A busy December for Manchester United continues on Sunday as the club travels south to take on West Bromwich Albion. Both sides enter this weekend’s match on the back of a positive result — United bouncing back from the derby defeat with a 1-0 win over Bournemouth, while West Brom stood firm on Merseyside and earned a hard-fought scoreless draw with Liverpool.
Last month, WBA parted ways with manager Tony Pulis after three years at the helm. Pulis rescued the Baggies from relegation in 2015 and followed that up by steering the club to two more mid-table finishes. Supporters, though, grew tired of his defensive approach and welcomed a change after Albion started this season poorly.
West Brom’s board wasted no time in appointing Alan Pardew, who promised a more positive playing style. The early results have been mixed. In his first three matches in charge, Pardew’s Baggies have two draws and a loss, though that includes an impressive point gained at Anfield. Most troubling is that West Brom have not yet scored a goal in the Pardew era.
That’s been a problem all season, as the club’s forwards — Salomon Rondon, Jay Rodriguez, and Hal Robson-Kanu — each have only two goals a piece. And the news doesn’t get any better on the Albion backline. For a team built by Tony Pulis, this West Brom unit has proven to be surprisingly poor defensively.
Club captain Jonny Evans — a very familiar face for United fans — continues to be heavily linked with a midseason transfer to a bigger club. West Brom’s troubled defense would struggle all the more without Evans marshaling the backline, so Pardew surely hopes he can hold off any January interest in the center-back.
Even though West Brom now sit 17th in the Premier League table, this is not a team without talent. Somewhat belying his stodgy reputation, Pulis actually made several ambitious signings for the club in recent years. In 2015, Rondon joined from Zenit St. Petersburg and has chipped in with 21 goals since. Just this past summer, Grzegorz Krychowiak (PSG) and Oliver Burke (RB Leipzig) — two highly-regarded players — traded life on the continent for The Hawthornes. Albion fans are still waiting to see the best of Krychowiak and Burke, but Alan Pardew will not find the cupboard bare at his new club.
Still, Wednesday’s point at Liverpool is the first bright spot for WBA in quite a while. The Baggies are winless in their last 16 games in all competitions and goals remain hard to come by. Pardew has managed to stop the rot, but this revival won’t be complete without getting back into the win column.
Hopefully, his first win as Albion manager won’t come at Manchester United’s expense.
United rebounded from the derby defeat by holding off a determined Bournemouth squad on Wednesday evening. It was hardly a dazzling display by the men in red, but the win in rainy conditions washed away some of the disappointment from last weekend. Jose Mourinho rotated in some of his bench players as well, leaving his squad in fine shape ahead of United’s trip to The Hawthornes.
As much as Alan Pardew might preach that his West Brom will little resemble Tony Pulis’s, Mourinho should expect the Albion bus to be well and truly parked on Sunday. That’s been an effective strategy against a Paul Pogba-less United team, so it will be up to the players to find a way through a packed WBA defense.
Mourinho freshened up the midfield on Wednesday by giving Scott McTominay his first league start of the season. If the manager has lost faith in a Matic-Herrera partnership (and who could blame him if he has?), young Scott may be in line for another start at the weekend.
Another thing to keep an eye on is West Brom’s fitness level. After an arduous midweek match at Liverpool, the Baggies may not have the energy to match United. The Red Devils should have plenty of possession and ample opportunities to deliver crosses onto the head of Romelu Lukaku.
Mourinho chose to persevere with the struggling Belgian against Bournemouth and his faith was richly rewarded. Lukaku’s goal proved the difference on Wednesday, bringing his season total to 13. He remains a good way off his best, but the signs of revival are there.
West Brom got a difficult week off to a solid start by drawing at Anfield, but United must ensure it ends in disappointment. This is a relatively soft part of the schedule and the club needs to open up the gap with Chelsea in third. Sunday presents the perfect opportunity for that — take advantage of tired opposition, don’t fall victim to “new manager effect,” and come home with three points. After that, Paul Pogba returns and Manchester United will be back to their best.