WBA v WHU Preview

Assessing the Hammer’s bouncebackability (© Iain Dowie) for Saturday’s away trip to the Hawthorns.

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As we approach the fifth game of the 2016-17 Premier League campaign I was hoping to be writing this preview with at least six points in the bag. Although no games are that easy, we have faced two of our easier opponents in our first two home league games, and for the fourth season in a row we’ve failed to take maximum points from our opening fixtures. The curse of defeat in the second home game struck again for the fourth season running.  In fact we’ve only won both of our first two home league games twice in this century! If you read social media then of course you will know that it is all the fault of the move to the new stadium. But I seem to recall that when we faced Leicester and Bournemouth at home last season we were playing at “fortress” Upton Park, as we were in the opening games of all those other seasons!

Three points from four games leaves us in 17th place and nine points adrift of the top. It is still early days, of course, and the table can change quite rapidly at this stage. However, another defeat at the Hawthorns would be bad news. We are now approaching a full squad fitness-wise, and we need to show that we have what it takes to bounce back and begin to make a realistic challenge in the top half of the table.

Even after four games, the top seven of Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Arsenal could well be the top seven at the end of the season, albeit not necessarily in that order. We are four points away from the tail end of that group, so if we are to emulate last season’s seventh place finish we can’t afford to fall too far behind. Had we beaten Watford, as we should have done, then the gap would have only been one point.

I doubt that West Brom get too many Midlands ‘neutral’ spectators turning up because of the quality of the entertainment on offer. As befits a Tony Pulis team, they don’t score or concede many goals. Unlike the London Stadium the home fans aren’t on their feet a lot! But Pulis’ non-relegation record (like Big Sam’s) keeps the owners happy, if not the spectators. There have been five goals in their four games this season, scoring two and conceding three. They haven’t won a home game yet, with a goalless draw against Middlesbrough and a defeat to an in-form Everton side. We need to make sure that their home record doesn’t improve at our expense.

I’ve no idea what Slaven Bilic has in mind for his team selection for this game, but based upon the performances against Watford then Adrian, Byram, Collins, Reid, Noble, Lanzini and Kouyate could all potentially be looking over their shoulders to see if others are going to step into their boots for this game. Wholesale changes would be an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to the capitulation against Watford, but I would be surprised if there weren’t at least two or three players replaced to freshen things up.

Reece Oxford was deployed in a defensive midfield capacity for the opening game at Arsenal last season and was magnificent. I’d like to see him given another opportunity in this role. I’m sure he would fit in well in front of the back four, and could drop back to make three centre backs when necessary. Mark Noble has seemed lethargic in the opening games and Kouyate doesn’t seem to be at his best either.

But whatever team he decides upon I’d like to see us open up our away points account in this game. A repeat of last season’s 3-0 win would be great, albeit unlikely, but I’ll take us to reverse our early season form and come away with a 2-1 win.