Three managers, sixteen losses and one place above relegation by the end of the season. It’s safe to say that 2013/14 was below par for West Bromwich Albion. While Steve Clarke started the season on the back of a record Premier League finish of 8th, he found himself under pressure from the West Brom board after stringing together wins in only seven of their 34 games in 2013.
Amid fan uproar, assistant coach Keith Downing took charge, only to be replaced by Real Betis boss Pepe Mel the following month. Mel’s appointment promised improvement from the slow start to the season, with the Spaniard being hailed as a saviour for the underachieving West Brom side. It took Mel seven games to record his first win (2-1 away against Swansea), but with only three wins in the following nine, Mel left the club by mutual consent, one place above the relegation zone.
West Brom lost nine places on their eighth place finish in 2012/2013, clear evidence that last season is one to forget. Big investments on new players last summer, such as Stefane Sessegnon and Victor Anichebe, did not translate to an improvement in results. Could this season be different?
POSITION in 2013/2014: 17th
Joleon Lescott (free, Manchester City) – After the release of captain Diego Lugano earlier in the summer, West Brom set out in search of an experienced central defender who can replace the Uruguayan. Following Lescott’s release from champions Manchester City, the Baggies were met with the chance to above and beyond just replace Lugano. Lescott – previously bought by City for £22 million – has a wealth of experience to call upon.
Despite being shaky for City towards the end of his career there, I think he could thrive at the back for a smaller team where he isn’t under the intense pressure he had at City, when he was forced to try and fill in for one of the best defenders in the world in Vincent Kompany.
Brown Ideye (£10 million, Dynamo Kiev) – Dynamo Kiev’s Nigerian forward has become West Brom’s record signing, indicating the Baggies’ intent to score goals and climb the table. Ideye is a target man akin to returning Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, with strength and pace in abundance, as well as an eye for goal that netted him 33 goals in 74 games in the Ukraine.
With the loss of Shane Long in January and a less than impressive season from £6 million signing Victor Anichebe, Ideye’s signing will be welcomed by the Hawthorns faithful, who witnessed a distinct lack of goals last season. Ideye, however, has not been proven to a large extent in any European leagues, bar a one year stint at Ligue 1 club Sochaux. It will be interesting to see how he fares this season given the huge step the Premier League will require.
Christian Gamboa (£2 million, Rosenborg) – Gamboa, a member of Costa Rica’s giant-slaying World Cup side, comes into a West Brom side desperate to create chances. This right back has pace to burn and a penchant for joining the attack, a quality Alan Irvine will welcome with open arms. Gamboa impressed at the World Cup, and should he replicate his performances from Brazil in the Premier League, the Costa Rican could prove to be one of the great bargains of this summer.
Sebastian Pocognoli (£1.5 million, Hannover 96) – Named in Belgium’s provisional World Cup squad, until an injury ruled him out of competition for the actual lineup, Pocognoli is an experienced left back with a real knowledge of his position. Following Liam Ridgewell’s departure to Portland Timbers in the MLS, West Brom are left with a vacant left back position that will be awarded to either Pocognoli or young Australian Jason Davidson (free), who travelled to the World Cup with Australia and impressed. I tout Pocognoli to fill this gap in the side, his experience just slightly giving him the edge over Davidson.
Craig Gardner (free, Sunderland) – With only 18 appearances last season in the league for Sunderland, Gardner fell slightly out of favour at the Stadium of Light, prompting his contract to run out and West Brom to swoop in for the 27 year old. Gardner comes into West Brom as adequate cover for both the full back positions and central midfield, a testament to the player’s versatility.
Chris Baird (free, Burnley) – My fellow countryman, Chris Baird is able to play in any defensive position, again giving Irvine a good amount of cover without having to splash out on new players for various positions. Plying his trade as both a defender and midfielder, Baird is a no-nonsense, experienced player who, despite declining fitness preventing him from playing week in week out, will be a consistent cover player who isn’t prone to mistakes. Being Northern Irish, I hope to see him and Chris Brunt linking up sometimes next season.
Andre Wisdom (loan, Liverpool) – Wisdom is spending this season at the Hawthorns to improve himself. The 21 year old right back has had limited playing time at Liverpool and, impressive during a loan spell at Derby last season, is attempting to make a case to play for the first team. Undoubtedly talented, Wisdom will however find it tougher than first expected to nail down a place in the West Brom team, with Christian Gamboa being brought in on a full length contract. Wisdom is adequate cover at centre back should Irvine need it.
Liam Ridgewell (free, to Portland Timbers) – West Brom chose not to extend the defender’s contract, prompting a move to the MLS, where, at the Portland Timbers, he was named in the MLS All Star Team after three games. Ridgewell’s form dipped last season, so the move came at the right time for both parties.
George Thorne (£2 million, to Derby) – The 21-year old was sent out on loan to Derby in January until the end of last season. With Derby interested in a long term deal for the young midfielder, and Thorne evidently not a big part of Alan Irvine’s future plans, West Brom sold him for a £2 million fee that would go far for a team like themselves. Not a huge loss for the Baggies, considering he only made 10 appearances for them in 5 seasons of long term injuries and loan moves.
Billy Jones (free, to Sunderland) – West Brom’s starting right back last season, Jones had a good year at the back, even scoring his first goal for the Baggies. After he rejected a new contract, West Brom had to watch one of last season’s best players leave, with interest from many Premier League teams eventually leading to Jones going to fellow relegation strugglers Sunderland.
Steven Reid, Cameron Gayle, Diego Lugano, Zoltan Gera all released.
PREDICTED STARTING XI: (4-2-3-1) Foster; Gamboa, Lescott, McAuley, Pocognoli; Mulumbu, Yacob; Brunt, Berahino, Sessegnon; Ideye
With a new manager picking the lineup, it is hard to tell how the team will be set up, particularly as Irvine’s pre season games have seen frequent formation changes. However, a 4-2-3-1 would allow all of West Brom’s stand out players to feature, with Ideye at his most effective as a target man, and playmakers Sessegnon and Brunt creating behind the record signing with pacy youngster (and last year’s top scorer) Saido Berahino.
(5-3-2) Foster; Gamboa, Lescott, McAuley, Olsson, Pocognoli; Brunt, Yacob, Morrison/Mulumbu; Ideye, Berahino
Irvine has indicated that he would like to have the ability to deploy a five-back formation, which would give West Brom’s defence a wealth of experience in Lescott, Olsson and McAuley, as well as allowing Gamboa to burst forward like he did in Brazil. Instead of playing Ideye up front alone, he could line Berahino beside him, the complement of pace and strength a huge threat to defences.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES:
Experience - Olsson, Lescott, McAuley – the West Brom defensive squad reads like a list of the league’s most experienced defenders, with nearly fourty years of professional football under their collective belt. Even Ben Foster, standing tall as West Brom’s last line of defence in goal, has been around since 2000.
There is no doubt Alan Irvine’s side will have a fountain of knowledge to call upon, particularly with the duo Chris Baird and Chris Brunt in the squad. Not only will this have its benefits for West Brom on the field, but off the field this group of older players can mentor the youth the squad has at its disposal, such as Saido Berahino and Adil Nabi, on the finer points of the beautiful game.
Threat from set pieces – As a footballer, lining up to defend a corner against the likes of notorious header-scorer Gareth McAuley, towering Jonas Olsson, Joleon Lescott, and the intimidating presence of Brown Ideye, you’d start to have second thoughts about whether you’ll get near the ball. According to Squawka, this presence only sat them 10th in the corner scoring stakes last year , so it will be interesting to see how the side’s set piece tally improves next year, particularly as Ideye can pose a threat in the air.
Goal scoring – Although distinctly average in the goalscoring stakes (43 goals puts them 11th in the league), something that put the Baggies in a less than desirable position last season was their lack of a distinct goalscorer.Youngster Saido Berahino was West Brom’s joint top scorer last season, with only five goals, while £6 million striker Victor Anichebe contributed only three. West Brom sat second on the list of teams with the most goalscorers last season, with 17.
Hopefully Brown Ideye will solve this problem, giving West Brom a more consistent source of goals, so they don’t have to scrape the metaphorical barrel to get something into the back of the net.
Inexperienced manager – Although respected within the world of football (especially for his playing career) it is an unfortunate truth for West Brom fans that their team will next year be led by an inexperienced manager, particularly in the Premier League. It is yet to be seen whether Irvine’s lack of experience will affect the side’s performance. If it does – in the dog eat dog world of management – we will certainly hear about it.
Poor form – Although they scored and conceded the same number of goals as tenth-placed Newcastle, West Brom ended last season seven points lower. Why? They just couldn’t finish off games. While Newcastle recorded fifteen wins in 2013/14, West Brom won seven. West Brom fans will be hoping for some better form next year; whether or not the football is great, a win is a win after all.
PREDICTED PLACE THIS SEASON: 13th
Although I genuinely believe that West Brom can challenge for a top half finish, as they have the squad to do so, my concern comes from the fact that they also had the manpower to do so last year. With a relatively large investment in the transfer window last season that brought in Stefane Sessegnon and Victor Anichebe among others, the Baggies were expecting a reasonable follow up to their highest-ever placing season in the Premier League. However, expectations failed to be met with results, and West Brom were left hanging just over the relegation zone.
This season may follow a similar trend. A few signings in the transfer window (including a record buy in £10 million Brown Ideye) raise expectations for the next season that could fail to be met. Usually the appointment of a new manager is a cause for optimism; Irvine’s appointment has seen Baggies fans subtly sigh as they see their team headed by a manager with no Premier League experience and what has so far been seen as a ‘boring’ approach to management.
West Brom definitely can reach in and around the 12th/13th place mark, but their ability to travel any higher depend on two things: Alan Irvine’s management and the summer signings, particularly Brown Ideye. Should Irvine prove reluctant to change last year’s disappointing side, I – and many fans – cannot see his tenure being long, and can see West Brom’s chances this year dropping significantly as a result. Should Brown Ideye become a flop/injured flop, West Brom will essentially be left in a similar position to last year – fighting off relegation while struggling to score goals.