Sunderland Wildcard Returns: How to Beat the Baggies

If you were looking to sell a club do you think potential buyers would be attracted to a Tony Pulis footballing brand? That is the question facing West Bromwich Albion owner Jeremy Peace this summer. There are rumours he’s already sewn up a deal to sell up, but whatever the case, it may be improbable that Peace and Pulis will both be at the club come next season.

There have been murmurings that Baggie fans are unhappy with the tactics deployed and style of football displayed by their team this season. Currently lying 11th in the table, striker Solomon Rondon last week claimed WBA’s hopes of reaching a Europa League spot were still very much alive. Admittedly they’re not in a bad run of form with 12 points in their last 10 games. But with 11 points separating them from 5th place we were wondering if he had been put up to it by the club’s marketing department in some bid to maintain an interest in ticket sales such is the unlikely chance of a team gaining that much ground at this stage of the season.

WBA’s turgid defeat at home to Norwich two weeks ago highlighted their weaknesses. They created zilch against a side who have the fourth worst away record in the league. Sometimes packing a midfield to restrict your opponents works a treat, as it did when WBA beat Manchester United a couple of weeks ago, sometimes it is a disaster.

With the hints abating in recent weeks that the Albion hierarchy may want rid of Pulis, some did wonder if he’d simply reverted to type after a decent run eased the pressure on him. That said, perhaps the game highlighted the job he has done in most games in grinding out points to keep a poor side competitive and relatively free of relegation worries. We take a look at what Sunderland can expect when Tony Pulis and Co. visit tomorrow.

On the Beach
We need to be on the front foot from the first minute to compound any ‘on the beach mentality’. If Pulis fancied coasting to the end of the season the Norwich result only re-opened the Baggies fans’ festering sore over his style of play. 

There will be little experimenting with his side because Pulis needs to go into the summer discussions with the owner in a strong bargaining position and that means maximising points gained. His side are away from home against a Sunderland side who know they must win so of course he will set out to pack the midfield and frustrate us.

Hit their flat back six
WBA’s back line is a bit make shift as their season winds down. Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley at the ages of 33 and 36 have been Albion stalwarts at Centre Back for five years. Olsson was miserable against Norwich, unable to settle in the game and he bore the brunt of the Baggies fans’ frustration. 

With regular full back Chris Brunt out for the season, Pulis launched our old friend Jonny Evans, fresh from injury, in at left back for that game. It made for a static back four who were caught flat footed for Norwich’s goal. Pulis may well switch Evans into the middle for this one and put James Chester in at left back.

Chester is a right footed centre half utilised regularly by Pulis at left back. If we play Borini wide right on Saturday it means him cutting inside onto Chester’s stronger foot. For that reason I would consider Borini on the left and play Khazri on the right to exploit any weakness in turning WBA’s left back. Even if Chester isn’t selected, WBA won’t play a left footer, their only specialist left back Sebastien Pogognoli hasn’t been fancied by Pulis since he signed last summer.

Whether Pulis dares risk Olsson up against Defoe remains to be seen. Whatever the concoction, Craig Dawson will likely continue at right back, another centre half shoe horned in to a full back position by Pulis. Immediately in front will be the midfield centre pairing of Fletcher and Yacob sitting on top of the back four, offering protection and effectively operating as a back six. Both are a bit slow and cumbersome and we can catch them in possession and cause problems.

If Sunderland keep the ball moving quickly and with purpose as they did for 60 minutes against Newcastle there should be enough in the side to get in behind the six and cause problems.

Negate Sess and the Middle Men
Whoever plays on the left wing linking up ahead of Van Aanholt they will need to be alert to the threat posed by former Sunderland favourite Stephane Sessegnon (if he plays). He might not start, depending on how fit he returns from international duty and depending if they manage to locate him, but by all accounts he ran the show in his Africa Cup of Nations run out on Monday, scoring two. That said he was up against the defence of South Sudan and we should be able to keep him quiet by breaking up his movement and closing him down. 

We all know Sessegnon is inconsistent so who plays for him to link up with will be key with Solomon Rondon likely to continue up front. Rondon was back early from international duty having been banned for Tuesday night’s round of games. He’s in fine form with four goals in his last eight. After a slow start to Premier League life he now looks the part and he seems to have the right attitude about him. Berahino has been utilised in bits this season, quite often fitting in a deep position but he remains a danger. If he starts, Kirchoff is the man to pick him up and break up the link up play between him and Rondon.

On the opposite side we might see James McClean. Personally I hope he stays well away as we don’t need distractions like McClean on Saturday. Often inconsistent, he didn’t have a bad week in the internationals.

The Others
With Jack Butland out, Ben Foster can still stake a claim for a Euro 2016 spot despite “retiring” from international football years ago. He’s been inconsistent this season and with him and Tom Heaton of Burnley competing for the reserve goalkeeper spot in Roy Hodgson’s selection it highlights a weakness for England this summer if Joe Hart has not returned to full fitness in time.

Craig Gardner makes another return to the Stadium of Light. Baggies fans are of a similar mind to us in thinking he offers little except being one of those ‘good honest pros’ people talk about when they can’t think of anything more positive to say. He actually hasn’t been playing badly of late. Keep an eye on him.  

The Main Man: Fabio Borini
Coming into form for April, I wrote earlier in the week that we don’t have a ‘best’ position for him but I’d put him on the left to hit the Baggies where it hurts by turning the full back and linking up with Defoe.

Wild Card: Jeremain Lens
Ridiculous as it sounds putting our ‘big money’ summer signing into a wild card category he’s available for first team selection from injury and supposedly put in a decent, “hard working” display with the under 21s last week. We may well need something to ‘unlock’ West Brom tomorrow, Could Lens could be it?
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