Graeme Jones returns to the Hawthorns on Saturday for the first time since he was dismissed, along with Darren Moore, in March. It comes at a crucial stage in the season for both Albion and Jones’s Luton Town, as they battle for points at opposite ends of the table.
The Luton boss is unlikely to get a warm welcome at the Hawthorns with many fans seeing him, rather than Darren Moore, as the “villain of the piece” in the failure to win promotion last season.
Slaven Bilić has become increasingly frustrated in recent weeks as Albion have continued to give away poor goals while failing to spark at the other end of the field. In fairness, the defensive frailties have been present for most of the season, particularly at home, but the team’s attacking prowess ensured that the victories kept coming before Christmas.
Up to and including the win over Birmingham City last month, Albion averaged almost two goals per game, conceding one per game. In the seven games since then, the numbers are 0.86 scored and 1.43 conceded. The statistics are stark – the Baggies have been in relegation form over the past six weeks.
Slav and the players are well aware of the problems and have been saying all the right things about turning this run around, but the cup matches aside, it hasn’t yet happened.
Tuesday evening’s game at Cardiff was a prime example of the Baggies’ recent form – I thought that in possession, Albion played some good stuff but didn’t have the penetration they should have. Having said that, they had some good chances that they failed to convert, and could easily have come away with a result. At the back, both goals were very poor defensively, although Tomlin’s free kick was exquisite, and that is the area where the biggest change needs to happen.
At the time of writing, however, Luke Dowling’s focus has been on strengthening the attacking area of the pitch with Callum Robinson having joined on loan from Sheffield United, and Kamil Grosicki making the move from Hull City. There could be further movements with Nathan Ferguson in talks with Crystal Palace and other incomings rumoured, but it does look as if Bilić will have a few more options ahead of the game on Saturday.
I doubt if any of the new signings will come into the starting line up straight away given they will have had limited time to train with their new team mates, although Robinson is a possibility given that his move was completed on Wednesday.
Bilić will almost certainly make changes at the back. I expect Furlong to return at right back – O’Shea has done well but he doesn’t have the same attacking threat as the former QPR man. Meanwhile, I expect Semi Ajayi to return after suspension, but whether it will be Hegazi or Bartley that makes way is unclear. Given the situation with Ferguson, Conor Townsend is almost certain to start at left back.
However, one thing that Slav may be considering is a change in formation. Although there is no doubt that there has been a drop off in form in recent weeks, one other factor has been that some teams have worked out how to stop Albion. The 4-2-3-1 formation has remained largely unchanged all season, and perhaps it is time to review its effectiveness. The Baggies’ last league victory at St Andrew’s was achieved after a switch to 3-5-2 for the final 20 minutes, and the Croat may be looking to freshen things up tactically.
As for Luton Town, it’s fair to say that Graeme Jones has found life as a number one tough so far. The Hatters are bottom of the table although they did manage to move level on points with Barnsley on Tuesday evening following a victory over Derby County. That was their first win in ten games in all competitions, and their only point in that period was a 3-3 home draw with Fulham on Boxing Day.
In some ways, Luton could be the perfect opponent for Albion to get out of their current malaise. They are unlikely to shut up shop as many teams do at the Hawthorns, and they are yet to keep a clean sheet away from Kenilworth Road conceding an average of 2.6 goals per game on the road.
Jones has bolstered his ranks with the signing of centre back, Cameron Carter-Vickers, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur and midfielder, Eunan O’Kane, on loan from Leeds United. Carter-Vickers was on loan at Stoke City but was recalled after he found himself out of the squad since the arrival of Michael O’Neill.
Let’s make no mistake that this is a massive game for Albion. Failure to beat Luton Town would raise serious doubts as to whether the Baggies are capable of turning this run of form around. There is still plenty of time to go this season, of course, and new signings and the return of Pereira and Diangana will have an impact, but the lead Albion had over third place is all but gone and a return to winning ways is long overdue.
The Hatters’ sojourn to the nether reaches of English football in recent years means that this season sees them in the same division as Albion for only the second time in the last 24 years.
Luton, of course, visited the Hawthorns in the Carabao Cup last season and were the victim of the rarest of commodities, an Oliver Burke goal for Albion, but their only league visit this millennium was in January 2007 when a late brace from Super Kevin Phillips saw the Baggies turn what looked like being a 2-1 defeat into a 3-2 victory.
Their previous league visit was in April 1996 during that remarkable season when the Alan Buckley’s Albion endured a 14-game winless streak, including eleven straight defeats, but still managed to finish mid-table. Luton’s visit was during the Baggies’ late recovery run, inspired by Richard Sneekes, but the visitors were nonetheless victorious thanks to goals from Boncho Guentchev and Kim Grant. It was Albion’s only defeat in their final 13 games of the season.
That is one of only three home defeats that Albion have suffered at the hands of Eric Morecambe’s favourite club, with the Baggies having won 17 of the 22 games between the two sides at the Shrine.
Their biggest victory is 4-0, a scoreline they have recorded on four separate occasions. The most recent was at the beginning of September 1984 when Steve Hunt, Cyrille Regis, Nicky Cross and Garry Thompson all scored to put Albion into third place in a fledgling Division One table. By the end of the month, the Baggies were 17th!
Luton Town’s first visit to the Hawthorns was for a First Round FA Cup tie in January 1925. George James scored a hat trick for the hosts with Charlie Wilson also scoring in another 4-0 win over the Hatters, then playing in Division Three (South).
All competitions; most recent game on the right
17 Aug 2019 – League Championship
Luton Town 1 (Cornick)
West Brom 2 (Diangana (2))
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
14 Aug 2018 – League Cup 1st Round
West Brom 1 (Burke)
Luton Town 0
Albion’s Record against Luton Town