Birmingham City are looking to discover some much-needed form when they visit local rivals West Bromwich Albion on Friday night.
All eyes are on both teams as five miles separates them in distance but an even greater gap of fourteen spaces does so in the league table.
The Blues are looking to arrest a dismal run of four defeats in five matches against a side who are seeking only their second home victory of the season.
The Baggies have only fell on the wrong side of a scoreline once in the past five matches and that was against Stoke City just before the international break. Nick Powell lobbed home for the winner in what was a deserved win against one of the promotion favourites.
That was only West Brom’s first league defeat after a ten game unbeaten run. They had previously humbled Cardiff City in a four nil rout on their travels. The game featured some wonderful finishes including Alex Mowatt’s beautiful third. Mowatt has seamlessly transitioned into the heart of midfield joining his manager at Barnsley in this promotion quest.
It’s not been plain sailing at all for The Baggies so far this season. They had to wait until the midway point of the second half to grab all three points against Queens Park Rangers. After conceding in the first minute, it seemed a long way back for them, but Karlem Grant’s brace lifted The Baggies out of the spotlight.
West Brom play with a 3-4-3 formation, which Valerian Ismael predominantly used at former club Barnsley.
This formation allows fullbacks Adam Reach and Darnell Furlong to thrive. It is intriguing that Reach is not a fullback by trade but the licence to get forward has definitely suited him.
For example in the triumph over Cardiff, Reach’s ability to get high and widen the pitch meant that the right centre back would not know whether to go to him or stay put. This created the opening goal for Karlan Grant from outside the box. The full backs getting high means that there is space to exploit with the opposition unable to tactically outwit this style.
Reach is a key asset in this system as time and time again, West Brom were exploiting Cardiff’s right side. He was creating space for the likes of Grant and Callum Robinson outside the box to shoot. On the other side, Furlong wasn’t utilised as much because maybe Ismael felt that West Brom could get more change out of Cardiff on their right-hand side.
Reach’s involvement was predominant again when he laid the ball off to striker Jordan Hugill to shoot. Interestingly, West Brom’s three-man frontline do not really play as proper strikers. They’re not tasked with leading the line as such but are there to give options for the fullbacks when they want to cross the ball into the penalty area.
We see similarities with Barnsley’s style under Ismael last season. Striker Cauley Woodrow, a prolific striker with The Tykes, would often be seen linking up the play with those in behind him and wasn’t seen holding the line like a traditional striker. Whereas in the Barnsley side, we saw some press resistant midfielders in Alex Mowatt and Callum Styles to name a few, the middle of the park isn’t lightning at The Hawthorns. Incidentally, it’s only summer signing Mowatt who provides the energy and press from midfield, whilst partner Jake Livermore who is much older prefers to sit back.
Again, it’s so key for our backline to be on the money on Friday evening. I don’t think it’s a game where it’ll be won in midfield, as much of the action happens on the flanks for West Brom. Adam Reach and Darnell Furlong will overlap at will, in turn creating space for The Albion’s front three. Right-back Maxime Colin has been one of Blues’ standout performers in a mixed start to the season, so it’ll be a big test for his energy and legs against a willing runner in Reach.
This game is a good opportunity for Dion Sanderson to usurp one of the other centre backs for a permanent starting berth. His pace will be essential in helping to repel Robinson, Grant and even Hugill at arm’s length.