Irvine relying on tested defensive duo
With West Brom's marquee summer signing finding himself sidelined through injury and lack of match fitness, Alan Irvine will have to put his faith in the tried and tested against Southampton.
It is pretty certain that Joleon Lescott would be first choice at West Brom when fit, but with the ex-Wolves man still recovering from a knee injury, Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley will be relied upon to provide a solid defensive performance in Irvine's first away game as Albion head coach.
There were no problems going forward against Sunderland last week, in fact The Baggies were a lot more impressive going forward than many expected them to bee. It was the defence that struggled, particularly the right-hand side, which saw loanee Andre Wisdom making his debut at right-back with Craig Dawson to his left.
Dawson was responsible on more than one occasion for losing his man at set pieces, with Olsson having words with Dawson after one such incident. The return of McAuley to the centre of Albion's defence can only benefit both Wisdom and Olsson.
On-loan Liverpool man Wisdom looks a decent, strong defender in one-on-one situations, but it was his positioning -- and the lack of protection in front of him -- that led to Sunderland causing a lot of problems down Albion's right, with their equaliser coming after they got in behind Wisdom. The experience and communications skills of McAuley will ensure that Wisdom doesn't have a repeat of these problems against Southampton, which will be vital against a player of Dusan Tadic's quality.
In the middle, Olsson and McAuley has become one of the most reliable centre-half pairings in the league. They aren't flashy, they don't do anything outstanding and don't over-complicate their job. What they do is defend and work well together. McAuley is an organiser, you can see that at set pieces where he seems to do a lot of directing, which was perhaps lacking last week.
Not only does he organise well, but he is often the man you'll see winning the crucial header -- both in defence and attack. Olsson isn't as dominant in the air as McAuley, but that's not to say it's a weakness. He's a good tackler and will throw his body in front of any shot or cross. It seems that Olsson plays better with McAuley simply because he can rely on the Northern Ireland international, allowing Olsson to focus on his game without worrying about what the player next to him is doing.
It is possible that Olsson and McAuley could find themselves up against former teammate Shane Long. It was very surprising to see Long move to Southampton so quickly after departing the Baggies for Hull, but what was even more of a shock was the fee. Long is a decent player, but at 12 million pounds, I'd be wanting a lot more from a striker.
Having said that, his pace could cause problems for West Brom's defence on Saturday. That is one area where they struggle, and Long does have pace in bundles. However, if he attempts to play the way he did at Albion, trying to bump the centre-backs around a little and challenge for everything in the air, there will be only one winner of that contest.
Picking up points on the road is crucial to finishing higher up in the league, and a solid defence is normally the best platform for picking up wins away from home, soaking up pressure and then counter-attacking. That is something West Brom did remarkably well under Roy Hodgson in the 2011-12 season, grabbing seven wins away from home. The central defensive partnership in all but one of those wins: McAuley and Olsson. Irvine will be hoping for a similar success rate, starting against Southampton.