The key decisions Slaven Bilic must get right as West Brom aim for Huddersfield win
Managers in football often talk of the ‘nice headaches’, the ‘good problems to have’.
At West Bromwich Albion, it’s no different – in fact it’s the perfect case study.
On the horizon are two of the biggest selection calls Slaven Bilic has had to make so far – and it involves a particularly delicate area of his side.
You can afford to experiment with the front end of the pitch, afford to freshen things up when it’s not quite happening.
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We’ve seen it countless times already, Bilic’s ability to read a match and react accordingly; Albion have benefitted from changes in personnel and tactics already this season. It’s a major reason they’re still unbeaten after seven games.
At the back, though, it’s a little different.
Every boss – particularly one who was a centre half himself in his playing days – would like a settled back-line. That’s the ideal scenario.
With Kieran Gibbs now back in full training, and Ahmed Hegazi set to make his long awaited return in the coming weeks, that settled back-line is set to be challenged with intense competition.
It could be argued that Gibbs and Hegazi are Albion’s best defenders. In that case, they ought to walk into the side – shouldn’t they?
Hegazi – A case for the defence
Having undergone surgery on his ankle before the campaign commenced, Hegazi has been working his way back to full fitness.
That’s included all sorts of rehabilitation procedures, including work on anti-gravity treadmills, but Hegazi is finally back out and training with the rest of Slaven Bilic’s group.
He admits that he’s even back ahead of schedule, though U23s football is likely before a first-team return.
“I’m feeling all good,” Hegazi enthused. “I’m very happy to be back in training and the ankle is feeling fine. There is no date for a return to playing yet but we will see how I progress from here.
“I have come back a little bit quicker than was expected which is good for me. The team is doing well and we just need to keep this momentum going.”
Hegazi is likely to feature in the Premier League 2 for Albion’s U23s side as he works his way towards a sufficient level of match fitness, before Bilic considers him for first-team duty.
The fan favourite won’t be likely to walk straight back into the starting XI, either; Kyle Bartley and summer signing Semi Ajayi have shown signs of flourishing partnership in recent weeks and Hegazi may have to bide his time.
That said, with Ajayi’s versatility a factor, Bilic may yet be able to utilise all three.
Gibbs – Fergie time
When Gibbs pulled up 20 minutes after taking to the field at Derby earlier in the month, it forced Bilic into a decision.
Conor Townsend had been omitted from the match-day squad, and Chris Brunt – a top flight left-back, no less – was among the substitutes, but the Croat opted for Furlong.
The summer recruit had come in from QPR and could’ve been forgiven for thinking that the right-back was his to own – then he found young Nathan Ferguson, a centre-back by trade, already staking his own claim.
Furlong filled in for the remainder of the half, and then at half time the pair switched sides; this allowed forward thinking Furlong to gallop along the right, while the more defensively minded Ferguson to protect the side with no natural cover.
This is where the pair have remained since, helping Albion take five points from Derby, Blackburn and Fulham and delivering excellent performances in the meantime.
Can Gibbs expect to return immediately? If so, Furlong could be the one to make way. Such is Gibbs’ adventurous approach to matches, Bilic can ill afford two full-backs to roam forwards so often.
At any rate, Ferguson has barely put a foot wrong since day one.
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The two men that stand out from the draw at Fulham are the two substitutes who came on and made a difference.
Both Kyle Edwards – who bore the captain’s armband for the final half hour – and Hal Robson-Kanu caught the eye with their cameos and both will fancy their chances of getting a look-in once again when Albion welcome Huddersfield Town on Sunday.
Winger Edwards, who brought life to Albion’s attack with an energetic showing at Craven Cottage, sent a timely reminder to Bilic after being dropped from the starting XI in the last couple of matches.
Robson-Kanu, meanwhile, was given the nod ahead of Kenneth Zohore from the bench in London and will sense an opportunity with Charlie Austin still to get up and running.
Though Gibbs has returned to first-team training, there remains a question mark over his ability to begin the meeting with the Terriers. Austin, too, will likely be retained for a match where Albion are likely to dominate possession.
Predicted XI: Johnstone; Furlong, Ajayi, Bartley, Ferguson; Sawyers, Livermore, Pereira, Phillips, Diangana; Austin