Matt Wilson from the Express & Star gives us the lowdown on the high-riding Baggies.
What sort of form are West Brom in?
“Pretty good. They had a blip after reaching 40 points, losing two in a row. There was a feeling they might have taken their foot off the gas but Tony Pulis clearly got the players fired up and they’ve roared back in stunning fashion, outplaying Arsenal and then getting a point at United.
“Those are four points from two games that they might not have got or expected. It’s put them on 44 points, which is one better than they got last season and there are still eight games to go. They are on course to get their best ever points tally, which was 49 four years ago under Steve Clarke.
“They are a couple of wins away from delivering their most successful season in more than three decades. Fans will argue winning promotion was more fun but this could turn out to be their most successful season in a long while.”
What are the Baggies like on the road?
“Not as good as they are at home. The clean sheet at Old Trafford was their first since Palace away on the opening day. They won at Selhurst Park and have only beaten Leicester and Southampton on the road since. They set up defensively on the road and try to frustrate teams, go for a draw and try to nick a win. They are very workmanlike away from The Hawthorns.”
How can we expect Tony Pulis to line the team up?
“It’s probably best described as 4-2-3-1. Foster will be in goal with Dawson, McAuley, Evans and Nyom as the back four. Livermore and Fletcher will sit in front of those. You’ve then got James Morrison, McLean, Brunt and Chadli vying for the spots in front of them. Robson-Kanu started at Old Trafford but I’d expect Rondon to get the nod at Vicarage Road.
“Matty Phillips would definitely start but he’s had a set back from a hamstring injury. McLean came off with a knock against United so he might be a doubt but other than that, they’ve got the best injury record in the league.”
Are the Baggies more than just a team of set-piece specialists?
“They are very good from set-pieces but they have improved from open play, especially on the counter-attack. It’s funny as the only game where they had more than 50 per cent possession was at home to Palace and they lost that. They like to sit in and break at speed. But there is no getting away from the fact that they are good at set-pieces. I think as many as 16 of their goals have come from corners, and Gareth McAuley is their joint top-scorer in all competitions with seven goals, which says a lot.”
Ben Foster is guaranteed a great reception at Vicarage Road. Is he still as good for the Baggies as he was on loan for two seasons with us?
“He’s had a great season and is arguably the player of the season. He’s not kept as many clean sheets as you’d expect from a Pulis team but he’s been the main reason they’ve kept it down to one, allowing Albion to go on draw 1-1 or win 2-1. Foster has just been superb and the only other contender for the player of the year is Matty Phillips.”
How is another Watford old boy, Allan Nyom, doing at The Hawthorns?
“He’s really surprised the fans. It was a bit of an underwhelming signing at the time, particularly as he was struggling to get in the Watford side. He’s unorthodox and clumsy on occasions but he’s got real pace and power and I think that’s what drew Pulis to him. He’s been shaky at times but Pulis has got him positionally more aware, especially at left-back. He’s become something of a cult hero at the Albion and is a big fans’ favourite.”
Do you think there might be any simmering tension between the two sides after the clash between James McLean and Roberto Pereyra in the fixture earlier in the season?
“Both teams are quite physical, both like a scrap and neither will back down. You’ve got the added spice of Nyom going back to his old club so it could boil over again, especially if McLean plays as he’s always up for a set-to. I just think it might be a of a damp squib after both teams’ exertions on Saturday.”
What is the verdict on the Hornets from up in the Midlands?
“They are viewed as solid lower mid-table team. You know they won’t get relegated and they definitely always put up a fight. You know they aren’t going to be a walkover. I know Pulis was interested in Ighalo at one stage and that he’s a long-term admirer of Troy. There is a lot of respect up here for Deeney as a captain and a player.”
UCL Diary | Sunderland
The first in a regular series on watfordfc.com, take a look inside UCL with an exclusive training diary from last week as the Hornets prepared for Saturday's Sunderland win.
Second-year scholar Treon Johnson won extra marks for keenness as the striker was first out of the paddock and onto the training field for Monday’s 2.30pm session. The heart was in one's mouth when Daryl Janmaat was seen on the back of the medical buggy before the session had even started, but he was just hitching a lift for the short journey from the changing rooms to the furthest away of the pristine pitches at UCL Sports Ground, London Colney.
The sun was blazing down yet some players still didn’t know whether to stick or twist.
Juan Camilo had a hat and leggings on, Etienne Capoue was wearing a snood yet Adrian Mariappa asked a member of the medical team for some sun screen. International call-ups and injuries (Ben Watson and Valon Behrami were both having treatment while Christian Kabasele and Troy Deeney worked away from the main group) meant Walter Mazzarri only had 14 players to work with, so eight members of the Under-23 side made up the numbers.
After the head coach had walked through some shape work and the fitness team had put the squad through some lung-busting running, the hour and a quarter session finished with a game, pitching the seniors against a largely Under-23 side. Daryl Janmaat scored the first, made the second for Capoue while M’Baye Niang got the other two. At the other end, Johnson, 18, won a penalty off Tom Cleverley but there was no chance of him grabbing the ball off Nordin Amrabat who pulled rank and smashed the penalty past spot-kick specialist Heurelho Gomes. Amrabat and Janmaat swapped teams midway through the lively game.
With sporting director Luke Dowling onlooking, there was nothing friendly about the game: a meaty tackle by Niang saw Conor Stevens hobble off while Younes Kaboul left his mark on young striker Jubril Adedeji. The loss of Stevens left the young bucks one short so Rene Gilmartin took off his gloves and slotted in at centre-half alongside Charlie Rowan and played like a seasoned pro.
It may have been the sun going to his head but Jose Holebas was in a playful mood. He tinkered with a sprinkler so a member of the coaching staff got soaked and then finished the session by attempting to chip ball after ball from distance into a basketball hoop.
Troy Deeney doesn’t half put some miles in. Not content with the cross-country run he did around the UCL Sports Ground yesterday, the captain traded his boots for his trainers after the main thrust of today’s session finished and was churning out laps of one of the pitches in yet more glorious sunshine.
Costel Pantilimon also caught the eye with his work ethic. He rocked up from international duty after the session had finished but asked the goalkeeping coach to stay out long after the rest had gone in to put him through his paces. Goalkeeping guru Paolo De Toffol had earlier been testing the reflexes of Heurelho Gomes, Giedrius Arlauskis and Charlie Bannister by firing tennis balls at them with the sort of forehand Andy Murray would be proud of.
The practise enabled Arlauskis to get his eye in for the shooting drill, and he pulled off the saves of the session to deny Abdoulaye Doucouré and Jose Holebas, the latter flying stop drawing applause from the rest of the group. Deeney also praised his big mate Rene Gilmartin for the reflex stop that prevented him from nestling one in the top corner. There was nothing Gilmartin could do, however, to stop M’Baye Niang curling in the first goal of the 11-a-side game past his full-length dive and into the far corner. It was some strike.
There was alarm when Niang stayed down longer than was comfortable following a legitimate shoulder charge with Adrian Mariappa but he thankfully got back to his feet and minutes later was pinging a tracer bullet of a cross-field ball to Daryl Janmaat that left the watching Harry Kewell purring. The Under-23 manager would have been delighted when Charlie Rowan repeated the trick minutes later with a laser-guided pass to Mariappa.
Niang remained on fire throughout the session and he would have been celebrating the goal of the game – or indeed any game – when he connected acrobatically with a cross from the overlapping Craig Cathcart and whistled an effort just over.
Mindful of his workload on international duty, the returning Cathcart went in soon after and was replaced in the game by Tom Leighton, the under-18 signed from Motherwell earlier this year. So new is he that his defensive partner, Mariappa, had to ask him what his name was.
Fitness coach Gianni Brignardello was back from working with the Italy national team this morning to put the players through their paces. Back from international duty, Isaac Success joined in for the first time this week but didn’t take part in the game, doing some one-to-one fitness work with Brignardello instead. Brice Dja Djedje was also out on the training field for the first time this week and looked full of running.
“Let’s go” roared Troy Deeney ahead of the 11-a-side game, which was split into three parts, and there was a noticeable step up in intensity as the game against Sunderland drew nearer. Nordin Amrabat and Miguel Britos picked each other up after one collision while Marian Huja, the strapping Portuguese scholar, muscled over Stefano Okaka in the penalty area in a heavyweight collision. Walter Mazzarri awarded a penalty and, with Troy Deeney on the other team, insisted Tom Cleverley take it. The midfielder sent Gilmartin the wrong way from 12 yards.
With technical director Filippo Giraldi and sporting director Luke Dowling on the sidelines, Mazzarri was as instructive as he’s been at any time in the week, talking to Okaka at length after the break following the first game and then to Abdoulaye Doucouré during the second. The head coach will also have noted how vocal Adrian Mariappa was in marshalling his rookie back four of the shadow XI. He’s now an old head.
Mazzarri was also the whistle-blower during the impromptu penalty practise involving Niang, Capoue, Okaka and Cleverley at the end of the session. They all took at least half a dozen each, and Cleverely was the only one to miss, hitting the post and having another effort saved by Rene Gilmartin. The regular penalty taker? He was again doing extras while the rest headed in for a shower and some lunch.
Eager to win a slot on the right-hand side of the team, Daryl Janmaat was out way before anyone else for this morning’s 11am session. Nordin Amrabat, his friend and rival on the right flank, did the opposite and was last off the training field, working on dribbling with his left foot with a member of the support staff. Competition for that spot is really hotting up now the Moroccan and the Dutchman are both fully fit.
Team spirit was high during two warm-up games of keep ball before assistant coach Nicolo Frustalupi ran through corners and set-pieces, with Tom Cleverely swinging them in with his right foot and Jose Holebas slinging over crosses with his sweet left peg. Isaac Success proved to be a more than handy defender, clearing anything and everything with his head or feet. Deeney joked that Success was like Celestine Babayaro, the Nigerian defender formerly of Chelsea.
Walter Mazzarri then did some specific shape work with the defence and midfield, leaving the forwards to practise converting crosses from Brice Dja Djedje. M’Baye Niang summoned over Costel Pantilimon to keep goal but even the giant Romanian couldn’t keep out a shot from Camilo Zuniga that spectacularly cannoned in-off the bar. The Colombian went straight in after that, knowing he was not going to sign off on a better note.
Niang, Etienne Capoue, Stefano Okaka and Younes Kaboul stayed behind to take penalties, with Kaboul taking a mean spot-kick. Deeney was first in today but he’d done plenty of extras during the week and probably headed to the gym anyway.
Britos limped off with a leg problem five minutes before the end of the 11-a-side game, which ensured an otherwise lively and fast-paced final session ended on a sour note.
Capoue, so often the joker, set the tone by playfully nutmegging Amrabat on their way out and there were roars of laughter when Gilmartin, twice, and Zuniga put the ball through the legs of unsuspecting teammates in quick succession in keep-ball games of 5v2. It was good to see the players in high spirits.
Fitness coaches Ben Dixon, Giuseppe Pondrelli and Brignardello led the players through some inventive warm-up exercises and fitness drills before coach Frustalupi took centre stage and outlined the defensive strategy to be deployed from Sunderland’s likely corners and free-kicks. It was very detailed stuff. All the while Ben Watson was stepping up his recovery from injury by running with the ball away from the main group, and Sebastian Prödl then emerged from the dressing room and tested out his calf.
“They don’t have this over there,” joked Deeney, pointing over the fence at Arsenal as he joked with a member of the groundstaff over a rare bare patch on the bowling green pitches they have at UCL Sports Ground these days.
The game heads were then on as the final 11v11 game of the week started. The shadow XI took the lead through Dja Djedje, albeit at the third attempt after Gomes had made two superb point-blank saves to deny Deeney and Dja Djedje, but Britos levelled things up after Niang had inventively flicked on a corner from Cleverley. To cap a good couple of days, Cleverley ended up netting the winner.
So impressive defensively from set-pieces earlier in the week, Success showed the other side of his game here, ghosting past Niang like he did against Pablo Zabaleta at the Etihad. Like Zabaleta, Niang felt he had no option but to bring him down. Up close, it was also revealing to see just how vocal Gomes is in organising his defensive wall from free-kicks. He clearly knows his geometry as Zuniga slammed a free-kick straight into the carefully positioned Amrabat. Ouch.
Mazzarri blew time on the session after an hour, leaving Cleverley and Kaboul to practise free-kicks, with Cleverley teeing up Kaboul to cannon efforts on goal in a repeat of the move that led to the first goal at Arsenal. Kaboul really does have a sledge hammer of a right foot and unleashed a series of piledrivers at Gilmartin. “Strike, Younes!” bellowed the Irish goalkeeper.
Once Kaboul had got his eye in and stung the palms of Gilmartin, he headed in and Cleverley, not resting on his laurels after being awarded a five-year contract, stayed out to practise bending in free-kicks over a series of mannequins. At the other end, Niang was trying to beat Pantilimon from 12 yards while it was good to see young pros Ogo Obi and Charlie Rowan doing extra running off their own back.