West Bromwich Albion: Still scoring for fun but more serious about promotion?

West Bromwich Albion's two star loan players Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira have both scored four times - and they share 12 assists between them
West Bromwich Albion's two star loan players Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira have both scored four times - and they share 12 assists between them

This time last season West Bromwich Albion were the Championship's top scorers.

Darren Moore's men had banged in 41 goals in 19 games, Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez were scoring for fun and on-loan Harvey Barnes was on fire.

A year on, Albion once again top the goal charts in the second tier - 35 in 18 games for Slaven Bilic's Baggies ahead of Monday night's trip to Preston North End's Deepdale.

At first glance, it seems a similar story. But there are a couple of big differences.

Whereas Moore's Albion were reliant on a dynamic duo up front last term, this time the goals have been spread around.

Full-back Kieran Gibbs' opening goal in the 4-1 midweek win over Bristol City made him Albion's 14th different scorer this season.

And, while this time 12 months ago, West Brom were chasing the top two, now it's the play-off pack chasing them - eight points better off on 39, as opposed to the 31 they had at the start of December 2018.

'When everything ticks, you get performances'

Albion have suffered just one defeat this campaign, as opposed to five losses by the end of November 2018, and only conceded 19 goals.

That's eight fewer from this side who, under Moore and Graeme Jones, had shipped 27 goals and still could not really make up their minds about whether to play three at the back.

"We've had a strong few weeks," said fit-again former Arsenal and England full-back Gibbs.

"We've only lost one game and every one of our players deserves to be playing. I have to count myself lucky that I'm back in the team.

"We've got confidence in our attacking players, we have two brutes at the back and a brain in the middle and, when everything ticks along, you get performances."

Grady Diangana (left) played a key role in both Kieran Gibbs' 10th minute goal and Matheus Pereira's 39th-minute second in the 4-1 midweek win over play-off challengers Bristol City
Grady Diangana (left) played a key role in both Kieran Gibbs' 10th-minute goal and Matheus Pereira's 39th-minute second in the win over play-off challengers Bristol City

Gibbs also highlights the contributions of West Ham United's Grady Diangana and Sporting Lisbon's young Brazilian Matheus Pereira - both of whom are scheduled to be around all season long, not summoned back to their parent clubs, as the influential Barnes so crucially was by Leicester City a year ago.

"They're just two hungry boys with a big appetite for the game," said Gibbs. "They're young, energetic, they never have a day off. They're just class players.

"On top of that, they're good boys who have settled in quickly and want to do well for the team. They're everything you can ask for."

Gibbs was particularly indebted to Diangana on his midweek comeback from two months out with a toe injury, as the full-back latched onto the midfielder's stunning backheel to mark his return with a goal.

"It showed what a quality player he is," said Gibbs. "It was one of those passes that everyone in the stadium can see but [an unsighted] Grady can't.

"It looked a lot easier than it was. I half knew he has that kind of ability, I gambled and it paid off."

Can Albion go all the way this time?

Albion's next test, at Deepdale, pitches a Preston team with this season's best Championship home scoring record of 25 in nine games against the meanest away defence, with the Baggies conceding only five times in nine away trips.

It also throws up an intriguing date with North End boss Alex Neil, who was so strongly linked with the job when Moore was sacked with Albion fourth in the table on 9 March.

But first and foremost are the three points that would take them back above Leeds United - and reopen a seven-point cushion to third-placed Fulham.

Not that they are solely targeting Leeds as the main danger as Albion look to go further than last season's role of beaten play-off semi-finalists.

"It's too early to be playing mind games with anyone," added Gibbs. "I don't think we're in that sort of position yet. That will all come in the new year."

Kieran Gibbs was speaking to BBC WM's West Brom reporter Rob Gurney

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