Can Norwich bounce back from their Newcastle mauling against a struggling West Brom? How good is Mulumbu really? Dan Brigham asks Nick Mashiter, who covers West Brom for the Press Association and, as a Norwich fan, is in a unique position to offer his insight
Dan: Hi Nick. West Brom have had a rather scrappy start to the season, with goals particularly hard to come by – they've scored only seven in the league and are just two points ahead of Norwich. Is there a bit of pressure on Tony Pulis, and why haven't things clicked for them yet?
Nick: Tony isn't under serious pressure – nor should he be – but there is a growing frustration from some of the Albion fans and there are two sides, as always. West Brom are in their sixth-straight season in the Premier League and some are expecting then to push to the next level.
They have broken their transfer record twice in the last two summers: at £10m Brown Ideye was a flop while £12m Salomón Rondón has shown flashes to suggest he can succeed once he settles in England – but that outlay hasn't been rewarded with results. The entertainment factor is huge for the fans though, and that's perhaps what is making then grumble the most. It's not been pleasant to watch.
The other side is it's extremely difficult to get to that next level and then maintain it. Tony did it with Stoke but they are now onto a new plan with Mark Hughes; Birmingham tried and failed and Hull too. There's a graveyard in the Football League of teams who tried to bridge the gap and failed. Yes, Southampton are a serious exception but they have been especially unique.
Pulis also missed out on signings and has made no secret of the fact he wanted more. Victor Anichebe was deployed in a holding midfield role in the 3-0 defeat at Norwich in the League Cup and I felt that was a message to chairman Jeremy Peace: “told you I needed more players”.
Tony has also been frustrated with the international breaks, which he feels have interrupted crucial preparation – but that has been the same for everyone. I know other managers feel the same way but it's a fact of life and they've got to get on with it. He's got enough quality though, especially with Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans and Saido Berahino. The Baggies will do enough to stay clear of danger – as they showed in the drab win over Sunderland – but it won't be enough for some.
Dan: Interesting that you say you expect West Brom to stay clear of danger. An apathetic fan base and a team struggling for goals and entertainment can quickly turn into a toxic mix – as we saw with Chris Hughton at Norwich. It's probably more in hope than expectation, but unless Rondón settles quickly I can see West Brom sucked into the relegation fight.
It’s noticeable that West Brom’s defence – usually Pulis's forte – hasn't been quite so protective this season. They've conceded three goals four times in the league and cup this season, and although three of those were against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton (and the other against Norwich) those games were at home. Do you think those lapses were hiccups, or is the defence not as strong as a traditional Pulis side?
Nick: It was certainly the case with Hughton's side – that was a slow painful death – but honestly think the Baggies will grind it out. The atmosphere is not as poisonous as the second half of the Hughton era.
Tony will certainly point to a lack of preparation time thanks to the international breaks and, in some respects, he's correct. Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans have all been away but the understanding should grow quickly as they've all been with Northern Ireland. Again, Tony wanted more players in defence – a left-back was a priority (as we know with their aborted move for Martin Olsson last season). He's playing Brunt there with Craig Dawson, a centre-back, on the right. Square pegs, round holes.
Centre-back James Chester hasn't impressed just yet after signing from Hull but with McAuley and Evans they have a very solid central partnership and Ben Foster should return in goal by Christmas after his long-term knee injury. Boaz Myhill has also kept five clean sheets this season, and that's the same amount as Joe Hart and Petr Cech so I wouldn't read too much into any defensive issues just yet.
Dan: Goals have been a struggle for West Brom this season. Are they set up to attack in the meat-and-potatoes way Stoke were, or is it about pace on the wings like at Palace under Pulis? And what can we expect from Rondón? Are him and Berahino likely to give Norwich's fraught defence another tough afternoon?
Nick: Pulis likes his wingers having signed Callum McManaman, James McClean and Serge Gnabry since arriving in January. He also wanted Matt Phillips but QPR's £10m asking price proved too much. They'll look to get the ball wide but what does let them down on the flanks is if Dawson is overlapping, as he crosses like the centre-back he is.
Rondón impressed in the win at Villa last month, a real lone striker's performance, similar to Cameron Jerome. He held the ball up, brought others into play and was selfless. The only issue was he wasn't a big enough goal threat. I expect that to come though, and he's offered enough to suggest he can be a success. He just needs to adapt, which takes time.
My biggest problem with Norwich this year was – and still is – their failure to improve a defence which shipped nearly 50 goals in the Championship last season and I'm concerned for them almost every game. It's similar to the first season up under Paul Lambert when they didn't keep a clean sheet in the league until January (although it did come against Chelsea if I remember rightly).
Berahino isn't at the top of his game yet but has the knack of being in the right place at the right time and if Norwich are as generous as they have been recently he'll profit.
I expect them to line up 4-2-3-1 with Rondón the lone forward and Berahino on the left, with a wandering remit.
Dan: Yep, the 0-0 with Chelsea in January was our first clean-sheet that season (and only the fourth time we'd failed to score). So the similarities with that season are definitely there – including taking the odd hammering.
Youssouf Mulumbu played 60 minutes for the U21s this week and is close to making a first-team comeback, although West Brom comes too soon. A lot of Norwich fans are pinning their hopes on him being the shield in front of the defence that we need. You will have seen him a lot for West Brom – is he the messiah or are we overhyping him out of desperation?
Nick: Mulumbu was a solid pick-up for a promoted side, especially on a free. An experienced midfielder with a few seasons in the Premier League – can't argue with that. The Baggies are trying to move on and progress so it wasn't a surprise Mulumbu left The Hawthorns and, in fairness, he needed to. He'd become a bit stale and certainly needed a change in scenery to get him going again. If he can recapture the form he showed when he first signed for Albion he'll be a steal.
But, and this goes for all players, don't expect too much too soon. An interrupted pre-season never helps and it may not be until after Christmas that Norwich see the best of him.
Dan: Hopefully we'll be seeing the best of him by the time the January transfer window opens and we can get ourselves a new centre-back or two... So what have you made of Norwich's start to the season? Did the thumping by Newcastle take you by surprise?
Nick: They are probably where I expected them to be. Naturally I'd like to see them higher and Alex Neil can justifiably argue they deserved more points but it's about right.
There have been some good performances, one bad (Southampton) and one ugly (Newcastle). In fairness, the scoreline and the defence were ugly but I didn't think it was a '6-2' game on Sunday. Before Norwich started shipping goals for fun I actually felt they were the better side in the opening 15 minutes of the second half. Maybe there’s a bit of naivety there and also a lack of serious Premier League quality but that's not a surprise.
The disappointment was not beefing up the defence in the summer, though I know it wasn't for the lack of trying. For me, that does mean they will suffer a battering every now and again. They do have a seriously good leader in Russell Martin, though. I know he's come in for criticism but trust me when I say he is vital to that dressing room. His influence shouldn't be underestimated.
Dan: Martin's influence must be vital to the balance of that team, otherwise I'm sure Ryan Bennett (who I don't think is the answer to anything...) will have got his chance next to Seb Bassong. Having said that, Bradley Johnson's influence was said to be large, but Neil didn't mind shipping him out...
So, three quick final questions.
Where do you think West Brom will finish this season?
Where do you think Norwich will finish?
Your score prediction for Saturday?
Nick: Albion will flirt with trouble but they've got enough to avoid a serious situation so I'd expect them to be somewhere between 12th-15th.
As for Norwich, they need to ensure their home record improves and I'd tag this one as a vital game, without being too dramatic, as it's so easy to slip away in the Premier League. I can see Norwich going back down but they've also got it in them to stay up. They know reinforcements will be needed in January too. I have to be optimistic and say 16th.
Norwich will play the better football but Albion have a bit more grit about them. Dieumerci Mbokani is an unknown for a lot of teams – he was one of the few bright spots against Newcastle – and he could unsettle the Baggies. Narrow home win, but it won't be easy, so 2-1.
Dan: Brilliant, thanks Nick. I fancy Norwich to be tighter in midfield this game and bounce back. I’m going for a first clean sheet of the season, too: 2-0.
Nick Mashiter is Midlands Football Writer for the Press Association. You can follow him on twitter at @nickmashiter