The first Black Country Derby for almost nine years this coming Saturday will be like no other. The absence of supporters in the stadium will make it a very different occasion but for those watching from home, there is no less desire to see their club come out on top.
For Albion fans, the overriding feeling will surely be one of trepidation given their recent results, although Wolves’ own recent patchy form may offer a glimmer of hope that Sam Allardyce’s team could pull off a surprise result.
For Wolves fans, the chance to gain revenge for the 5-1 thumping that Roy Hodgson’s Albion meted out in the last meeting has been a long time coming. The two clubs have both changed massively in the intervening years and the Baggies’ current troubles will undoubtedly give them hope of a similarly convincing victory, but always with that lingering doubt that a derby is never straightforward.
It certainly feels as if it can’t get any worse for Albion, although a derby day thumping would tip the balance. Jake Livermore’s post-match huddle after the shoot out defeat at Blackpool was most likely an attempt to galvanise his team mates at their lowest ebb, although how many of those will start the game at Molineux remains to be seen.
Sam Allardyce has had another week to work with his squad in an effort to establish the defensive organisation that his teams are normally known for. There has been little evidence of it so far, bar the backs-to-the-wall performance at Anfield, but perhaps another week will see some progress.
However, Allardyce’s comments about the COVID restrictions impacting his ability to work with the players in the way he would like are perhaps a warning that it could take longer than it would under “normal” circumstances.
Big Sam is also struggling in the transfer market. Robert Snodgrass has joined from West Ham United while Andy Lonergan has come in on a free transfer to replace Jonathan Bond who has joined LA Galaxy (must be mad to swap Sandwell for California!). Further new faces have proved difficult to secure so far, and Allardyce has been vocal about the difficulties he is experiencing. While there are still two weeks of the window to go, Albion play another four games in that time and the squad needs strengthening as soon as possible.
It’s debateable whether he learned too much from the game at Blackpool. Kamil Grosicki probably did himself some good in that he can offer an out ball with his pace, but Ajayi did OK without showing that he is capable of stepping into midfield for a Premier League match. Conor Gallagher is suspended so there will need to be some sort of a shuffle in the middle of the park.
I certainly don’t envy Allardyce’s selection choices – Johnstone will play in goal, Snodgrass will make his debut and Jake Livermore is likely to be skipper. Other than that, it’s a bit pot luck. For what it’s worth, I expect to see Ajayi and O’Shea in the centre of defence, but I’m not confident of any other picks.
For me, it is down to the mentality and application of the team more than the individuals who play. Whether Snodgrass’s supposed dressing room presence will be enough to make a difference on his own, or if Allardyce and his coaching team will have made enough impact this week, is anybody’s guess. If Albion are to get anything from this match, something needs to change dramatically.
We’ve been looking for a turning point for a few games now – Anfield could have been it, but the three results since then have put paid to that idea. Could it be this weekend?
The equivalent fixture in the Great Escape season was another local derby, but that did not go well with Robson’s team succumbing to a 4-0 defeat at St Andrew’s just before Christmas. His first league win as Albion boss was still six games away which, if nothing else, suggests that there is still time for Allardyce to turn things around.
Kicking it off with a win at Wolves would be nice though, wouldn’t it?