Albion return to action this weekend with a trip to the DW Stadium to take on Wigan Athletic backed by well in excess of 3,000 supporters looking to extend their unbeaten league run to eight games.
While the September international break probably had a negative impact on the Baggies’ season interrupting what was the start of their impressive run, this one will probably have the opposite effect in allowing players to recharge batteries following a punishing schedule and the injured players to work their way back to full fitness. In comparison to previous seasons when most of Albion’s first team would be away on international duty, the only player on senior international duty this month was Ahmed Hegazi who played in one of Egypt’s double-header against eSwatini, the new name for Swaziland, and scored in a 2-0 victory in Manzini.
A number of Albion’s younger players were called up to England’s youth squads, not least Harvey Barnes who impressed in the U21s 2-0 victory over Scotland. Such was the Baggies’ representation in the England ranks that only five clubs had more players called up to the age-limited squads. Albion had seven players in the squads from U16 to U21, more than either Liverpool or Manchester United, with only Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton boasting more.
So with Barnes and Hegazi the only first team regulars to be absent over the past week, it will have been a valuable time for Moore and the squad to continue to work on the areas that need improving, and will hopefully have given Matt Phillips the time to regain full fitness.
Phillips has been a big loss over the past few weeks and it is testament to Tyrone Mears and the rest of the team that Albion have been able to maintain their good form without him. Mears has been an adequate deputy but he evidently doesn’t have Phillips’ attacking prowess or energy, and he did struggle with playing twice a week. Kyle Edwards’ 30-minute spell against Reading suggested that Big Dave does have another option at right wing back should Phillips not be fit for Saturday, or should he be missing again later in the season.
Another player that will have benefited from the break should be new signing Bakary Sako. The former Palace striker has yet to feature in a match day squad since signing at the beginning of October with fitness given as the reason. He obviously hasn’t played any football since leaving Selhurst Park at the end of last season, but it will be interesting to see whether he will be deemed ready for a spot on the bench this weekend.
Assuming Phillips is fit and there are no other new injuries, it would seem that the main decision in terms of selection will be the choice between Brunt and Barry to partner Livermore in the middle of the park. The decision to rotate the two does seem to have produced more consistent performances and I expect that to continue. Field and Harper are the only real alternatives in that central position, and Moore obviously prefers to keep with experience for the time being.
Our hosts this weekend are protecting an unbeaten home record having won four and drawn two at the DW Stadium so far this season. Only Swansea in the Latics’ last home game and Forest back in August have taken a point at Wigan with Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Hull and Bristol City all leaving empty handed. Their form on the road has been somewhat less impressive with their 3-0 win at Stoke City in August the only game they have avoided defeat away from home.
Latics’ manager, Paul Cook, will have been particularly concerned with their last outing when they went down 4-0 in the local derby with Preston North End meaning that they are without a win, or a goal, in their last three games. In fact, Wigan have only scored more than once on one occasion since that 3-0 win in the Potteries, the 2-1 win over Hull City, and have notched just four goals in the eight games in that period. Concerns over goalscoring will not have been helped by the news that Will Grigg suffered a hamstring injury while on international duty for Northern Ireland and will surely be a doubt for the game with Albion.
With not much news coming out of the Hawthorns during the international break, there has been continued speculation as to whether Leicester City will recall Harvey Barnes during January. That was heightened by an injury to Demarai Gray, although he is likely to be fit within a few weeks so it is unlikely to be a factor. Barnes is obviously enjoying his football at the Hawthorns and, personally, I would be surprised if Puel decided to recall him barring a season-ending injury to one of either Gray or Maddison. The 20-year-old was recalled from his loan at Barnsley last season and, while he started two FA Cup ties for Leicester, he only played eight minutes of league football in three substitute appearances and leaving him at Oakwell would probably have been a better option for his development.
The situation is somewhat mirrored by that of Jack Fitzwater, the young Baggies centre back who is impressing on loan at Walsall this season having played every minute of every game for the Saddlers so far this campaign. Albion have the right to recall him in January, but unless Darren Moore sees him as a better option to either Hegazi, Dawson or Bartley, it would seem pointless to deny Fitzwater the valuable experience of playing regular league football. Given that Adarabioyo is getting very little playing time at the moment, I’d be surprised if Big Dave felt that Fitzwater was ready for a first team place at the Hawthorns.
Given that Albion and Wigan arrived in the Championship from opposite directions, it is perhaps surprising that the two clubs have met in the Premier League more times that they have met in all other competitions combined.
They have shared five seasons in the Premier League to date and have only spent three other seasons in the same division and have been drawn together in the League Cup on two occasions. That makes a total of ten meetings in the Premier League and nine in all other competitions.
With only three wins in ten visits to Wigan, Albion’s “biggest” win came in their last visit to the DW Stadium, a 2-1 win in November 2012 when a Gary Caldwell own goal just before half time proved to be the winner. James Morrison had given the Baggies the lead just after the half hour and, despite the second coming just two minutes before the break, Aruna Koné still had time to reduce the deficit before half time in what proved to be the final goal of the game.
Albion’s other two wins on Wigan soil have been by a single goal. The first was on Boxing Day 1991 in the first ever league meeting between the sides in Lancashire with a Craig Shakespeare penalty deciding that third division fixture at Springfield Park. (As an aside, the newly-appointed Monaco assistant manager, Kwame Ampadu, came off the bench that day to replace Darren Bradley!)
The Baggies’ first win at what was then the JJB Stadium was in January 2006 when Tomasz Kuszczak produced a fantastic performance in the Albion goal including a miraculous last minute save to secure a valuable three points for Bryan Robson’s side – Danish defender Martin Albrechtsen scoring decisive goal in the second half, the first of four he bagged while at the Hawthorns.
The Latics’ biggest win over Albion was in the League Cup in 2002 when a certain Nathan Ellington destroyed Albion with a hat-trick as the hosts eased through to the third round with a 3-1 victory – Lee Hughes grabbed a late consolation for Albion. The ‘Duke’, of course, signed for the Hawthorns a few years later but never managed to repeat his Wigan form in the darker blue strips of the Baggies.
A year after that 3-1 win, Geoff Horsfield scored the only goal for Wigan in a Division One fixture at the JJB in September 2003, and he, too, subsequently moved to the Hawthorns, of course. However, while it was three years after his hat-trick that Ellington made the move, the Horse made the switch just three months after scoring that goal and played for the Baggies in the return fixture at the Hawthorns the following March.
The Latics’ goalscoring issues should mean that Albion will have too much for them and I see a first home defeat for Paul Cook’s team.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
4 May 2013 – Premier League
West Brom 2 (Long, McAuley)
Wigan Athletic 3 (Koné, McArthur, McManaman)
Last meeting at Wigan Athletic
10 Nov 2012 – Premier League
Wigan Athletic 1 (Koné)
West Brom 2 (Morrison, Caldwell (o.g.))
Albion’s Record against Wigan Athletic
Pictures courtesy of Laurie Rampling