A few days after losing his record-breaking 1,602nd game as a manager, one of the most unpopular managers amongst Albion fans returns to the Hawthorns in charge of his 14th club. Neil Warnock, or “Colin” as he is known by those who do not hold him in the highest regard, was last at the Shrine in October 2019 when his Cardiff City team were beaten 4-2 with Grady Diangana was amongst the scorers, but he is perhaps most remembered to Baggies fans as the Sheffield United boss for the Battle of Bramall Lane in 2002.
As is commonplace with the media darling that is Neil Warnock, he has been playing mind games this week complaining that his squad has been “decimated” but that “whoever turns up” will give Albion a game. Apparently, Boro’ only have three fit defenders, one of which is former Baggie Lee Peltier, while further forward, Sammy Ameobi, Marcus Browne, Martin Payero and Uche Ikpeazu are either ruled out or doubtful and joint top scorer, Matt Crooks, picked up his fifth booking in the defeat at Luton Town in midweek.
While the Boro squad is undoubtedly weakened, they will still represent a tough test for Valérien Ismaël’s team. As most clubs will do this season, I’m sure they will be less than ambitious and look to frustrate Albion. The Baggies, however, look to have found a way to beat those sides of late having managed to win their last four home games against opposition that have set up defensively and it is the sides that have attacked them that have had success with Stoke, Swansea and Fulham taking maximum points in Albion’s last three away games.
In Marcus Tavernier, Jonny Howson and the other joint top scorer, Slovenian striker Andraž Šporar, the Teessiders do have good attacking players at this level and they should still present a tougher test than either Bristol City or Hull City even with their injury problems.
Ismaël will be able to call on Darnell Furlong and Kyle Bartley who will be available again after their suspensions but the indications are that Alex Mowatt will be given the international break to fully recover from his foot injury. While I expect Furlong and Bartley to be immediately recalled to the starting eleven, Furlong, in particular, will know that he needs to keep on the top of his game if he is to retain his starting place. Taylor Gardner-Hickman’s performance was the highlight of the victory over Hull City on Wednesday night and he will be pushing Furlong all the way just as Reach is keeping Townsend honest on the opposite flank.
Before Wednesday, the back three had been unchanged since Clarke’s return to the starting line up after the last international break, but Ismaël was forced into a change with Bartley’s suspension and he also chose to drop Semi Ajayi to the bench meaning that Kean Bryan and Cédric Kipré came into the side starting either side of Matt Clarke. Bryan suffered an injury in the first half and, rather than bringing Ajayi on, Big Val opted to push Townsend into the back three and bring Adam Reach on. I though Kipré had a good game on the whole and he produced a couple of exquisite long range passes to put Reach in behind the Hull defence and he will have given Ismaël food for thought as he selects his back three for this match.
I’ve said for a couple of weeks that I would like to see Grady Diangana start. I think he struggles from the bench as it often takes him a while to get up to speed with the game, although he did score a brace from the bench on his debut! It may be a confidence issue and with a run in the side from the start, we will hopefully start to see the talented player we know he is. The other slight issue is that Grady is at his best from the left, a position that Grant seems to have made his own given his recent goalscoring from.
The selection of the front three is a bit of a quandary. Karlan Grant is obviously in goalscoring form but didn’t have the best of games on Wednesday, other than the goal, while Jordan Hugill is probably best suited to the central role but is incredibly inconsistent. Callum Robinson seems to be the preferred alternative to Hugill but given that Matt Phillips seems to spend most of his time drifting into a central position, maybe he should play there – it is a role he performed in pre-season but I’m not sure that he has done it since then.
After two below par performances, I would not start Snodgrass and play Molumby instead alongside Livermore in the middle. The young Irishman was incredibly unlucky to be dropped after his performance against Bristol City and I think he deserves another start.
Hopefully the Hawthorns will be a bit fuller than it was on Wednesday, but another positive result would be just the ticket to take into the final international break of the year.
Saturday’s match between West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough will be the 98th meeting between the clubs in all competitions and the 93rd in the league. Boro’ hold the edge with 40 wins to Albion’s 34 in the head-to-head record and they have won three of the last four meetings, including the last two at the Hawthorns.
Results between the sides have tended to be a bit streaky over the years. Albion were unbeaten against the Teessiders for the first seven meetings with Boro’s first win coming at Ayresome Park in April 1912. It would be another nine years before they recorded their first win at the Hawthorns when George Elliott scored the only goal of the game in February 1921.
Albion enjoyed an eight match unbeaten run against Boro between 1923 and 1932 and a six match unbeaten run more recently between 2008 and 2018 which included four straight victories. Middlesbrough, on the other hand, won six on the bounce between 1938 and 1951 and enjoyed a 12 match unbeaten run against the Baggies from 1981 finally ended in April 1998 when a James Quinn double, one of which was a penalty, earned the hosts a 2-1 win at the Hawthorns.
The Baggies’ biggest win over MIddlesbrough was 5-0 at the Riverside Stadium in 2008 while their biggest home win was in January 1935 when goals from W. G. ‘Ginger’ Richardson, Wally Boyes, Arthur Gayle, Teddy Sandford (2) and Joe Carter saw them win 6-3. They followed that up in Boxing Day of the same year with a 5-2 win when the incomparable Ginger Richardson scored four goals.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
29 Dec 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 0
Middlesbrough 2 (Ayala, Fletcher)
19 Oct 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Robson-Kanu)
Last win at the Hawthorns
17 Apr 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Cox, Bednár)
Albion’s Record against Middlesbrough