West Brom were made to settle for a point against Preston on Saturday – it might’ve maintained their unbeaten run at the beginning of this season, but it’s not totally plain sailing.
Many fans – of which there were more than 3,200 of an Albion persuasion at Deepdale – have voiced their displeasure at the style of play and have shared concerns that other sides are quickly growing wise to the Baggies’ ways of working.
As always, we hosted a Q&A with Albion reporter Joe Chapman over on our Albion Facebook page on Monday to digest the most recent result, and always various other subjects that supporters wanted to discuss.
Unbeaten – but murmurs of discontent
It’s bizarre. I’ve not known a situation like it in the time I’ve been a supporter or a reporter of the club.
Albion have been doing fairly well, if you were to have a glance at the league table, but even so many of the fans, and I think quite understandably at the moment, are quite discontent.
I think that’s down to the style of football, question marks over whether Albion have been found out and whether this group of players and Valerien Ismael have an appropriate response to that and sort out the issue which is quite clearly in front of them, which is breaking teams down.
Sides have been matching Albion in terms of formation and even the style of play, and basically saying ‘come and break us down’. Albion, of course, really want to be facing a team like Sheffield United, who knocked it about at the back, try and play their way out, succumb to Albion’s press and that’s where the wins come from.
We’ve not seen that enough. Darren Ferguson, Gary Rowett, Wayne Rooney and Frankie McAvoy have all dragged Albion down to a level where they don’t really want to be at.
I don’t doubt that Albion have fight and battle, but what you do need is their obvious quality to come to the fore – they’re currently just playing like the Championship teams they’re coming up against.
Defensive knock-on effect
Albion haven’t looked too bad defensively this season, even without those players available. I think there is a knock-on effect.
If you’ve got Dara O’Shea and Matt Clarke either side of Kyle Bartley, I think Albion go through the pitch a bit quicker, with a bit more authority, knowing that they’ve got that established back-line which most would say that O’Shea, Bartley and Clarke would be the first-choice back three.
It would also mean that Conor Townsend comes out of the back three and goes back to his regular position on the wing. We’ve missed that outlet on the left in the last couple of games when Townsend has been in the back three to provide the balance that Ismael wants.
Jordan Hugill’s debut
I expected Jordan Hugill to get a start on Saturday and I wasn’t overly impressed with the 90 minutes. Maybe that is a fitness thing, he hasn’t played a lot of football – he spent last season playing second fiddle to Teemu Pukki at Norwich.
His competitive minutes have been pretty restricted, but I think Albion need to utilise Hugill better, but also I think Hugill needs to help his own cause as well. He had one glaring opportunity at the end of the game – if he takes a moment, and picks his spot and sticks that away and Albion win the game then we’re saying that Hugill has done the job he’s required to do.
Immediately you start thinking should Ismael go back to Callum Robinson, or should they go back to Matt Phillips as the 9? I thought Albion were short of a forward at the end of the transfer window, an obvious centre forward.
Somebody who has the track record of scoring 15-20 goals – they did that with Charlie Austin, maybe it didn’t work to the degree that they’d have liked, but he still went and scored 12-13 goals I think it was.
They’ve had it with Gayle and Rodriguez before. It felt like they were just one clinical striker short in the transfer window.
While Hugill would fit the bill in terms of what Ismael is trying to do, it’s not yet bearing fruit.
Sam Johnstone contract situation
It’s very quiet. I do ask Val, about whether it’s made any movements yet, and the answer has always been that we’re very relaxed, that it’s going on in the background and that the talks are still there.
No reason to be concerned at this moment, but it’s a situation that Albion shouldn’t have let themselves get into, that they’ve let him go into the final year of his contract.
I know the offers for him in the summer weren’t good enough, but it’s made this situation tricky because he himself wants to play in the Premier League, I thought he’d get that move in the summer and was surprised when he didn’t.
It’s where he belongs. He’s maintained his England spot which is encouraging, and he’s not done a hell of a lot wrong at the start of this season.
He’ll be the first choice pick without fail. I don’t envisage a January exit unless there’s some offer which blows Albion away.
If Albion are a Premier League team this time next year, then the likelihood is that Sam Johnstone will have signed a new contract. The longer the wait goes on, he’s lining his ducks in a row, there will be those question marks.
Will he still be in the Championship next season if Albion are? I think that’s a pretty definitive no.
Matt Clarke fitness update
I’ve seen Matt Clarke walking around The Hawthorns a couple of times in recent home games. Even when he’s not fit, he’s still eager to come down and watch his teammates.
I would expect him to be in contention for selection before the next international break, which wasn’t previously a given at all. The Blues game on the Friday following the October international break would be the best bet, but I think it sounds as though he’s making really good progress on his hamstring injury and I’d expect him to be back.
They’ve got Stoke at the beginning of October, and QPR and Cardiff before then.
He could play a part in either of those games as well, but while Ismael has Kean Bryan on the horizon to bring into the frame, I don’t think he’ll rush Clarke back if he doesn’t need to.
I’d expect Bryan who got a few minutes in the 23s on Friday night to be a genuine selection option against QPR.
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The games to come – QPR, Cardiff, Stoke
You do wonder whether playing against the better teams in this division might bring the best out of Albion, certainly in the way Ismael wants them to play.
If you’ve got sides who will come at Albion, as I think Stoke will with 20,000 fans who want to see their team attack, then that could play into Albion’s hands.
They’ve recently come up against these stumbling blocks, like Preston, who have been willing to sacrifice – they have made it competitive in the respect that they’ve taken a point – but they’ve not at any point in the game got on the front foot and taken the game to Albion, because they know if they start doing that, then there’s a good chance that Albion will punish them.
They’ve been happy to say that, for this 90 minutes, it’ll be an absolute slog, it won’t be easy on the eye, there’ll be a lot of long ball football, we’ll drag Albion down to our level, and it’s worked a treat.
Any of the coming sides could do that. Albion are still one of the bigger and better sides in the division and any result against them will be a positive one.
Stoke and QPR are two teams who I think will be in the top six this season, and Cardiff probably won’t be too far away as well. There are plenty of challenges ahead – Millwall, Derby, Preston, that’s three points that should’ve been seven, or nine, and now you’re coming up against perceived better sides but it could actually work in their favour playing against them.