The Championship, according to West Bromwich Albion manager Darren Moore, is shaping up for its tightest finish in years. At this juncture Marcelo Bielsa would not disagree. Two points a game is held as the benchmark for automatic promotion and no club in the division has found that consistency in the first three months of this season.
Leeds United and Norwich City have gone closest, with 30 points after 16 fixtures, but even Leeds are yet to convince Bielsa that the league is there for the taking. Bielsa sees his squad as part of a very even field, rather than superior to it, and the suggestion in September that West Brom might start setting the pace themselves has been contradicted by their last four results.
“We’ve called it from the start of the season and I’ll call it now,” Moore said after Albion’s 1-0 defeat to Hull City last weekend. “It’ll be nip-and-tuck right to the end. It’ll keep everyone on their toes, that’s for sure.”
This Saturday takes Leeds to The Hawthorns, the first time they have played West Brom there or anywhere else for 11-and-a-half years. The clubs have been on separate plains for such a long time that John Hartson and Kevin Phillips were among the scorers in a cold, January FA Cup tie, midway through Leeds’ worst season on record.
It will be seen in some quarters as another acid test for Bielsa; a league game against one of the most high-profile squads in the division and a meeting with the only unit who have outscored his. Albion are the most prolific team in the Championship with 33 goals. Leeds sit behind them with 28. Yet United are first in the table and West Brom have fallen below the play-offs, five points back. It is evident that over 16 matches Bielsa has found a better balance than Moore.
Before the last international break, West Brom reeled off five wins in seven fixtures, jumped to the top of the league and gave the impression of a former Premier League club about to turn the screw. In the weeks since the term resumed again they have drifted weakly, accruing one point from a possible 12 and locking up in a way which compelled Moore to abandon his preferred back-three at Hull.
Bielsa’s strategy at Leeds has been collective from the start: unambiguous tactics and a non-negotiable style of play which members of his squad are expected to fit into. He has crucial attacking players in his line-up – Pablo Hernandez, Mateusz Klich, Kemar Roofe – but no-one he depends on to settle games alone.
West Brom are showing more reliance on individual exploits. Jay Rodriguez is two league goals away from 10 for the season. Dwight Gayle has scored eight times in 14 games and is aiming to return against Leeds after a calf strain. His short spell at West Brom has been like his campaign in the Championship with Newcastle two years ago: finish after finish when injury isn’t sidelining him. Harvey Barnes, who Leeds were on the verge of signing on loan from Leicester City in the summer, has registered five goals and created three. In total, Matt Phillips has had a hand in six.
Those players have served to compensate for the worst defensive record in the Championship’s top half. West Brom’s attacking prowess is no less notable than their concession of 24 goals, 11 more than Bielsa’s side. “There’s definitely a frailty to Albion,” said Matt Wilson, the West Brom reporter for the Express and Star. “Even in that good run of results, there was a feeling that they were over-performing compared to their actual performances. It felt a bit like the run they’re on now was coming.
“They’d been using a 3-4-1-2 system but Wigan and Derby gave a good blueprint for how to play against it and at Hull Moore moved to a back-four at half-time. I’m not sure he’s convinced at the moment and Hull almost smacked of last season. They looked short of confidence and ideas.”
West Brom were relegated from the Premier League without a whimper in April, although Moore’s appointment as manager inspired a flurry of better form towards the end. The Championship is rarely accommodating for clubs who drop down but Albion are the best placed of the three who did and Moore has recognisable names in every area of his team. Kieran Gibbs, the former Arsenal full-back, should start on Saturday. Gareth Barry, the veteran England international, could feature after a calf-strain. Like Gary Rowett at Stoke City, West Brom’s boss does not want for resources.
Bielsa will play as he always does this weekend, sending his team to attack while relying on his defence to manage an Albion front line which has the ability to seriously hurt them. One of the more remarkable aspects of Bielsa’s approach – and more so give his recent frustration about how softly his side have been conceding – is that only five league goals against United have materialised from open play. Leeds are able to take risks without leaving the door wide open.
West Brom, in comparison, were badly exposed when Derby County cut them to pieces in a 4-1 win at The Hawthorns two weeks ago. “We had opportunities recently to try and top the division,” Moore said. “It wasn’t to be because of how tight the league is.” Bielsa knows the feeling having led the table more than once already. Wobbling or not, West Brom have the potential to come good in the Championship and it would not surprise either coach to be shoulder to shoulder with each other in the spring. Winning impressively at The Hawthorns on Saturday would sit nicely with Bielsa, and make a big statement.