West Brom v Leeds: Ammunition back to aid Baggies’ battle
A home fixture against the league leaders is arguably the last thing an out-of-form side needs.
Having picked up just one point from a possible 12, Albion are low on confidence and supporters are beginning to lose patience.
This team has often looked frail at the back this season, with a jittery backline uncomfortable with their new playmaker roles making individual errors.
But now the goals have dried up at the other end, those frailties have taken on added significance.
The concern is that Marcelo Bielsa’s high-pressing Leeds side are tailor-made to cause Albion problems.
Derby County showed exactly what a dynamic visiting side to The Hawthorns could achieve. Oddly, being at home could also have a detrimental impact on the Baggies’ confidence.
Tony Mowbray told his Blackburn side to try and feed off negativity, and with many of those in the stands unsure about the current system, it may not take long for grumbles to surface.
This is all dependant on Albion continuing on their current trajectory and with their current approach. But Darren Moore and his No.2 Graeme Jones would be wise to deviate away from a model which has started to creak under pressure.
The 3-4-1-2 will leave Albion’s backline too exposed against tenacious forwards drilled in the Bielsa way, but more important than the formation is an insistence on playing out from the back.
It’s admirable to have such a pure philosophy on how football should be played, but when players have proven incapable of delivering it, something must change.
The danger is that some key returns from injury could give Moore and Jones the ammunition they need to stick with their plan.
Dwight Gayle, Kieran Gibbs and Gareth Barry are all expected to return from the sidelines and, if fit enough, are all likely to start.
Without Gayle’s tenacity, Albion have looked toothless going forward, while Gibbs and Barry offer much-needed composure on the ball further back.
Chris Brunt will miss out with a hamstring injury picked up at Hull City and even though Kyle Bartley returns from a one-game suspension, it would be a surprise to see the summer signing back in the line-up against his former team.
Bartley was superb for Leeds in the Championship two seasons ago, but he’s struggled so far this term in a system that doesn’t suit his traits.
Tosin Adarabioyo, meanwhile, does have the ball-playing skills to be the defensive playmaker Moore and Jones seem to crave and the Manchester City loanee deserves to keep his place in the line-up.
A few weeks ago, this looked like being potentially one of the fixtures of the season, hence why it was picked for live television coverage.
But with Albion firmly on the ropes, they will settle for going toe-to-toe with Leeds for 12 rounds.
Whether they can or not, remains to be seen.
Subs: Myhill, Bartley, Mears, Field, Sako, Robson-Kanu, Hoolahan.
Leeds(3-3-1-3): Peacock-Farrell; Jansson, Phillips, Cooper; Dallas, Forshaw, Douglas; Klich; Hernandez, Roofe, Alioski.
The Opposition: Leeds led by Guardiola's 'best coach in the world'
When Marcelo Bielsa was appointed by Leeds United in summer, the general consensus was it would either be a roaring success or a swift disaster.
Known for his intense methods and quirky habits, the former Argentina and Chile manager has been described by Pep Guardiola as ‘the best coach in the world’.
So far in Leeds, Bielsa has been a roaring success and he brings his side to The Hawthorns as current league leaders.
In a tight and competitive division, Bielsa’s team have spent the longest time at the top of it.
Apart from a brief blip in form when they had three key attacking players – Kemar Roofe, Pablo Hernandez and Patrick Bamford – all injured, they have looked the most likely to move away from the pack.
And whereas Albion’s form could arguably be down to individual moments of brilliance, what makes Bielsa’s team so special is that it is driven by the collective.
Employing his trademark 3-3-1-3 system honed while managing Chile, the 63-year-old encourages his team to overload one side of the pitch when they attack and swarm all over the opposition when they don’t have the ball.
Against a two-man attack, which Albion could play if Dwight Gayle is fit, he has reverted to a flat back four, but the intensity remains.
There is a nagging feeling this could burn out his team later on in the season, particularly because Bielsa is against squad rotation to such a point that he refused to buy more players in summer.
Few coaches would have been so bold, but then again Bielsa is like few coaches.
He also has a former Albion academy product leading his line.
Roofe spent his formative years at the Baggies before he was sold to Oxford United in 2015.
A year later Leeds signed him for a fee which Albion received £1.2million of in sell-ons, but since Bielsa arrived at the club, Roofe has come into his own.
The way Bielsa plays, with the ball on the deck, negates the need for a traditional target man like Chris Wood, the former Albion striker who scored 30 goals for Leeds two seasons ago.
Roofe may be slight, but he is exactly the sort of nippy forward Bielsa wants in his system, and he links up with Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich at speed.
There are more Albion academy products at Elland Road.
Tyler Roberts deputised well for Roofe when he was injured, netting his first three goals for Leeds since his £2.5m move in January.
Izzy Brown is also on loan at Leeds from Chelsea, although he won’t feature due to a long-term knee injury.
Luke Ayling is also unavailable through injury, but will be replaced on the right by Stuart Dallas.
The boss says:
Darren Moore: "We will play in different shapes, different formations. Players may play in positions that some deem out of position. You have to be adaptable."
Paul McShane was sent off, but Albion beat Leeds 4-2 in Sep 2006. Diomansy Kamara (two), Martin Albrechtsen and Kevin Phillips netted.
The key man:
Star striker Dwight Gayle has been a huge miss in the last two-and-a-half games, but when he’s fit and firing, Albion have more than a puncher’s chance
The former Valencia player is arguably the stand-out individual star in a team focused on the collective.
The 33-year-old winger has been involved in seven goals in his eight league games so far, and Leeds’ form tailed off during his spell on the treatment table.
Albion’s left side will have to have their wits about them.