Bees' Stoke choke gives Baggies second shot at glory - Interview
Tuesday, 21st Jul 2020 16:50 by Clive Whittingham
Doctor, professor of African history, Baggie, and all round top bloke Matt Graham reflects on West Brom’s season and their lucky let off at Stoke at the weekend.
How would you assess West Brom’s season overall? Expectations were actually quite low in the summer if I recall…
Looking back at last summer’s season preview, I thought the play-offs would again be a realistic outcome due to the morale sapping loss to Villa in the play-off semi-finals and with the squad not in any great shapes because of a mass exodus of established, and youth team players. In fact, there was quite a bit of negativity around the club before the season began. However, the appointment of Slaven Bilic, a summer rebuild project, following a flurry of signings before the transfer deadline, most notably Matheus Pereira (Sporting Lisbon) and Grady Diangana (West Ham), and the implementation of a fast, possession based style of football rapidly altered the initial pessimism. Overall, if you’d said Albion would remain in the top two since October, and going into the final game, still have promotion in our own hands, I’d have definitely taken that scenario. The season has by and large, been very good, and at times we’ve played the best attacking football I’ve seen since Tony Mowbray, sweeping some teams aside with ease (Swansea at home was incredible) and scoring lots of goals. It has been genuinely exciting to watch after years of dross under Pulis, Pardew, Irvine, etc.…
However, I appreciate the irony of being critical given the league position West Brom currently occupy, but the season has also been one of missed opportunities, and we really shouldn’t have been relying on Stoke doing us a favour on Saturday. The team has drawn 16 games this season against sides such as Charlton, Barnsley and Birmingham, some of the defending has been shocking, we didn’t win in seven league games at the turn of the year, and despite being the second highest scorers in the league, do not have a striker good enough to capitalise on all the chances we create.
Therefore, right now, it has been a very good season, with lots of positives to reflect on, and if we win on Wednesday, it’ll have been an excellent season; yet if we slip up against QPR, then it will be one of disappointment and missed chances, and I would be far from confident about our chances in the play-offs.
League Results So Far…
Few slips of late which really should have let Brentford in but for their surprise win at Stoke – is it nerves, fitness, fatigue?
I think it is a combination of all three. At the beginning of the ‘restart’ there was a seven point cushion over Brentford, which perhaps meant there was a bit of complacency from the team and fans about what was needed to achieve promotion, but no one anticipated their incredible run of form. This in turn has created a bit of panic as Brentford, and to some extent Fulham, have made things far too close for comfort, while Albion have slipped up unnecessarily, most notably against Blackburn and Huddersfield. West Brom’s style of play relies on fast, attacking football and the squad certainly looked tired in the first few games, although after the win against Sheffield Wednesday, it appeared as if everything had clicked again, sparking three wins in a row. But in the last few games the team looks tired again and a bit shell-shocked, while running out of ideas about how to breakdown teams that sit back and defend. However, this is West Brom, and we never make things easy… It has not been the smooth victory lap that many Albion fans were expecting.
How do you rate Slaven Bilic’s performance?
Bilic is great. He is an enthusiastic and charismatic manager, who has transformed this side into one that plays some genuinely exciting football which looks to score lots of goals. The in-game management across the season has been superb, with many of the substitutions changing the flow and direction of games in our favour. Importantly, he has given youth players such as Nathan Ferguson (who subsequently refused to sign a new contract and has today announced he’s joining Crystal Palace) and Dara O’Shea opportunities in the first-team, which is always nice to see. Yet, for a no nonsense defender in his day, some of the defensive organisation can be a bit suspect, but that is often the trade-off for attacking football. Bilic has been a brilliant appointment for the club, who has changed the ethos around West Brom for the better.
How’s Darnell Furlong gone for you, not in the side at the moment I notice?
Darnell Furlong started the season off really well, and he looked a real prospect going forward, through his ability to provide a quality attacking outlet on the right-side of the pitch. However, Furlong’s form dropped considerably, especially in his defensive responsibilities, and he was replaced by academy graduates, first Ferguson, and then O’Shea, both of whom have grabbed their opportunities for first team football. Furlong is now largely restricted to appearances off the bench and has failed to make much of an impression following the early promise.
And our other exes, Austin and Phillips?
There was a real excitement about the signing of Austin in the summer. It was envisaged that he would provide the bucketful of goals that the departed Rodriguez and Gayle had contributed last season, but he hasn’t been the striker everyone had hoped for. Austin has very little pace left, doesn’t get himself into good positions in the box, and he looks knackered half-way through every game. For large parts of the season he was kept out of the side by Hal Robson-Kanu, although he has had more starting opportunities since the restart. That said, he is still the club top-scorer with 11 goals, of which four were from the penalty spot.
Phillips is someone who is either fantastic or awful, and this season he has encompassed the whole spectrum. The stats are pretty good with eight goals and six assists, but most of these occurred in the opening games in which he looked invigorated. However, his form has dipped considerably as the season progressed, and Phillips has since lost his place to either Calum Robinson, Kamil Grosicki or Kyle Edwards. Since the restart Phillips has mainly had appearances off the bench, in which he has contributed very little.
Summer Ins: >>> Kenneth Zohore, 25, CF, Cardiff, £8m >>> Charlie Austin, 30, CF, Southampton, £3.8m >>> Romaine Sawyers, 27, AM, £2.8m >>> Darnell Furlong, 23 CB/RB, QPR, £2m >>> Semi Ajayi, 25, CB, Rotherham, £1.5m >>> Filip Krovinovic, 23, AM, Benfica, Loan >>> Grady Diangana, 21, RW, West Ham, Loan >>> Matheus Pereira, 23, RW, Sporting, Loan >>> Chris Willock, 21, LW, Benfica, Loan
Summer Outs: >>> Salomon Rondon, 29, CF, Yifang (China), £16.8m >>> Craig Dawson, 29, CB, Watford, £5.4m >>> Jay Rodriguez, 29, CF, Burnley, £5m >>> Allan Nyom, 31, RB, Getafe, £2.8m >>> Kyle Howkins, 23, CB, Newport, Free >>> Alex Palmer, 22, GK, Plymouth, Loan >>> Sam Field, 21, CM, Charlton, Loan >>> Oli Burke, 22, RW, Alaves, Loan >>> Jonathan Leko, 20, RW, Charlton, Loan >>> Gareth Barry, 38, CM, Released >>> Tyrone Mears, 37, RB, Released >>> Bo Myhill, 36, GK, Retired >>> Wes Hoolahan, 37, AM, Newcastle (Australia), Free >>> James Morrison, 33, CM, Released
Winter Ins: >>> Kamil Grosicki, 32, AM, Hull, £855k >>> Lee Peltier, 33, RB, Cardiff, Free >>> Callum Robinson, 25, CF, Sheff Utd, Loan
Winter Outs: >>> Ted Cann, 19, GK, Yeovil, Undisclosed >>> Max Melbourne, 21, DF, Lincoln, Undisclosed
Player of the season candidates?
It can only be Matheus Pereira. Pereira has been an absolute joy to watch, and is without doubt one of the best, most technically gifted footballers to play for West Brom in the last three decades. I’m not really sure how West Brom were able to initially get him on loan, with an £8m option to buy, but he has been sensational. Pereira has an eye for an acute pass, looks to get the team on the front foot whenever he can, provides goal-scoring opportunities, and chips in with some lovely goals too. The 8 goals (the freekick against Bristol City was very nice) and 16 assists demonstrates just how valuable he is to the way the team plays. If he didn’t play-act as much as he did, I think Pereira would be more universally loved by fans of other clubs.
Honourable mentions must go to Diangana who before his injury in December was playing extremely well, and defensive academy graduate O’Shea who has not looked out of place in the first-team.
Weak links in the side?
It is the same scenario as the last preview I did for you before the first meeting. The forward line of Austin, Robson-Kanu and Zahore are not of the required standard, and have not been the finishers the team so badly needs. The defence is at times shaky, and while I’m loathe to criticise Connor Townsend at leftback, he has not played that well since the restart, and was particularly poor against Huddersfield on Friday. Perhaps a controversial opinion (and not a weak link per se), but I think Romaine Sawyers can often slow down the way we play and isn’t great in the defensive duties.
Assuming you do it now, what do West Brom need to stay up next season?
If West Brom are promoted, then signing an entirely new forward line is an imperative, because if our current strikers can’t cut it in the Championship, they definitely won’t be pulling up trees in the Premier League. A new leftback to either replace or offer back-up to the semi-crocked Kieran Gibbs is an essential purchase, and another central defender would be a key addition. If the club can somehow persuade West Ham to let Diangana go, then he would be a quality signing too. It’ll require some canny signings that hopefully Bilic’s reputation can attract to the club. The team will need to be more defensively solid, and to capitalise more ruthlessly on the reduced chances that smaller Premier League teams get. Thankfully the lower half of the Premier League is quite poor, so I’d fancy our chances of survival if promoted.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @SAhistoryMatt
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