This is shaping up to be something of a strange one. With North End having all but mathematically fallen out of the play-off race in recent weeks, we’ve all also been hit with more concerning news over the last couple of days about manager Alex Neil’s rumoured move to West Brom being seemingly more imminent than first thought.
It leaves the game, if not the club, in a strange state of limbo where it seems West Brom are about to line up against a team led by a man who is, to all intents and purposes, set to become their new manager.
An odd situation indeed, but it’s time to consider the game itself. North End are, in reality, just eight points away from a play-off berth. With only fifteen points left to play for, however, it would now take a minor miracle for North End to end up in the top six. So, it’s time to focus on finishing the season as strongly as possible and try to build a foundation strong enough for a summer that might involve quite a bit of turmoil and suspense.
West Brom themselves lie in 4th place (a fact that leaves me incredulous as to quite why they sacked Darren Moore in the first place) and will already be in the throes of considering their approach to the play-offs, particularly when picking a new manager.
The previous meeting between the two sides came a full twenty-eight weeks ago at the end of September. As some may recall, it was a game that left us rock bottom with five points from the first ten games of the campaign, but it was also to be our last defeat until December.
North End showed the promise of things to come that day, the promise that would ultimately turn our season around into the moderate success it has been, despite where we end up come May 5th. It ended PNE 2-3 West Brom but the Lilywhites were much improved from the performances in the early stage of the season.
Andrew Hughes and Alan Browne got on the scoresheet that day, two players who pushed on from there and have had superb seasons to date though, Andrew Hughes’ season has come to a premature end. Browne has consistently been one of the best players throughout this season and Andrew Hughes after a shaky start has now developed into a reliable replacement for Greg Cunningham.
Beating the Lilywhites on the day required superbly taken goals from Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle. These goals, a well placed header and a stunningly accurate free kick, were added to by a quite absurd own goal from Ben Davies, the manner of which just about summed up our luck between late July, when the injuries started piling up pre-season, and early October.
PNE are now without a point in three having lost at Reading and then, most recently to 3rd and 2nd place in the league. A bad run of results no doubt, but it’s important to take a step back and consider that we were facing teams in Sheffield United and Leeds United that stand an excellent chance of playing Premier League football next season. Be that with, or without the play-offs being necessary.
Reading’s position in the table is also lower than is representative of their ability and the game at the Madejski had it’s odds stacked against us all day with injuries piling up again and finally getting the better of our already weakened squad that had done so incredibly to go the previous twelve unbeaten.
The Baggies themselves are coming into the weekend off the back of consecutive defeats. Losses to Millwall and Bristol City on the bounce have seen them slip dramatically from automatic promotion contenders to the middle of the play-off pack, with Leeds and Sheffield United both utilising their wins over Preston to edge further away and create seemingly a two-horse-race to find out who will be joining Norwich in the automatic spots.
For starters, Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle are both up there with Alexander Mitrovic in terms of quality forwards that absolutely love a goal against North End. The two have formed a fine partnership this season directly contributing to forty-five goals, scoring thirty-eight of them.
The insistence on trying to fit Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez into the same 4-3-3 set-up sees them occupying two of the positions in the front three, despite both being centre forwards, with the other slot often filled by Kyle Edwards or Jacob Murphy, more natural wingers.
This has been Shan’s preferred method of operation when it would seem far more appropriate for his system that Edwards and Murphy operate as wingers either side of Rodriguez OR Gayle, allowing the forward that misses out to be utilised as a very dangerous and impactful substitute option.
It is an issue that Shan didn’t create himself, the shoehorning of two strikers into one-striker systems has been a problem for West Brom all season, even under Darren Moore. This could be a key explanation as to why they haven’t had an even more successful season than they have to this point.
Many would have tipped the Baggies to go up as champions at the start of the campaign, especially after seeing how many of their squad possessed genuine Premier League quality, but this tactical insufficiency has seen them rely on the aforementioned individual quality to make it into the play-off berth they currently occupy.
The Baggies themselves have suffered a recent injury crisis, particularly at the back and so their defensive line might be a little tricky to predict, with Craig Dawson and Kyle Bartley recently back from injury and Ahmed Hegazi available for selection following suspension.
Despite the fairly recent switch to a regular flat back four, the full-backs, most likely Mason Holgate on the right and Connor Townsend on the left, still push on well up the pitch. These constantly overlapping fullbacks absolutely pack the opposition half when attacking and can cause an overload on either side.
With the likelihood of Chris Brunt and Stefan Johansen featuring in the 3 man midfield, both of whom like to drift further forward and slightly wider into something akin to the “inside right/inside left” positions of days gone by, there’s a concerning chance that West Brom could be in possession in seemingly harmless positions before suddenly having an overload available to work the ball into space for the likes of Rodriguez, Gayle and onrushing attacking midfielders like Kyle Edwards.
Were Tom Barkhuizen and Brad Potts available and fighting fit you might think North End have a great chance of catching the Baggies upfield and countering in the same manner that helped us to our win at Stoke in January, but injuries leave us again without what seems to be our best opportunity to exploit the weaknesses in our opponents’ set-up.
This week, Tommy Farr has provided us with a view from West Bromwich. You can follow him on twitter here – @Gingerzola
Working out what The Albion are going to do next isn’t the easiest of tasks. The sacking of Darren Moore – who worked wonders during the dregs of our recent Premier League stay – came slightly out of the blue, though in my opinion, was the correct decision (I would not have appointed the man who is undoubtedly one of the nicest in the game, but, as is often the case in this part of the Black Country, sentiment prevailed over common sense).
What has followed since has reduced the club to a laughing stock and led to widespread questioning of, deep breath, an absent owner, a CEO interested in nothing but the balance sheet and his own pocket, a recently-appointed Technical Director, the recruitment department in general, the caretaker manager who remains in his first team coaching infancy and, finally, a squad incorrectly annointed as being the league’s finest.
The season started poorly with a home defeat to Bolton but was quickly put back on track thanks to the ability to outscore opponents – an ability which has been sorely needed throughout the campaign thanks to a seive-like defence, the gifting of early goals and an apparent willingness to continually shoot ourselves in the foot.
Graeme Jones was Moore’s eventual choice as assistant manager on the eve of the season and early doubts regarding his role grew louder as his influence on the team became more apparent. He held far too much sway over Moore and I do wonder whether Moore would do things differently if he could have his time again. As it turned out, Jones’ insistence on overplaying from the back has been one of biggest bones of contention for an increasingly perplexed fanbase, and something which still costs us goals, right up to Tuesday night at Ashton Gate.
Saturday’s match sees Alex Neil bring his Preston side, and, if reports are to be believed, possibly his suitcase too, to The Hawthorns for a match which both sides will be looking to use to get out of a mini rut which, in Albion’s case, has seen back to back defeats on the road and fans, finally, turning on the Board.
Such dithering as we’ve seen should’ve been incomprehensible with the CEO stating that an appointment to succeed Moore would be made “within days” of his sacking, but here we are in the ridiculous situation of a one-time model club limping along, taking the most important phase of the season on a game by game basis under the stewardship of a complete rookie who, through no fault of his own, has been thrust into the spotlight and left to deflect the most obvious of questions upstairs to a rarely seen or heard from Board. It is hard to put forth a reasonable defence of the decision-makers at the club and I’ll be wasting no time in doing so here. They are worthy of nothing but contempt. Meanwhile, Slavisa Jokanovic sits idly twiddling his thumbs!
At this point, attention turns to providing a few hints at the likely lineup and style of play, which should be a straightforward task in mid-April, but that it isn’t is simply another pointer to our struggles. The coaching staff has been unable throughout the season to settle on a best lineup or how to get the most from it, but here goes:
Johnstone; Holgate, Hegazi, Dawson, Gibbs; Livermore, Brunt, Brunt, Johansen; Rodriguez, Gayle, Edwards
Simply seeing these names on a teamsheet has led to many outsiders scratching their heads at how Albion fans can moan or question their quality, but maybe after Saturday, you’ll see why so many of us do.
If it is to be Alex Neil in the hot seat next, he will be well supported from the stands, but maybe not as much as anyone would like from above. He will however have plenty to work with and a flourishing crop of Academy graduates, we will just ask that he finds a coherent and functioning way of playing and getting the results required to make a return to the Premier League a much more realistic prospect than it currently appears.
Prediction: Albion somehow limp to victory, before a week-long haggle over compensation derails any potential bid for Neil. Come on you Baggies!
I’d love to predict a draw here but that would feel a little bit naïve, perhaps. While we are undoubtedly a different creature on the road, the injury crisis that has plagued us for the majority of the season seems to have reared its’ ugly head for one last time, leaving us without many of the players that might tip the balance tactically in our favour.
Not to mention the suspension of Ben Pearson, “the man who makes us tick”, as we know him on this site, leaving us without his much-needed presence in what’s going to be a tight midfield.
I think, sadly, all I can predict realistically here is a West Brom victory. Their fans will be expectant given their recent slip and, with our injuries backing up again, I think their individual qualities will see them through in this one. We haven’t rolled over and been hammered once this season despite everything, so I don’t think it’ll get too nasty. I predict a 3-1 West Brom win.