Having each played a game back after the Covid break, West Bromwich Albion and Brentford FC returned to Championship football with differing levels of success.
Brentford made quite the statement reeling in Fulham and denting their West London rivals hopes of catching the automatic promotion positions with a 0-2 win.
West Brom, kicking off straight after, were to be held at home by their second city rivals Birmingham.
For this preview we will mainly focus on the heartbeat of the West Brom side, what we can tactically glean from their most recent game and what the reverse fixture may have taught us ahead of Friday’s match.
This season, WBA have found themselves right in the hunt for winning the entire league outright.
To lead the team, Bilic was brought in as an expensive hire, his aim?, to return the club to the top flight before the parachute payments expire.
Let’s do a quick recap of the Baggies season so far.
Their first match post Covid break against Birmingham City finished 0-0 in which they had 20+ shots and did not hit the target until the 66th minute.
This type of scenario is not surprising. Thomas Frank has frustratingly championed in post match Brentford interviews, if you can’t win a game, make sure you do not lose. Draws are a cunning and common trait of this WBA side.
What we should mention before continuing is WBA have not scored in over 300 minutes of league football. They have drawn their last two matches 0-0. Their last goal came at the end of the first half against Preston in a 2-0 home win back on 25th February.
Their season has been one of momentum and not losing. Six wins in a row throughout November to the first half of December and picking up draws at vital times has seen them put together long periods without tasting defeat.
Breaking it down into chunks, the period from the start of the season to their first loss at Leeds on 1st October, saw WBA go nine games without losing, drawing four and winning five.
Between October and the end of December we see this winning and drawing machine continue, WBA go on to not lose another match until 29th December 2019, against Middlesbrough.
It is January onwards that we see on field stuttering finally transfer into results.
WBA failed to win in January 2020 but put together three wins in a row in Feb to maintain a gap on the chasing pack and keep them firmly in the hunt for those automatic promotion spots.
That’s a quick top down look at their season.
How have West Brom evolved as the season has progressed or since the last matchup v Brentford?
We’ve not seen anything evolutionary or immediately identifiable as different as the season has gone on. The January transfer window did see some strong attackers coming in to solidify WBA’s position in the top two of the league, addressing the loss of Diangana to serious injury.
Callum Robinson joined on loan from Sheffield United and Kamil Grosicki was signed from Hull to also bolster the plethora of attacking talent at Bilics’ disposal.
Robinson has seen a good number of minutes since his arrival. Playing from the left hand side, he regularly moves inside as Pereira drifts into the left hand positions.
Tactically, they have almost religiously stuck to a 4-2-3-1 and their double pivot of Sawyers and Livermore. Most of their attacking play goes from Sawyers through to their No.10, Matteus Periera, both constantly requesting the ball and picking it up in the defensive, midfield and attacking lines.
What do West Brom do well?
Any midfield featuring Sawyers is going to retain the ball well and pass the ball a lot.
Well known to Brentford, Sawyers is demanding and continuous in his collecting of the ball from the back 4. He tries to limit the number of times the team goes directly from back to front through his positioning.
In the reverse fixture against Brentford at the Hawthorns, Sawyers receives a throw on the right, turns back and plays the ball to his deepest teammate o’Shea, who is on the half way line. Sawyers is desperate to drop his position back into midfield and claim the ball again. O’Shea ignores this and instead rushes into a chipped and hopeful ball to the left wing where players are evenly matched in a 2v2 if Mbeumo drops slightly. Dalsgaard easily wins the header unchallenged and clears, Brentford nearly counter attack with all but two West Brom players ahead of the ball but Jensen is brought down as he turns on Dalsgaard’s headed clearance. O’shea’s wastefulness under no pressure can breathe a sigh of relief this time.
Restarts from goal kicks and building up from deep in their own third can see West Brom switch between going long to the forward line from GK Johnstone or him going short to defenders. We can sometimes see mistakes and indecision form his defenders when under pressure.
Here we see WBA move well, win the ball back and work a shooting position.
Although West Brom do get a lucky break, we can see how well a smart forward pass nullifies Mbeumo and how influential Sawyer’s can be from back to front.
When he receives the ball, his next move is to look forward with a pass, or float forward with the ball into any available space. When he releases the ball he likes to follow it forward and make an immediately available advanced option.
It’s hard to defend against, especially when his favoured forward pass is to Pereira.
Where Sawyers is also dangerous is on the edge of the opposition box which of course does require the right run to make the ball effective.
One of his passing weapons is a perfectly weighted stabbed pass with the outside of his boot.
Here we see him preparing to perfectly execute the reverse ball and match the run of Robinson in Saturday’s derby game v Birmingham.
A good tactic for Brentford and others facing West Brom is to use Sawyers as a trigger for co-ordinated pressure. Try to follow or block the forward runs of Pereira or at least make it difficult for him to receive the ball comfortably without doing something special in progressive positions. Force Sawyers to go square or limit his forward options, allowing his pivot partner Livermore the time and space to attempt forward passes. He is the weaker midfielder in possession and least likely to punish you or connect a difficult forward pass.
In the picture above v Birmingham, Livermore is in possession, Sawyers is free square and under no pressure but Pereira has already made the run. It’s an easy ball into the space Pereira is pointing and about to sprint into. Livermore over hits the pass and it travels through to the keeper. Teams can try to counteract Sawyers in this way.
Don’t try to mark him in a man orientated way, opt instead to create a compact defensive unit for him to play through as he receives the ball in his own half. If Sawyers has to pass to a teammate that is not Pereira, part of the battle centrally is won.
Pep Clotet and Birmingham choose their mid to low compact block, trying to limit space and waiting to engage only when the ball moves or is hit into the final third. The Brentford front three will try a much riskier tactic, pressing high and testing the on ball ability and turning speed of Hegazi, Ajayi or Bartley. Another aim will be to get their own midfielders high up the pitch supporting the forward press and occupying the middle third.
The former tactic is known as the safer, less riskier option yet it has its own dangers. Maintaining bodies in defensive zones and not applying on ball pressure further up the field allows good players to find forward gaps.
The snapshot above is stopped at a situation that is too easy for Sawyers to play out. It takes one run and one pass to develop. Robinson is going to make a run inside towards the central space, Pereira holds his position on the left as two players follow Robinson inside. The Portugeuse is on the blindside of Danny Crowley in the left half space, which creates more than enough space for Sawyers to thread his pass into. He picks him out perfectly for Pereira to take one touch and fire a ball across the 6 yard box which unfortunately Robson-Kanu cannot connect with or get anything towards the goal, quickly showing the perils of only applying pressure or man marking in deep defensive zones.