Ahead of tomorrow’s second vs third clash at the Hawthorns, I’ve been chatting to Luke Hatfield – a digital sports journalist at the Express and Star – who covers, amongst others, our friends from West Bromwich…
Obviously, you cover, for your employers, Villa, Wolves, Walsall and the Albion, but judging by your Twitter biog, you’re a Villa fan, right? How does that work? Do you share the reporting duties for the three teams with your colleagues?
Luke: I’m in the fortunate position to be a digital sports journalist at the Express and Star, which gives me the option of covering games from all the clubs we cover, in this case Wolves, West Brom, Walsall and Villa. That basically means I’m regularly heading to games each weekend which have the biggest storylines/traffic potential. When Dean Smith was appointed Villa boss, I was there for his opening game, equally, during Albion’s last-ditch attempt at survival in the final weeks of last season, I was there most weekends.
This weekend for example, given Albion are taking on one of the high-fliers in the Championship, that’s where I’ll be heading. We have dedicated club reporters too, who nine times out of ten, cover their team week-in, week-out, unless there’s a desperate need to have them elsewhere.
I’d say, the majority of my weekends circle around West Brom though, given that they tend to be the next biggest traffic driver on our patch, behind Wolves. Although, Villa is a club I’ve supported from an early age, so I have no shame in requesting to the powers that be, that I’d like to cover certain games. Villa v Blues for example!
And what happens when Albion play Villa? 😊
If anything, that makes my life a little bit easier! When Villa made the short trip to The Hawthorns earlier this season, I obviously covered the game alongside our dedicated Villa and Albion reporters. That way, I get to cover both of our clubs from a digital aspect, making videos with our reporters, managing our online live stream and speaking to fans following full-time.
That game ended 2-2, somewhat fortuitously for Darren Moore’s side given the nature of their last-gasp equaliser, so it gave myself and the reporters plenty to discuss on our post-match video. It’s always a great atmosphere at those kinds of games, and it helped with it being under the lights.
I do my best to maintain my professionalism during these kinds of encounters, but of course, I’d be lying if I wasn’t slightly disappointed given the final score and nature of the equaliser that day!
I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to cover a City v Ipswich game from an impartial perspective! The stuff of nightmares.
Am assuming there was an expectation at the Hawthorns that they would bounce straight back to the Prem? Am guessing they consider themselves on track? Has it been relatively plain sailing?
I think that’s a fair comment – although the start to the season has upped the expectation somewhat.
If you were to ask Albion fans what their expectations were on day one of the season, I’d hazard a guess that a playoff appearance would be deemed a successful season (although the nature of their playoff success would play a part in that too). That’s down to the fact they had an effectively rookie head coach in the shape of Darren Moore, and that the mood was pretty low following relegation, although it could have been much, much worse if the Baggies hadn’t fought tooth and nail to attempt a miraculous survival bid in the dying weeks of last season.
Now though, expectations have certainly increased following their first half of the season. Falling out of the playoffs now would seem catastrophic to fans given they look like one of the teams likely to challenge for the automatic places. I’d predict most fans would say they’re on track in that respect, although it hasn’t been ‘plain sailing’.
There’s been a shift in formation following a start to the season, which brought some mixed reactions. Moore implemented a formation with three central defenders, which whilst dynamic and powerful going forward (you need only look at the 7-1 destruction of QPR at The Hawthorns for evidence of that), was incredibly shaky at the back. Only since the shift to 4-3-3 have Albion looked more assured defensively, which is what many fans were calling for earlier this season.
The Baggies aren’t averse to the odd blip this season either – so whilst the season has been good, plain sailing might be a stretch.
Oh. That’s kind of comforting to hear. Despite having been below us for the last couple of months, all the noises emanating from west Midlands seemed to suggest it was a matter of when, not if, the Baggies would make the top two.
Albion are obviously full of goals and have so many options in that area it’s almost ridiculous, but, like us, they do concede a few. Is this the result of them committing so many bodies forward, or do they have specific defensive issues?
The defensive issues stemmed from the formation utilised by the club earlier this season in my opinion. Whilst Craig Dawson, Ahmed Hegazi and Kyle Bartley are all experienced centre-backs, none of them are fully comfortable playing the ball on the floor for 90 minutes – which is what was asked of them in Moore’s previous 4-3-1-2 style.
That created a bit of worry at the back, and with a new goalkeeper in Sam Johnstone being introduced (who hasn’t hit the form he showed at Villa Park last season), things are always going to be slightly fragile.
On top of that, they do like to pour forward when they put their foot down, which can leave spaces in behind, even in the current formation – despite being much more solid. The addition of Mason Holgate at right-back should benefit them massively, he looked the part in that position in the FA Cup win over Wigan, giving Tosin Adarabioyo better chance in playing at his preferred central position should Dawson or Hegazi need a rest.
Make no mistake though, Albion can be got at if teams pressure them. They’re not exactly the defensive stalwarts they were in the days under Tony Pulis.
That has to be a good thing, right? No-one wants a team that bears any Pulis hallmark, even if does mean conceding a few more goals!
How would you describe the style of play that Darren Moore wants from his team? He was a bit of a bruiser in his day, but there appears a bit more subtlety to Albion’s play compared to his own playing style.
There certainly is a bit more subtlety to them considering how Moore used to play in his day!
He’s focused on playing good, attractive football – moving the ball quickly but also being devastating on the counter, which has become more prevalent in the 4-3-3 formation.
When teams turn the ball over, even in the final third, they need to be careful of the breakaway from his side. He used that to perfection at home against Leeds, and it also paid dividends against Villa too. Whilst it might not be physical in the way Moore played football, it can be equally punishing for opposing teams when they get caught out with their pace and power going forward.
Keep an eye on Gayle, Phillips and Barnes in particular (if they all feature), they can tear teams apart going forward. Jay Rodriguez has been effective this season too.
Hhmmm… the national media have ensured we know everything there is to know about Rodriguez, Gayle, Barnes and Phillips. But who else should we be fearful of?
That quartet are certainly the main worries for any side taking on the Baggies this season, they all possess the quality to damage teams in different ways, but if I was to highlight someone else? Maybe Gareth Barry or Kieran Gibbs.
Gibbs is essentially a Premier League defender playing in the Championship and has been phenomenal most of the season. He’s chipped in with goals too, which is a testament to his hard work getting up and down the left flank when the opportunity arises.
Barry though has been one of the surprise packages for me this season. Being a Villa fan I knew all about his quality when he made the move to The Hawthorns, and he’s impressed in recent performances. If he’s given time and space on the ball, he can pick those passes which can hurt teams – something he’s done very well recently. He’s not the youngest though, so get players in and around him and he can be played past.
We had Gibbs on loan as a youngster for a few months – in the ill-fated Glenn Roeder era I believe – and he always had a touch of class about him. No surprise to hear he’s gone on to be a top pro. I hear what you’re saying about Barry but, I’m sorry, I’ll never forgive him for being ‘done’ by Özil in Bloemfontein in 2012. So painful. Still is to this day.
Am guessing Albion will be splashing some cash this month – anyone in yet? Who’s on Moore’s shopping list?
Contrary to your opinion, it’s not likely that West Brom will be spending tonnes of cash this month unless they see some sizeable outgoings first, which aren’t expected.
They have a strong squad already, and I get the sense Moore will only bring in a couple players to make some minor surgery. As mentioned before, they’ve already solved their right-back problem with the signing of Holgate, and central midfield (someone of a John McGinn style) would benefit Albion massively going into the second half of the season.
Jake Livermore has been solid, albeit a bit brash (he’s now serving a second suspension after another red card), and Phillips has blossomed in central midfield. Past that though, they could do with someone dynamic and able to bring the ball from one box to the other. There are rumours surrounding someone like James McCarthy on-loan, that would be the kind of player I’d picture joining before the end of the month.
Even still, they won’t be spending too much cash – loans or cheap deals seem much more likely, as Albion won’t want to put themselves under any more financial pressure to get promoted.
Fair enough. I guess, as you say, Moore considers he has more than enough in his squad to get top two with no additions.
Anyway, what have you made of our progress and our Germanic revolution? How are we being perceived in the Midlands?
I’d say Norwich’s revolution has been taken as quite a surprise, as I imagine it has across the country.
The loss of James Maddison over the summer had me worried about your prospects, but the way you’ve coped in losing him, and building a squad looking of real promotion quality has been admirable. Teemu Pukki has surprised me with his output this season, although I do sense that the late goals which have served you so well will eventually dry up at some point.
Farke has clearly done a good job this season, especially after hearing some mumblings of discontent from fans regarding him previously – he seems to be of that new modern manager ilk that have been a success in recent seasons – he clearly knows what he’s doing.
From what I’ve seen though, Norwich look like a genuine promotion contender, whether or not you’ll finish in the top two is up for conjecture though. This league is so open, and with no real stand out, runaway leader anyone who puts a lengthy run together to end the season will be in with a chance of going up.
We’re not sure about top two either – everyone outside the Canary Nation believes we’ll blow up – but we’ll give it a bloody good go, not least in the hope of proving the whole of Yorkshire wrong!
Standard … score prediction?
I was speaking about this game on our West Brom podcast earlier this week, and I must admit it’s a tough one to call. I could picture any side winning it by any kind of margin. I opted for a barnstorming 3-3 then, and I’m sticking with it.
How’s our Wes been received at the Hawthorns? Hope they’re looking after him! What are the chances of him being retained until the end of the season?
Wes Hoolahan is clearly a talented little footballer, and I can see why he became the hero he did at Carrow Road. However, I was worried for him before just a couple of weeks ago at Albion.
He failed to have a big impact on his arrival, and if you’d have asked me where he’d be in February just a few weeks back I’d say he’d be hunting for another club. But he’s given Darren Moore plenty to think about recently, especially with his performance against Wigan in the FA Cup. He was put in the false nine position and he really ran the game well, moving the ball nicely and looking to create chances for Albion’s wingers that day. He stood out.
Now, there could be a chance he’s signed up for the remainder of this season. His short-term contract is up in the coming days/weeks, it’s down to Moore whether he thinks he’s done enough to earn another deal.
And finally… in a non-professional capacity, Villa going to gate crash the promotion party?
I still harbor hopes that Villa could well make a concerted push for the top two or at least a ‘safe’ playoff spot, and for good reason (in my opinion). Dean Smith has already masterminded a big improvement in the attacking football at Villa Park, and has begun bolstering the defence, which was left in, to be blunt, a dreadful state by Steve Bruce upon his departure.
Don’t get me wrong, Bruce is a lovely chap, served the club admirably through tough times – and came incredibly close to getting Villa up last season. But the position he left the back four after a rushed transfer window was asking for trouble. Tommy Elphick’s return and the signing of Kortney Hause on-loan has added more options in central defence now, which will help (especially considering we had three right-backs playing in a back four just a matter of weeks ago due to injury).
With Tammy Abraham’s future still up for debate – a lot of Villa fans’ hopes ride on him. But Smith’s style of play and defensive additions will play a big role too. Add to that the much more promising run of fixtures from here on in, don’t be surprised to see Villa make a push to go up. There are a couple of injury problems (Jack Grealish mainly), but I can certainly see Villa making a run if things click.
I can’t say I’m expecting it, but a Fulham-like run from last season is not off the cards, and given how open this league is, if Villa can emulate that they could be battling for those automatic spots come the business end of the season.
Cheers for your time, Luke.
So, now it starts to get interesting. Our rotten run of injuries has started to bite and, while the form has generally held up quite well, the results have started to suffer a little. In particular, Mo Leitner’s absence has hit hard. But this bunch are nothing if not resilient and one thing we have learnt in the last few months is to never ever write them off… and that includes tomorrow. But, in the search for prediction table points, what do the team think?
Penney predicts: I fear Gayle force ten. We will also be without Mo and Marco. Darren Moore (aka Big Dave) has done a great job for the Baggies. Not being an Australian cricketer I hate to bet against my own team but: 3-1 WBA.
Andy assumes: I think we’ll be more cautious and create a little less than usual. An unexpectedly cagey 1-0 defeat underpinned by a decent overall performance.
Gaz guesses: Hmmm… tricky. Heart says never underestimate this lot’s ability to overcome adversity, but the head is screaming ‘defeat’ given the lengthy injury list. Head wins I’m afraid – WBA 2, City 0
Cookie concludes: 2-1 WBA
Stew suspects: Logic says this will be a very tough one for us. WBA have bigger resources and momentum; we’re trying to get the show back on the road, still without our key playmaker. But I don’t think we’re ready to be beaten. 1-1.
The oppo’s opinion: A barnstorming 3-3
Siri says: 1-3 City