After picking up maximum points from two away games without Dwight Gayle, Albion welcome him back for the first of two massive games in seven days against teams above them in the table.
First up is Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United at the Hawthorns. At Bramall Lane in December, Darren Moore’s side produced an excellent performance to take a massive three points in what was a landmark result at the time. On that occasion, the win meant that the Baggies leapfrogged the Blades in the table, something that will happen once again should they be victorious this weekend.
That was the third successive away win for Albion, and they have continued that form away from the Hawthorns, with the defeat at Ewood Park on New Year’s Day their only dropped points on the road since then. The problem has been at home and, if the Baggies are to win automatic promotion, their form at the Shrine needs to improve quickly and there is no better way to start than to beat Sheffield United on Saturday evening.
No Championship team has won more points than the Blades since that game on 14th December. Their 24 points from 11 games is only matched by in-form Bristol City (albeit the Robins have played one game less), while Hull City have picked up 23 points and Albion are fourth in that particular table with 21.
One massive reason for United’s success over the past two months has been the new Championship top scorer, Billy Sharp. The Sheffield-born striker has scored eleven goals in ten games with six in his last four league games including a hat trick at Villa Park. Despite that form, Wilder saw fit to leave Sharp on the bench for their last match at home to Reading, no doubt saving his 33-year-old legs for the trip to the Hawthorns. It didn’t seem to have too much impact on the Blades, however, as they thumped Reading 4-0 with striker, Gary Madine, on loan from Cardiff City, grabbing a brace.
David McGoldrick, who opened the scoring against Albion in December, was also on the bench for the visit of the Royals which means Wilder’s first choice striking partnership are fully rested for this weekend.
McGoldrick and Sharp have 33 Championship goals between them this season which is exactly the same as Albion’s top scorers, Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez. Like the Blades’ pair, Gayle will be well rested while it seems that Rodriguez doesn’t need much of a rest this season having started every single league game for the Baggies failing to finish only six of them. It doesn’t seem to have affected his workrate, however, and even on Tuesday evening when he didn’t make any headlines he still worked as hard as ever and played a crucial part on Albion’s victory.
While it was Livermore who got the crucial goal in stoppage time, Jacob Murphy was the most impressive of the attacking players as he claimed an assist for the opener and scored a wonderful goal to put the Baggies 2-1 up. Having been the subject of what I felt was unfair criticism from certain elements of the Albion “support”, it was a statement performance from the Newcastle loanee.
One other massive positive from the match was the return to fitness of Matt Phillips. That means that having had almost no choice up front for a few games, Darren Moore now has a dilemma as to who to play. Gayle, Rodriguez, Murphy and Phillips could all claim a place, while Hal Robson-Kanu cannot be ignored if fit. Obviously, Phillips could drop back into midfield where he had been playing before his injury, but the form of Barry, Harper, Field and Livermore, plus the promising option of Johansen, means there is competition there even before the return of the Scotland international.
I think we are starting to see what a massive impact the January loan signings will have on the remainder of the season. With the vast majority of the squad now fit, there is strength in depth which will prove crucial for these final thirteen games of the season. It may make Moore’s job a little more difficult in terms of choosing a starting eleven, but with everyone fit, he will always have great options on the bench.
The first thing I would like to see on Saturday is for Albion to get through the first 30 minutes without giving away a goal. While not as poor an error as the ones we saw against Forest and Middlesbrough, QPR’s first equaliser on Tuesday was eminently preventable and the Baggies need to cut out those errors. I’m not one of those calling for them to stop playing out from the back, I believe it is key to Albion’s success this season, but the decision making on which pass to make needs to improve. It’s down to individuals and one has to hope that they learn from their mistakes.
It seems to me that teams are coming to the Hawthorns and pressing early on, but no one can keep that up for an extended period. Martin O’Neill’s team were as good as anyone in Albion’s last home game, and the players need to recognise when the press is at its hardest and change tactics accordingly. Of course, if they can beat the press, the chances of a successful attack are that much greater (which is the general idea!), but the risks need to be weighed up, particularly early in a game.
I also feel that the home support has a massive part to play. The frustration, if not anger, expressed when the players make mistakes does have an impact on the field. Playing at home of late has been a disadvantage as results have suggested, and that needs to change if the Hawthorns is to become a fortress once again. After the opening day defeat to Bolton, Albion won five home league games on the bounce scoring 19 goals – that is the sort of form that they will need to reproduce at the Hawthorns to secure a top two spot. The fans can play a massive part in that, starting on Saturday evening.
The late win at Loftus Road will have given the team a massive boost, and you really got a sense that this does mean something to this group of players – the scenes of celebration just as heartfelt on the pitch as they were in the stands, with the loan players very much a part of it.
The signs are all there that this could end very well – a win over the Blades would be another massive tick in the box.
The league record between the Baggies and the Blades stands almost exactly level with both clubs having recorded 40 wins each with Albion having scored 141 goals to United’s 140. The Baggies’ superior cup record means that they hold the advantage overall.
United joined Division Two in 1892, were immediately promoted and Albion hosted them for the first time at Stoney Lane on Boxing Day 1893. The Baggies prevailed 3-1 thanks to goals from Billy Bassett, Oliver Norman and Tom Pearson to complete the league double over the Blades that season.
Albion won six of their first seven games against United at Stoney Lane even as the Blades developed into one of the leading forces in English football winning their first league title in 1898.
At the Hawthorns, it was a different story initially as it was against most clubs in the early days at their new ground. The Blades won 2-0 on their first visit in April 1901 and it wasn’t until October 1912 that Albion recorded their first win over United at the Hawthorns, when a brace from Fred Morris helped them to a 3-1 win.
The Baggies’ biggest win over the red and white half of Sheffield was in the fourth round of the FA Cup in January 1935 at the Hawthorns. Ginger Richardson scored a hat trick, Teddy Sandford grabbed a double and there were also goals from Joe Carter and Arthur Gale as Albion won 7-1. Ultimately, Sheffield prevailed in that season’s FA Cup, however, as Wednesday beat Albion in the final.
In the league, Albion’s biggest home win is 4-0 which they have recorded twice. The first was in 1923, while more recently, goals from Andy Gray, Don Goodman, Bobby Williamson and Tony Morley secured the points in a Division Two fixture in November 1987.
The Blades’ biggest win in West Bromwich was just two years later. It was an inauspicious start to the 1989/90 season for Brian Talbot’s Baggies as a brace from Tony Agana and another from Brian Deane helped United to a 3-0 win. Dave Bassett’s side went on to win promotion that season and were, of course, founder members of the Premier League with Deane scoring the first ever goal in the new top flight three years later.
United last visited the Hawthorns in January 2010 when Robbie di Matteo’s side won comfortably thanks to a penalty from Graham Dorrans and further goals from Roman Bednar and Jerome Thomas – Darius Henderson scored from the spot for the visitors making the final score 3-1.
Albion had won just one of the previous five home games against the Blades, a period that included with the reign of Neil Warnock at Bramall Lane. In 2001 and 2003, one of Baggies’ fans least favourite managers engineered 1-0 and 2-0 victories at the Hawthorns against Gary Megson’s side, something that the Albion boss did not enjoy, although he had the last laugh on both occasions recording wins at Bramall Lane later in the season and, of course, winning promotion.
With a more-or-less fully fit squad to choose from, I think Albion’s superior quality will tell – home win.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
14 Dec 2018 – League Championship
Sheffield United 1 (McGoldrick)
West Brom 2 (Barry, Gibbs)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
30 Jan 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 3 (Dorrans (pen), Bednar, Thomas)
Sheffield United 1 (Henderson (pen))
Albion’s Record against Sheffield United