The FourFourTwo Preview: Southampton vs West Brom
Keith's last crack as Baggies boss before Pepe picks up the slack.
Well they got there in the end, eh? West Brom's five-man committee had spent almost a month speaking to - and possibly arguing over - a plethora of possible successors to Steve Clarke, having dismissed the Scot after a fourth straight Premier League defeat, at Cardiff, on December 14.
- So'ton 4-3 Burnley (FAC)
- So'ton 0-3 Chelsea (Prem)
- Everton 2-1 So'ton (Prem)
- Cardiff 0-3 So'ton (Prem)
- So'ton 2-3 Spurs (Prem)
WEST BROM FORM
- WBA 0-2 Palace (FAC)
- WBA 1-0 Newcastle (Prem)
- West Ham 3-3 WBA (Prem)
- Spurs 1-1 WBA (Prem)
- WBA 1-1 Hull (Prem)
But with Saturday's game looming and supporters starting to wonder just how much time owner Jeremy Peace, chief executive Mark Jenkins, techinical and sporting director Richard Garlick, head of medicine Mark Gillett and analyst Dave McDonough were planning on taking, Albion ended up returning to one of the first men they spoke to in former Real Betis boss Pepe Mel.
The 50-year-old had held talks over Christmas but been ruled out as he wanted to bring his own backroom staff to The Hawthorns, with West Brom insistent on keeping the current coaching setup in place.
However, Mel has now agreed an 18-month deal to work alongside assistant head coach Keith Downing and goalkeeper coach Dean Kiely, but is likely to readdress the issue at the end of the season.
"His appointment concludes an extensive recruitment process during which we have cast the net far and wide to identify the most suitable candidate to take the club forward," said Garlick.
"Pepe was a strong contender from the outset due to his impressive achievements and has emerged as our number one candidate.
"He is a forward-thinking coach whose teams are renowned for playing an attractive and positive style of football."
Mel will watch from the stands on Saturday before taking charge for the first time against Everton on January 20, meaning capable caretaker Downing will look to bow out on a high.
The former Wolves and Hereford midfielder has quietly gone about his business and steadied the ship while it searched for a new captain; a four-game unbeaten run lifting the Baggies to the temporary comfort of 14th in the standings, four points above the drop zone.
Albion's first opponents since appointing Mel happen to be Southampton, a club 12 months down the line since bringing in a highly-rated coach from La Liga playing an 'attractive and positive style of football.'
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” announced Mauricio Pochettino after Saints' New Year’s Day defeat to Chelsea. “We are a young side and we are still learning. We have to keep believing in our style of play,” added the Argentine, who has seen injuries to key players temper hopes of Saints pushing for a European place.
Southampton have won just one – against a doomed Malky Mackay’s Cardiff – and lost six of their last nine league outings; a run which has included games against Chelsea (twice), Arsenal, Spurs and Man City.
Beating Burnley in the FA Cup last weekend, and scoring some cracking goals to boot, provided some respite, although leaking another three goals at home will have been a concern.
But with injuries finally starting to clear up and games against Sunderland, Fulham, Stoke, Hull and West Ham on the horizon, Saints fans should feel positive about, at least, staying among the top 10.
Pablo Osvaldo begins a three-match ban following the touchline fracas at Newcastle on December 14, but Pochettino could welcome back Gaston Ramirez and, more importantly, Victor Wanyama from injury. Rickie Lambert’s substitution against Burnley was only precautionary after he suffered a dead leg.
Albion have a near clean bill of health, but will be without Billy Jones who has undergone a minor eye operation. Goran Popov is set to be sidelined with a neck injury.
Key battle: Adam Lallana vs Youssouf Mulumbu
The England man has been dominating the headlines for the wrong reasons of late after clashing with referee Mark Clattenburg, and he will be eager to get back to doing what he does best against the Baggies.
The midfielder’s long-range stunner settled last week’s seven-goal FA Cup thriller against Burnley, and in Saints' last two league outings at St Mary’s – defeats to Chelsea and Spurs – Lallana has stood out. In both games, the 25-year-old made more ball recoveries than any of his team-mates and set up 4 scoring chances against Tottenham on top of bagging the opener himself.
Hoping to dominate the midfield in the visitors' favour will be Mulumbu, available after recovering from an eye problem. The Congolese midfielder continues to play a key role for Albion, with the best passing stats and most ball recoveries in each of the Midlanders’ last two league games against Newcastle and West Ham.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- WBA 0-1 So'ton (Prem, Aug 13)
- So'ton 0-3 WBA (Prem, Apr 13)
- WBA 2-0 So'ton (Prem, Nov 12)
- WBA 1-1 So'ton (Ch, Apr 08)
- So'ton 3-2 WBA (Ch, Oct 07)
Last weekend's FA Cup win over Burnley was Pochettino's 40th match in charge of the Saints, with the Argentine winning 14 and losing 13.
He has been forced to deny reports in Italy that he will seek a new challenge at the end of the current campaign, stating: "In Italy there is a new piece of news every minute. I can't really comment on something that has no solidity to it."
Opposite number Downing would not have expected to take his tally to six games after Clarke's exit. The FA Cup defeat to Crystal Palace was the first of his five matches in the hot seat and he wants to see a response.
"I’ve been delighted with their attitude and work. It’s still tight and we’re not out of it. We’ve got a little breathing space with the win over Newcastle but it’s a tight affair and it will continue that way. We’ve got to make sure we continue that momentum from four games undefeated in the league and keep that run going."
TIPS & TRENDS
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Facts and figures
- Southampton have scored first in 8 of their last 15 home matches.
- There have been fewer than 3 goals in 7 of 11 Southampton games, and 11 of their last 21 home matches have been deadlocked at half-time.
- After going 8 unbeaten, Southampton have now won just once in their last 9.
- The Baggies have conceded first in 9 of their last 12 away matches while losing half of their last 20 road fixtures.
Best bet: Southampton First Half Win @ 2.40
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Downing preserves his unbeaten league record with a point. Pochettino’s also content after a tough run. 1-1.