Michael Cox considers both managers' tactical options ahead of Saturday's late kick-off.
"The absence of Yacob, and/or a Villa back three, would make West Brom’s task trickier
Lay West Brom at [1.8], depending upon team selection."
West Brom v Aston Villa, Saturday 5:30, ESPN
Match Odds: West Brom [1.8], Aston Villa [5.2], The Draw [5.2].
Never before have Belgian footballers been valued so highly in English football, with the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, Simon Mignolet, Mousa Dembele, Thomas Vermalen and Marouane Fellaini all impressing in recent months. This match is another example of that country's influence, with strikers at either end - Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku - the main goal threats on show.
Aston Villa are in all kinds of trouble at the bottom of the league, having slipped into the relegation zone following last week's unfortunate 1-0 home defeat to Southampton, but West Brom aren't in particularly good shape either. The Baggies overachieved in the first half of the campaign, but are now on a run of three league games without a victory.
Indeed, at around [1.78] West Brom seem somewhat underpriced for this local derby. Yes, 11 places separate these two sides in the league, but when looking at the probable line-ups, West Brom have two major problems defensively.
The first is at the back. Aston Villa's Benteke is an extremely tricky opponent in the air - he's won 151 aerial duels this season, more than any other Premier League player. Most sides have struggled with him, but West Brom lack a commanding centre-back. Jonas Olsson's aerial duel success rate is 53%, a disappointing rate for a central defender, and while his partner Gareth McAuley's is better at 77%, Benteke should be intelligent and target Olsson. If Villa get runners past the big Belgian - particularly Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, then West Brom could have problems.
The second problem is deep in midfield. West Brom's excellent start to the season owed much to the fine central midfield combination of Youssuf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, but with the former at the Africa Cup of Nations and the latter an injury doubt, this could be a real area of weakness for West Brom.
Steve Clarke lacks significant cover there, having released or sold Somen Tchoyi, Keith Andrews and Paul Scharner last summer - his usual response in the absence of either holding midfielder has been to drop Chris Brunt or James Morrison into that position, with mixed results. In recent weeks, Clarke has also turned to youngster George Thorne, although his three Premier League starts have all ended in defeat. Team news should affect the price - the absence of Yacob would be significant. Zoltan Gera's long-term injury is also a blow to West Brom - he contributed goals but was also surprisingly efficient at protecting his full-back.
Meanwhile, Villa have reason to be positive. They desperately lack experience at the back, but Ron Vlaar should be fit to return, which will be vital in stopping Lukaku. The Chelsea loanee scored two goals at Reading last week, both assisted by Morrison, and preventing the Scottish playmaker from working between the lines is also imperative for Paul Lambert's side.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see West Brom start slowly before growing into the game. Clarke has been clever with his use of the bench this season, although Shane Long is doubtful for the game, which means Lukaku might have to get through more work than usual - in his third game of the week.
Paul Lambert, meanwhile, could opt for a back three. It would mean playing three centre-backs against just one lone striker, but he's been happy to do this previously - against QPR, for example, and the return of Vlaar gives him more options in defence.
That would indicate a more conservative strategy, with Villa likely to be happy with a point. Therefore, team selection is crucial: the absence of Yacob, and/or a Villa back three, would make West Brom's task trickier, and make their current price of [1.8] worth laying.