Valérien Ismaël takes charge of his new Baggies side at the Hawthorns for the first time on Saturday with Nathan Jones’ Luton Town the visitors for Albion’s opening home game.
It will be the Frenchman’s first match involvement of any sort at the Hawthorns with none of Albion’s pre-season friendlies having been played at the stadium and he wasn’t lucky enough to visit the Shrine with Crystal Palace in his short time as a player in English football.
It will be a special day in B71 with fans welcomed back in unrestricted numbers for the first time since the FA Cup tie with Newcastle United on 3rd March 2020 and the added bonus that club legend Chris Brunt will be the guest of honour giving the opportunity for the Hawthorns faithful to show their appreciation for a stellar Baggies career.
Furthermore, for those not lucky enough to be at the Vitality Stadium last week, or able to watch the match on Sky Sports, it will be a first look at Val-ball, the high intensity, high pressing, high risk approach that Albion’s new boss has introduced. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I feel most will find it exciting and entertaining and most will be hoping for, if not expecting, a first win for Ismaël on Saturday.
The Hatters will be no pushovers, however. Nathan Jones really had been gone too long when he returned to Kenilworth Road ahead of Project Restart last year to replace his namesake, Graeme. Luton were rock bottom of the Championship but the Welshman managed to engineer four wins and just one (albeit heavy) defeat from those final nine games to escape relegation by three points. Last season saw Luton enjoy a comfortable mid-table existence eventually finishing 12th but some pundits are tipping them to challenge for the play-offs this season – they started the season in fine style beating newly promoted Peterborough United 3-0 with Fred Onyedinma starring with a goal and two assists.
The two managers came up against one another in April when Barnsley visited Bedfordshire’s only league club and it was Ismaël who came out on top as the Tykes won 2-1 thanks to a brace from American striker, Darryl Dike, who has been linked in recent days with a potential loan move to the Hawthorns.
While Albion have had a clear week thanks to avoiding a bottom place finish last season thereby receiving a bye to the second round of the EFL Cup, Luton were in action losing on penalties to local rivals, Stevenage. However, Jones opted to switch his entire starting line up for Tuesday’s match and only four players played a part in both games, so it is unlikely to have much impact on Saturday’s fixture.
Big Val has indicated that he will be rotating his squad throughout the season and it will be interesting to see what changes he makes. In central midfield, Romaine Sawyers is, perhaps, the only real alternative but whether he suits Val-ball is in doubt, and there are suggestions that he has been told he can leave. That would suggest that Albion are in the market for a new face in that position unless Ismaël feels that someone from the academy can step up, or that he has good enough cover with Snodgrass, Phillips, Ajayi and, maybe, Reach able to play in the middle of the park.
So while I expect the midfield pair to remain unchanged, both the back three and front three may well see changes. When Matt Clarke was injured on the day of the Bournemouth game, eyebrows were raised when the boss opted to hand Cédric Kipré his league debut rather than play Semi Ajayi. The Nigerian has the pace that would certainly be an asset given the high line that Ismaël like to play and Kipré did look a little lost for both goals conceded that night.
Other than Dara O’Shea, there are no real wing back alternatives without dipping into the U23 squad, but given the way Ismaël plays, Townsend and Furlong play more as attackers than defenders. While you wouldn’t probably want to swap both out for wingers, you could afford for one of Albion’s wide forwards to deputise on occasion. I’m not expecting any changes this weekend, however.
Up front, Phillips’ introduction did appear to galvanise the side in the second half last week, and I’d expect him to start with Diangana perhaps the most likely to drop to the bench. There are other options in Tulloch, Reach and Zohore, but I’d be surprised to seen any of them start just yet.
One further change that has been mooted is the return of Sam Johnstone to the first team. The England international was on the bench at Bournemouth as a result of his late return to pre-season training after the Euros and the expectation that he will be sold. However, with little apparent interest in his signature, there have been suggestions that he will stay for the season and perhaps even sign a new contract. However, the rumours that Arsenal have pulled out of the running for Blades’ ‘keeper, Aaron Ramsdale, could mean that the Gunners will turn to Johnstone instead.
All will become clear before the end of the month, of course, but in the meantime, the Baggies have some games to win, starting on Saturday.
Albion have lost just one of the last eleven meetings with Luton Town, with that defeat coming at the Hawthorns in April 1996 when goals from Boncho Guentchev and Kim Grant earned the visitors a 2-0 victory against Alan Buckley’s side.
The Baggies biggest win over the Hatters is 4-0, something they have achieved on three occasions, most recently in September 1984 when Steve Hunt, Cyrille Regis, Nick Cross and Garry Thompson were all on the scoresheet. In the 1950s, Luton visited the Hawthorns on five occasions losing each time with an aggregate score of 17-3 (3-1, 4-0, 4-2, 2-0 and 4-0).
All competitions; most recent game on the right
1 Feb 2020 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Daniels (o.g.), Ajayi)
Luton Town 0
Albion’s Record against Luton Town
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