Another Premier League fixture soon arrives during this festive season when Manchester United host West Bromwich Albion on Saturday at Old Trafford. These two sides have yet to meet this season but they did clash twice in the previous campaign in league encounters. During this same fixture last season in March, a Wayne Rooney brace led the Red Devils to a 2-0 defeat of the Baggies. In the reverse fixture, which occurred during last season's opener at the Hawthorns, a late Steven Reid own-goal allowed United to prevail by a 2-1 scoreline. West Brom have yet to defeat United in twelve Premier League matches.
Form Guide: United have reached the half-way point of the Premier League season top of the table and with a seven-point advantage over nearest title-contending rival Manchester City. They've currently earned 46 points from 19 league matches. The Red Devils have gone unbeaten in their past 7 domestic ties, 6 of which have been victories. The most recent match was a wild 4-3 defeat of Newcastle United on Boxing Day.
Team News: Rooney, Anderson, and Phil Jones are all unavailable due to injury. Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young were both out at the midweek due to illness and injury, respectively, but both are probable for Saturday's match. Shinji Kagawa is expected to be available for a possible substitute's role. No update has been given on Rafael so he's probably best anticipated to be out. Nani continues to be unavailable as well. (Full Team News Report)
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Form Guide: West Brom enter the weekend sitting a surprising sixth in the table with 33 points from 19 matches. The Baggies have been a streaky side as of late: prior to their recent three game unbeaten run, they had lost thrice and prior to that, they had won four successive matches. The past week has seen Steve Clake's win twice by a 2-1 scoreline: the first this past weekend over Norwich City and the most recent victory being at Queens Park Rangers on Boxing Day.
Team News: Claudio Yacob and Steven Reid are out while Jonas Olsson and Youssouf Mulumbu will have late fitness tests. The status on Goran Popov is not entirely clear.
United: It's been David de Gea that has gotten a run of games lately in goal but Anders Lindegaard is certainly possible to be rotated in for this game. In central-defense, any two of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, and Chris Smalling are possible. At right-back, if Rafael is still out, then expect Smalling. Patrice Evra is the clear first-choice left-back but if manager Sir Alex Ferguson feels the need to give him a rest, Alexander Buttner is available to deputise.
In midfield, any two of Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, and Darren Fletcher are likely to start. Ferguson has already indicated that Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are in need of rest after both started at the midweek. Out wide, if Young is fit enough, he likely starts on the left-flank. Antonio Valencia is the clear first-choice right-winger but if he's given a rest, since he's featured twice this past week, then Danny Welbeck is possible on the right flank.
Welbeck likely will be considered for a role up front as well, along with Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). Nick Powell may be a darkhorse candidate to start in behind a lead striker too.
West Brom: In Steve Clarke's 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system, Ben Foster is his No.1 while Olsson and Gareth McAuley are clear first-choice central-defenders. Expect Billy Jones to deputise for Reid at right-back while Popov is expected at left-back. If the latter is deemed unfit for the match, then Liam Ridgewell would step in at left-back.
West Brom is a bit thin in terms of depth for their double-pivot role: if Mulumbu passes his late fitness test, he's a starter while Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans are possible in this role as well.
The front four is rotated quite a bit. Typically, it's Shane Long that starts as the lead striker while Lukaku then comes late in the second-half as a replacement. The roles have been reversed though in the Baggies' past two matches. James Morrison is the clear first-choice in the role supporting the lead striker. Out wide, any of Peter Odemwingie, Zoltan Gera, Marc-Antoine Fortune, Brunt, and Dorrans are possible.
* The basics of West Brom: It's been a splendid start for Clarke in his first year as boss of the Baggies. The Scottish manager has retained the disciplined defensive shape of former manager Roy Hodgson while his side have been slightly more expressive at times as well -- particularly late in games. West Brom tend to defend deep and their wide players are diligent in their commitment to defending. This results in a 4-4-1-1 shape when out of possession. When the ball is won, Clarke's side tend to break into open space quickly -- either through Odemwingie on the wing, Morrison in the space between the lines, or to Long when he makes runs through the channels.
When in possession, West Brom's shape can be described as 4-2-3-1. Yacob's injury is a massive one for the Baggies as he's arguably been his side's best player this season. The Argentine sat deep and broke up play while his double-pivot partner, Mulumbu, was more willing to get forward in support of the front four. A less combative deputy, whether that be Brunt or Dorrans, is likely to partner Mulumbu for this match.
The wingers -- whether it be Gera, Odemwingie, Brunt, Fortune, or Dorrans -- tend to drift inside. Odemwingie, though, is the most direct and he tends to play high enough where he can be considered an auxiliary wide forward. His dribbling ability combined with his pace make him a direct threat on counterattacks. Gera tends to move infield more as he gets involved with the midfielders.
In the back, Jones is more willing to get forward from his right-back position than is Popov. The center-backs, particularly McAuley, are strong in the air. Constant waves of crosses into the box is not generally advised against the Baggies.
* West Brom's waiting game: Michael Cox recently wrote an excellent piece explaining how West Brom like to play a waiting game. By this, he means that Clarke's side like to slow the tempo down from the start, defend narrow and deep, and they then look to strike into space late in games when the opposition gets anxious and begin to send more players forward. The Baggies have scored most of their goals in the second-half.
Cox points out how Long gets the thankless role of running at and chasing center-backs and when he eventually tires, while also tiring the opposition, Lukaku typically comes on and enjoys himself against a tired opposition. The Belgian only has six starts but his six goals better Long's five goals from from 14 starts. This comment from Clarke after he gave a start to Lukaku in a game versus Reading is telling:
"I felt I was always asking Shane to do the horrible shift, which is the first hour, where he runs and chases and defenders are still fresh. I thought it would benefit Shane to go on as the fresh player for a change, and thankfully for me and the team, it worked."
It's been interesting that many lesser sides have entered the Theatre of Dreams this season while surprisingly deciding to have a go. Don't expect that from West Brom though. They are likely to defend deep and try to keep the scoreline close. If United seek a goal late in the game, the Baggies will then look to strike on the break when the home side surge forward. That is their blueprint for this season, particularly against top sides. It will be key for the Red Devils to up the tempo early and get ahead. West Brom are not built to comeback in games.
KO: 3:00pm GMT, 10:00am EST | Old Trafford
LIVE TV: none (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.)
Referee: Jon Moss
ODDS: Manchester United 1/4, Draw 9/2, West Bromwich Albion 10/1