With the 2020/21 Premier League season on the horizon, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at West Bromwich Albion and their prospects in the upcoming campaign.
When West Bromwich Albion were relegated from the Premier League in 2017/18, it was an end of a seven-year spell in the top-flight. The Baggies saw two experienced managers – Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew – getting sacked, as they finished the doomed campaign rock bottom.
In their first year back in the EFL Championship, West Brom mounted a strong fight to finish fourth and made it to the playoffs. However, they were ousted in the semi-finals by eventual playoff winners Aston Villa on penalties.
This time out though, they have done it. Led by a seasoned manager in Slaven Bilic, who took over the reins at the Hawthorns in June last year, West Brom are back in the big leagues. And ahead of their return to Premier League football, The Hard Tackle takes look back at their successful 2019/20 season and their prospects for the upcoming campaign.
Prelude – The Backdrop
Having taken over from James Shan, who had overseen the final phase of the 2018/19 season, including the painful playoff exit, Bilic’s target for the season was very clear – promotion back to the top tier.
Bilic and West Brom started off their season with a 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest. From then on, they went on a nine-game unbeaten run in the Championship, although there were four draws in that run. Their run was ended by eventual champions Leeds United in the tenth matchweek at Elland Road.
That defeat saw them move down to third place from the top of the table. They went the entire season from this point onwards in the top two, switching position with Leeds. Another fourteen-game unbeaten run followed post their first loss. However, a run of draws, coupled with defeats to the likes of Middlesbrough, Stoke City and Cardiff somewhat hurt their momentum.
The post-lockdown period did not begin well either, with West Brom drawing against Birmingham, before being beaten 1-0 by Brentford. However, they quickly recovered registering three wins in a row to strengthen their hold on the top two.
There was a slight scare towards the end of the season, as Bilic’s side failed to win any of their final four matches (D3 L1). This allowed Leeds to pull away at the top, while Brentford got within touching distance of the Baggies, but fell short by two points. And thus, West Brom were back in the Premier League, courtesy a second-place finish which earned them an automatic promotion.
West Brom lost just seven games last season – no team faced defeats in fewer games than then. However, they also played out 17 draws over the course of the campaign – joint-most in the division alongside Millwall, ten of which came on their home turf, which eventually hurt their title hopes.
In terms of goals scored and conceded, West Brom were quite impressive at both ends of the pitch. Bilic’s men plundered 77 goals in their 46 outings, with only Brentford (80) outscoring them. At the same time, they shipped in 45 goals, at a rate of almost one per game. Only Leeds (35) and Brentford (38) let in fewer goals than the Baggies.
There hasn’t been much transfer activity at the Hawthorns at the time of writing. Matheus Pereira, who was their MVP in the season gone by, was signed on a permanent basis from Portuguese outfit Sporting Lisbon. The Brazilian has signed a four-year contract with West Brom.
Oliver Burke is back at the club after a loan spell away at Alaves. The 22-year-old had a rather forgetful stint in Spain, managing just one goal and two assists.
As far as exits are concerned, the Baggies let go of one of their most experienced players in Chris Brunt, who left at the end of the season with his contract expiring. 21-year-old Jonathan Leko is another notable exit from the Hawthors, having opted to sign for Championship side Birmingham City.
Apart from the duo , promising defender Nathan Ferguson also decided to leave, after having refused contract offers from the club. The versatile 19-year-old has joined Crystal Palace on a three-year contract. Prospects Finn Azaz and Josh Griffiths have been loaned out to Cheltenham Town for the 2020/21 season.
Grady Diangana, who played a key role in their promotion-winning season, has returned to parent club West Ham United and will be a big miss for West Brom. Filip Krovinovic and Callum Robinson are also back at their respective parent clubs Benfica and Sheffield United, although the former is closing in on a return on another loan spell.
Grady Diangana was integral to West Brom's promotion and has looked excellent in pre-season for #WHUFC.
— Roshane Thomas (@RoshaneSport) August 28, 2020
Seasoned campaigner Gareth Barry has announced his retirement, while Lee Peltier and Jonathan Bond are free agents with their contracts running out. However, West Brom are mulling over handing a new deal to the latter to ensure adequate depth in the goalkeeping department.
West Bromwich Albion have a difficult opening month back in the Premier League. Slaven Bilic & co. will kickstart their campaign against Leicester City at home, followed by a trip to Everton before Chelsea come visiting.
October presents their best chance to consolidate their position in the table, with fixtures against the likes of Burnley, Brighton & Hove Albion and fellow newbies Fulham lined up. These are potential six-pointers for the Baggies.
West Brom’s first derby of the season comes up during the festive period, as they take on Aston Villa at home. Given the Villans plight in the Premier League last time out, they are expected to be in and around the drop zone, making this another very critical fixture for the Baggies. The reverse fixtures takes place in April at the Villa Park.
Their second derby opponent, Wolves, will pose a much bigger challenge, given the success they enjoyed in 2019/20. West Brom travel to the Molineux on January 16 before hosting Nuno Espirito Santo’s side on the first of May. It will be the first Black Country Derby at the Hawthorns since 2011.
The run-in period sees West Brom play against FA Cup winners Arsenal away from home after the derby. It will be followed by a clash with reigning champions Liverpool at home, before the game against Bilic’s former employers West Ham United. The season ends with a trip to Elland Road.
The 24-year-old Brazilian is unarguably the Baggies most important player heading into the new season. Pereira, having arrived on loan at the Hawthorns last summer, lit up the stage with some eye-catching performances.
The attacking midfielder ended the campaign with an amazing return of eight goals and sixteen assists. So, it wasn’t a major surprise when he won the Albion Supporters’ Player of the Season Award for the 2019/20 season.
— TheOther14 (@Other14The) July 30, 2020
Although equally comfortable playing out on the flanks, Pereira is best when playing just behind the striker, wherein his ability to pick out perfect through passes comes to the fore. The 24-year-old is the Baggies’ chief playmaker, having created 116 chances last term and is a goal threat in the box as well with his strong finishing abilities.
Having signed from Manchester United a couple of years ago, the goalkeeper has grown into a key player for the Baggies. Johnstone did not miss a single minute of West Brom’s 2019/20 campaign and provided them with a solid base to build upon.
The 27-year-old ended the season with 14 clean sheets, letting in 45 goals. Only five goalkeepers managed more shut-outs than the former Manchester United academy ace. His presence in goal will be extremely key for West Brom if they are to put up a strong fight upon their return to the top flight.
The likes of Semi Ajayi, Jake Livermore and Romaine Sawyers will all be pivotal to West Brom’s fortunes next season. But the impact that Dara O’Shea made in a short period in the 2019/20 season deserves a mention here.
The 21-year-old only became a regular in the first-team in the second half of the campaign. Able to play at centre-back or right-back, O’Shea made the most of his opportunities, finishing with a return of three goals and an assist from 17 Championship outings, giving an indication of his attacking capabilities while playing at right-back.
At the same time, he was sound defensively as well, winning 4.9 aerial duels per game – no West Brom player managed more, while he also averaged 2.5 clearances every game. A difficult challenge lies ahead for the youngster, but the early signs are promising.
Dara O'Shea (21) for @WBA in the 2019/20 Championship:
1481 – Minutes played
3 – Goals
4.9 Aerial duels won p/90 (1st)
1.8 Tackles won p/90
1.7 Interceptions p/90 (1st)
2.5 Clearances p/90
A magnificent second half to the season from the Irishman. pic.twitter.com/lV3soUQI4I
— Mezzala Football (@MezzalaFtbl) July 25, 2020
West Brom return to the Premier League with an experienced manager in Slaven Bilic. They showed that they can be an effective unit at both ends of the season last season. However, an impressive season at the Championship level doesn’t always translate into success at the top tier as well – as was evident with Norwich City’s campaign last time out.
The Baggies have a decent enough squad, but there is a distinct lack of Premier League experience among the majority of the players. This could spell their downfall leading the Baggies to go back down to the second division come May 2021.
Apart from the likes of Jake Livermore, Charlie Austin, Kieran Gibbs and Matt Phillips, there isn’t much in the way of Premier League experience. Even the experienced ones haven’t always made the best of impression at the top tier level. Thus, it is hard to make a case for them securing their PL status for another season.
THT Prediction: 19th (Relegated)
Author Prediction: 19th