West Bromwich Albion: Season Preview 2020-21
It took two attempts, but last season there was finally enough ‘boing’ in the Baggies to complete their ascent back up the perpetual yo-yo that seemingly connects them from the Premier League to the Championship.
Slaven Bilić will be a familiar face to top-tier dugouts, having accepted the drop in class and the challenge of returning West Brom to the top flight, and he succeeded in making them a far more convincing outfit than they had been the previous campaign. Their promotion was a formality for the most part: from September onwards, West Brom were never outside of the top two.
As the post-lockdown mini-season commenced, the Baggies had nine games to hold onto a six-point lead over 3rd-placed Fulham and a ten-point lead over Brentford in 4th in order to seal their Premier League return. That, however, paints the campaign to be far more routine than it actually turned out to be.
Who can forget that Friday night when West Brom lost their penultimate fixture of the season to Huddersfield, giving Brentford, having won seven games straight, the opportunity to overtake them if they won the following day? Bilić was even quoted after the game as seeing their promotion bottled:
“I don’t expect that (Brentford will drop points). We’ll be ready for the play-offs”.
Now looking like the ultimate mind game, Brentford lost and West Brom were able to better the Bees’ result on the final day to seal their Premier League return. They failed to win any of their last four fixtures, but to focus only on their late season stumbles would take away from a solid promotion campaign overall. After all, it was mission accomplished.
Having only just entered the building that summer, it’s said that Bilić was expecting a slower transition before the team would start to perform to his standards, but it transpired to take no time at all. At Christmas, West Brom were top of the tree having taken 50 points from 23 games, and were no fewer than 11 points clear of 3rd.
There was some slight overperformance on the metrics but nothing to suggest their promotion push would be in danger in the second half of the season. On the attacking end, the Baggies had finished their chances very well, netting 41 goals from 31.75 xG (plus 5/5 penalties)
Whilst at the back, there was a little bit of separation on the actual total versus expectation, but nothing as dramatic, conceding 21 times from 25.35xG (plus 3/4 penalties).
Running at a 100-point pace in the first half of the season meant that West Brom had the breathing space required to afford them a stagger and stumble on the home stretch. Their subsequent haul of 33 points from the second set of 23 games – only the 10th best record in the Championship in that period - should ring alarm bells for a side bracing themselves to face the Premier League juggernauts ahead, but the underlying numbers may counter the narrative that the Baggies are going into it as a worse side than the one that raced into 1st place by Christmas.
Metrics took a nosedive through the Winter period as they rode out a seven-match winless streak in that time but to a large extent that can be explained by the quashing of two of their best performers at that point in the season. West Ham dynamo Grady Diangana, on loan for the season and with 5 goals + 5 assists at that point, picked up an injury which in itself weakened West Brom’s attacking power, but it also allowed the opposition to put even more focus on outstanding talent Matheus Pereira, on 5 goals + 10 assists by that point, shutting him down and roughing him up to an even greater extent.
They recovered sufficiently though and, although results were much less impressive, the metrics were virtually identical in the second half of the season: they scored 29 from 32.76xG (plus 2/2 penalties) and conceded 20 from 18.36xG. So, if anything, the metrics were even better and the surface level drop off in results shouldn’t be too much cause for concern, particularly as the pace set in the first half of the season was never likely to sustain anyway. Had they picked up their 83 points in 42 and 41 splits, as their relatively stable (save for the mid-season blip) metrics suggested they could’ve, then there wouldn’t even be a conversation to be had about it.
Coming into the top tier, it’s clear West Brom will need reinforcements and a bit of a rejuvenation to the squad - whether they get it or not is another matter. Bilić has already hinted that it’s likely their transfer business will be more Sheffield United than Aston Villa, when comparing to the activities of the promoted Championship sides in last summer’s window.
However, The Baggies have made one of the signings of the summer already in making Pereira’s loan deal permanent. Signed from Sporting Lisbon on deadline day in August 2019 for a £750k loan fee, the agreed £8million price tag at that time has turned out to be an absolute snip as Pereira established himself as one of the best players, let alone attacking midfielders, seen in the Championship last season.
The Brazilian finished the campaign with a total of 8 goals and 16 assists, a contribution eclipsed only by Brentford’s Ollie Watkins, and it’s one piece of the jigsaw Bilić and West Brom fans will be relieved at not having to try and replace, especially at that price point.
A reunion with buddy Filip Krovinović remains on the cards, the Croatian came on loan from Sporting’s rivals Benfica but struck up a fruitful relationship on and off the pitch with Pereira. Krovinović’s ball retention turned out to be the perfect counter point to the risk-friendly Pereira and there was often a regular supply line between the two. If reports are to be believed, negotiations are well underway for his return.
A deal that could be just as important, and equally shrewd to the Pereira deal if they can successfully negotiate it, is the return of Grady Diangana on a permanent from West Ham, with the Hammers apparently considering accepting an offer for the England U21 winger.
Diangana’s season wasn’t held to quite as much fanfare outside of the West Midlands largely due to the medium-term injury he suffered, but Baggies fans know what a talent they had dovetailing with Pereira and probably hadn’t even considered a return for him would be likely on a temporary basis, let alone on a permanent, expecting his good form to take him into the West Ham first team.
Despite only managing 1980 minutes, Diangana undoubtedly made West Brom a much better side when he was in it and his 0.64 goals+assists per 90 minutes ranked 6th in the Championship for players with 1500 minutes or more – ahead of the likes of Pereira, Watkins, Mitrovic and Benrahma – and his 3.46 successful dribbles per 90 ranked 2nd in the league, getting the better of whichever fullback he was up against virtually every week.
Reuniting Pereira, Diangana and Krovinovic, three key contributors to West Brom’s promotion, would be a huge boost and perhaps one that was unexpected at the close of the season, Pereira’s formality of a transfer aside.
Probably the most important business they still have to do will be in recruiting a centre forward. None of Charlie Austin, Hal Robson-Kanu or Kenneth Zohore nailed down the role through last season and an upgrade is a high priority.
Romaine Sawyers and Jake Livermore had excellent seasons as the double pivot in midfield but will need more help with little depth behind them, whilst Semi Ajayi needs a partner at centre back as Ahmed Hegazy and Kyle Bartley were rotated and apparently not entirely trusted by Bilić. A move for Brighton’s Shane Duffy failed as he opted to join Celtic, but that in itself could open the door for West Brom to make a move to bring Kristoffer Ajer south of the border who has been linked.
The apparent faltering at the back end of the campaign has probably quelled confidence amongst the fanbase and there’s a sense of realism that they’ll have to overcome the odds to finish above the dotted red line in 2020/21. The squad was already in need of retooling anyway - let alone to be ready to step up to the Premier League - and there seemingly isn’t a huge amount of backing available in order to do that. That said, shrewd additions in problem areas will at least help the Baggies to be competitive and should Bilić adjust the tactical setup sufficiently in order to keep them solid at the back, providing a foundation for the star quality in the side to thrive, then they may just have a chance. Otherwise, a return trip down the yo-yo in May 2021 could beckon.
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