Baggies boss, Slaven Bilić, faces the biggest selection dilemma of his short tenure at the Hawthorns this weekend as he must decide how to replace the suspended midfield pair of Romaine Sawyers and Jake Livermore for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday.
The two have been the fulcrum of the Baggies side this season starting all sixteen of their Championship fixtures so far and it is somewhat unfortunate that both players picked up their fifth bookings in the same game. The Croat has not been forced into too many changes to his starting line up this season, but when he has, his decisions have worked out well – left back has been the “problem” position to date, but replacing the injured Gibbs with Ferguson was a masterstroke and Conor Townsend has also deputised well for Ferguson during his own suspension.
However, while coping with one of the Sawyers/Livermore partnership would have been eminently manageable, replacing both of them is far more difficult. Fans and journalists alike have been debating the possible options for the past week or so, and each one has its advantages and disadvantages and it is difficult to predict which way Bilić will go.
Brunt, Barry, Ajayi, Harper and Krovinović seem to be the obvious choices for the two midfield slots and no combination offers the balance that Livermore and Sawyers have developed. For me, Barry and Harper are outside chances for inclusion, purely because of their lack of first team action this season. Harper seems to have fallen well down the pecking order having played just six minutes all season, as a substitute on the opening day, and has not featured in a matchday squad since game two. Barry, meanwhile, played his first competitive match this season for a reserve side earlier this week and is surely lacking the fitness to be considered for a league start.
The head coach’s compatriot, Filip Krovinović, would seem to be a shoo-in as the Sawyers replacement. He is certainly tidy in possession and able to recycle the ball well, and that role probably suits him better than the number ten position we have seen him in most frequently.
Semi Ajayi is perhaps the obvious choice for the Livermore replacement, having featured extensively as a defensive midfielder for Rotherham United. However, while there may seem to be a ready-made replacement in the back line in Ahmed Hegazi, the Egyptian has not played that much football this season and losing Ajayi’s pace from the back four would necessitate a change in approach in defence as Albion would surely have to defend a little deeper.
Chris Brunt is perhaps the next most obvious candidate for the more defensive of the two. He is obviously not as mobile or as tenacious in the tackle as Ajayi, and has become prone to giving away free kicks around the area in recent years, which would be a particular concern with Adam Reach amongst the opposition. However, it would leave the back four unchanged which is a positive that Bilić may consider is worth the risk.
There is, perhaps, another option to consider that hasn’t been much talked about, and that is to change formation. With an international break providing extra time to prepare, it may be something that Bilić will look at. There was a suggestion in the summer that he wanted to play 4-4-2 but, with the 4-2-3-1 working so well, he has not been tempted to change it as yet.
A 4-4-2 would obviously bring a second striker into the picture and, perhaps, give licence to play two genuine ball players into the middle of the park. By giving the opposition more to worry about up top, could there be scope for playing a midfield two of Pereira and Krovinović or maybe Pereira and Brunt? There is the fear that it would leave the midfield too lightweight, but Albion should be looking to get on the front foot at the Hawthorns rather than worry about the opposition, and a more attacking formation may force Wednesday’s midfielders a little deeper. It would also give Austin the opportunity to play with a partner, something many feel is what he needs to be more effective.
It would certainly be a bold approach but, for me, there isn’t a solution that doesn’t come with some compromise. I think the back four should be left unchanged, and I’d prefer to see Hegazi given a more gentle re-introduction back into the side rather than a full ninety minutes. Without a natural replacement for Livermore, putting the emphasis on attack could be the right approach.
Whatever decisions Bilić makes, it will be a game that Albion will be looking to win. They are unbeaten at the Hawthorns but have drawn their last two games against sides they will have expected to beat. On those occasions, their promotion rivals also dropped points, but that cannot be expected to happen that frequently and home wins will be the basis of any promotion challenge.
As for our opponents, it’s been a strange season. With manager, Steve Bruce, resigning in July to move back to his homeland, they took a while to appoint a permanent successor. Caretaker, Lee Bullen, seemed to be in with a shout as the Owls took an early lead in the Championship winning three of their opening four games albeit against sides not expected to challenge, but after successive defeats to Preston and QPR, Garry Monk was appointed during the September international break.
The former Blues boss has had a reasonable start to his tenure at Hillsborough with a 4-1 win at Middlesbrough the stand out result, although Wednesday have managed just one win from their last five games leaving them in 8th spot three points outside the play off positions.
An Owls fan I was talking to at Wembley last week was surprised at how high they were in the table describing them as “awful”, so it will be interesting to see how they perform on Saturday.
Off the pitch, the club are facing a charge of breaking the EFL financial regulations with the sale of their stadium to the owner in what seemed an attempt to avoid breaching spending limits. If found guilty, any sanction up to expulsion from the league could be applied, although a points deduction and/or fine seems more likely.
A number of Albion players received international call ups with both Semi Ajayi and Ahmed Hegazi first choice centre backs for Nigeria and Egypt respectively. Dara O’Shea captained the Irish team in the European U21 Championships qualifier in Armenia, but received a straight red card with 15 minutes left and had to sit out their 4-1 win over Sweden. Meanwhile, Grady Diangana made his debut for the England U21s in a 2-1 defeat in the Netherlands and Nathan Ferguson made a substitute appearance for the U20s.
All have thankfully come through unscathed, although Ferguson remains unavailable as he serves the last of his three game ban for the red card against Charlton. There has been plenty of talk about his failure to commit his future to the Baggies just yet, and it remains to be seen what could happen in January.
While Albion are currently enjoying a six match unbeaten run against Wednesday, the 1-0 victory in March 2010 is their only home win over the Owls in more than 45 years.
That previous win was also in the second tier in March 1975 in the latter days of Don Howe’s tenure as Baggies boss. Albion’s promotion challenge had faded since the turn of the year with them winning just one league game in the calendar year to that point dropping down to tenth place in the Division Two table.
However, it was a tight battle and the Baggies were only six points off third spot so there remained an outside chance of promotion should Howe’s team finish with a good run. Wednesday were the perfect opponents to kick that off sitting five points adrift at the bottom of the table under manager, Steve Burtenshaw.
Howe was forced into changes in his side, with regular ‘keeper, John Osborne, having been injured in the 3-0 defeat at Sunderland the previous week. His experienced second choice stopper, Peter Latchford, was on loan at Celtic so 20-year-old Bob Ward got the nod for his league debut. Meanwhile, Joe Mayo was dropped in favour of another youngster, Ian Edwards, who also made his debut. He had been on impressive form for the reserves scoring a hat trick the previous week.
The first half was a dour affair as Albion’s poor form looked to be continuing and they were perhaps a little fortunate to go into the break all square. Soon after half time, however, the hosts were ahead and the young Welshman, Edwards, was involved. He was about to connect with a Willie Johnston cross when Wednesday defender, Alan Thompson, impeded him enough for the referee to award a penalty. Bomber Brown converted and the Baggies were off and running.
Brown should have scored a second shortly afterwards but missed an easy chance and, while Albion were dominating the game, they had to wait until the 72nd minute to make the game safe. A Johnston corner eventually fell to John Wile who thumped the ball home on the volley.
Edwards, who had been a threat all game, finally scored the goal that his debut performance deserved with seven minutes left, and it was all of his own making. He won possession just inside the visitors’ half and ran powerfully passed two defenders before calmly slotting the ball past Peter Fox in the Wednesday goal.
The youngster still had time to register an assist for Tony Brown who scored his second of the game with three minutes left to put a gloss on the scoreline that was scarcely deserved.
While that result was exactly what was required, it was not enough to spark a run to the top three. Back to back defeats at the end of the month at Villa and Blackpool pretty much ended their faint promotion hopes and, when Howe was told his contract would not be renewed, he resigned on the spot leaving Chief Scout, Brian Whitehouse, to take the final four games of the season. The Baggies ultimately finished sixth.
Brian Whitehouse is a little-known figure in Albion’s history, but he should be remembered as the man who gave Bryan Robson his Albion debut in a 3-1 win at York City in his second game in charge. The future England captain scored on his home debut the following week.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
29 Dec 2018 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Jones (o.g.))
Sheffield Wednesday 1 (Nuhiu)
9 Mar 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 1 (Koren)
Sheffield Wednesday 0
Albion’s Record against Sheffield Wednesday