South. The vagaries of the fixture list meant that the Owls were Cowley’s first opponents last weekend, but the result was depressingly similar for the Terriers’ long-suffering fans as Garry Monk’s team won 2-0.
Whether the extra week will have given Cowley and his staff enough time to make a substantial difference to Huddersfield’s performance on Sunday remains to be seen, but his time at Lincoln City was undoubtedly successful. However, the top job at a club in the Premier League a few short months ago is certainly a substantial step up and his first task will be to instil some confidence in a group that has been devoid of the winning feeling for so long.
Bilić, of course, will be anxious to ensure that Albion are not Cowley’s first victims and the first part of that would be to secure that first clean sheet. One thing that could help on that front is the potential availability of Ahmed Hegazi. The Egyptian was filmed training during this week and has claimed that he is “all good” having recovered from ankle surgery.
This weekend is probably still a little early for him and it would, perhaps, be a little harsh to replace either Bartley or Ajayi, but the fact remains that they haven’t managed to record a shutout yet this season and Hegazi will loom large over both of them, even from the bench.
At the time of writing, it is unclear whether either Gibbs or Townsend will be fit to face the Terriers, but the form of Nathan Ferguson at left back does make him hard to shift from the starting line up and an unchanged back four would not be a surprise.
Fulham’s dominance of possession in the Baggies’ last game was a concern, although there aren’t many sides in the Championship that control the ball in the middle of the park as well as Scott Parker’s side. The fact that Albion came away from Craven Cottage with a point was definitely a positive.
One thing that has been very encouraging this season is Bilić’s ability to change things mid-game and, of course, the team’s ability to implement those changes. At Fulham, he tweaked the tactics mid-way through the first half by asking Sawyers to stick closer to Cairney, a move that certainly dried up the hosts’ chances after dominating the early part of the game, and it took a stroke of luck for them to take the lead. Further changes in the second half, including bringing Hal Robson-Kanu on to play in between the lines, were instrumental in Albion getting the equaliser.
The obvious point to note is that Bilić has had to make changes in virtually every game this season as the Baggies have not started games well. The home game with Millwall is the only Championship match in which they have scored first, and that goal came just before the hour mark. That is something that the Croat needs to work on if Albion are to trouble the top two this season.
Unfortunately, a noon kick-off on a Sunday is likely to mean that the atmosphere will not exactly be bouncing at the Hawthorns from the off; all the more reason to target a fast start to get the crowd loud early on.
As per usual this season, the main selection decisions will be up front. Charlie Austin is the only Albion player to have scored in the first ten minutes of any match, notching the opener in the Carabao Cup tie against Millwall in what is his only goal for the Baggies so far. He completed his first 90 minutes at the Cottage, which will have done him good, and I expect him to start again on Sunday.
Kyle Edwards’ performance off the bench will have done his chances of regaining a starting spot no harm at all, although whether it will be enough to displace either Diangana or Phillips is questionable.
As stated earlier, Hal Robson-Kanu also performed well off the bench and, while I wouldn’t expect him to replace Austin, there remains the option of playing two up top. Some pundits have suggested that Albion should look to play that way, and Bilić, himself, indicated that he would like to play with two strikers before the season kicked off. Obviously, that would mean playing a midfield two rather than three, and I wonder whether a pairing of Sawyers and Pereira would have enough to control the middle of the park.
HRK would always drop in when Albion were defending, but putting someone like the Welshman closer to Austin could be the key to capitalising on the former Saints’ man’s undoubted poacher’s skills.
The Baggies’ previous home game against Blackburn saw them finally click up front with Pereira in a starring role, but perhaps another tweak is needed to get what is an impressive collection of attacking talent to really fire.
In the 1953/54 season, Vic Buckingham’s Albion side moved into second place in the First Division table in August following a 3-1 win at Old Trafford and remained in the top two for the remainder of the season.
The defeat of Manchester United was the third match of the season in which the Baggies lost just one of their first fifteen games, the thirteenth of which was the visit of Huddersfield Town to the Hawthorns on 10th October.
Buckingham’s team were two points clear at the top of the table and it was the Terriers who were in second, a point clear of Wolves, so this was to be a true test of Albion’s title credentials.
They would have to face their closest rivals in the table without Ray Barlow, one of their most important players. The left half was on England duty as a reserve as they beat Wales 4-1 in Cardiff. His place was taken by young Dudley-born Billy Brookes making the first of the nineteen games he played for Albion.
It didn’t take long for the hosts to show their quality as they took the lead after 11 minutes through Ronnie Allen. He fired in a shot from 30 yards after a one-two with Irish international, Reg Ryan. Allen, himself, would be an England regular by the end of the season to Albion’s ultimate misfortune as he missed a key game with Wolves to play for his country.
Another player who would receive his international call up before the campaign was over made it 2-0 on the half hour. Dudley, Ryan and Allen were all involved in the build up, but it was Johnny Nicholls who finished it off with a fine shot just inside the post from 18 yards.
Town ‘keeper, Harry Mills, had to be at his best before the break to deny Allen his second goal, but he almost gifted one to Albion’s centre forward in the second half following a mix up with Ron Staniforth. The ball fell to Allen with Mills well out of his net, but his lob just curled wide.
The visitors finally started to get some concerted pressure on the Albion goal as the second half wore on, but the home defence stood firm with both Dudley and Dugdale making important last ditch interventions.
Huddersfield’s pressure didn’t last, however, and the Baggies finished the stronger. With nine minutes left, Allen finally got his second goal with a delightful lob over the goalkeeper. A few minutes later, he completed his hat-trick firing home George Lee’s cross to make the final score 4-0.
That left Albion three points clear at the top of the table after 13 games with Wolves up into second place but, while the Baggies won the FA Cup that season, it was their near neighbours who took the league title.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
24 Feb 2018 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Dawson)
Huddersfield Town 2 (van La Parra, Mounié)
2 Jan 2010 – FA Cup 3rd Round
Huddersfield Town 0
West Brom 2 (Dorrans, Wood)
Last win at the Hawthorns
14 Nov 1998 – League Division 1
West Brom 3 (Hughes (3, 2 pens))
Huddersfield Town 1 (Beresford)
Albion’s Record against Huddersfield Town