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How West Bromwich Albion became an established Premier League club

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At the time of writing West Bromwich Albion sit 7 points clear of relegation with just three games remaining under the tutelage of Tony Pulis, a manager who has never been relegated in his managerial career. While the Baggies are not yet mathematically safe it remains likely that a sixth consecutive season in the Premier League will be secured come the end of May. The 2014/15 season has been symptomatic of Albion’s 5 year stay in England’s top flight with fluctuations between top 7 form and relegation form. Between 2002 and 2010 West Brom suffered 3 relegations and achieved 4 promotions; the archetypal ‘Yo-Yo Club’. However, despite a 17th placed finish in the 13/14 season the Albion have progressed into an established Premier League outfit through a combination of sustainable on-field and fiscal growth overseen by a divisive but ruthless chairman in Jeremy Peace.

West Brom achieved promotion from the Championship in 2010 with a young and dynamic management team featuring Roberto di Matteo as Head Coach coupled with Dan Ashworth as Sporting and Technical Director (The Head Coach oversees on-field matters while the Sporting and Technical Director heads the club’s scouting/transfer policy). Despite relegation from the Premier League in 2009 under Tony Mowbray the Baggies had begun to adopt a policy of signing young, well researched bargains. Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu, Jonas Olsson and Gonzalo Jara were bought for a combined total of £2 million and were mainstays of the Championship promotion season alongside the likes of James Morrison and Chris Brunt brought into the club in the summer of 2007. Dan Ashworth was the man responsible for bringing these players into the club and his success in the transfer market continued with the acquisitions of Peter Odemwingie for £2.5 million from Lokomotiv Moscow and Paul Scharner on a free from Wigan Athletic. Despite amassing 90+ points in the Championship and a blistering start to Premier League life that saw the Baggies 4th at the end of October with plaudits for an expansive style and results against Arsenal and Man Utd – a 3-2 win at the Emirates and a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford – a run of 11 points from 16 games lead to Jeremy Peace relieving di Matteo appointing Roy Hodgson with West Brom 17th in the table in mid-February. Albion had flirted with the Champions League places in the early months before crashing back to reality with a torrid run of form, only for a revival of fortunes under Roy Hodgson helped the club to an 11th placed finish after a run of 20 points from the final 10 games of the season with 2-1 home victories against Aston Villa and Liverpool respectively the pick of the bunch. Albion were a proficient attacking outfit under di Matteo but defensively poor. Hodgson brought solidarity and organisation to a leaky defence and the season ended with superb home form and a 3-3 draw with Newcastle on the season’s final day.

The buoyancy around West Bromwich was enhanced by more Dan Ashworth transfer savvy in the summer to follow as Billy Jones and Gareth MacAuley joined on free transfers from Championship clubs Preston and Ipswich, Zoltan Gera returned after 4 seasons at Fulham while 25 goal Shane Long joined from unsuccessful play-off contenders Reading for £4 million. Despite a poor start to the 11/12 season where Albion claimed just 6 points from their opening 7 games, form improved and a 10th placed finish followed with notable away victories against Aston Villa (2-1), Liverpool (1-0) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (5-1). The FA had taken note and plotted a double swoop for the management team of Hodgson and Ashworth with the former commencing his post with immediate effect while Ashworth took up his position as FA Director of Elite Development in March 2013 on the back of a string of superb transfer windows at WBA (incidentally in January 2015 he received a promotion to the position of FA Technical Director).

Ahead of the 12/13 season Jeremy Peace appointed Steve Clarke, former assistant to Mourinho, Robson and Dalglish, as head coach to work alongside the outgoing Sporting and Technical Director who in his penultimate transfer window at WBA pulled of another transfer coup in the form of Claudio Yacob, a full Argentine international from Racing in his homeland, on yet another free transfer while England’s second choice goalkeeper Ben Foster made his loan deal permanent after his season-long loan the previous season for a paltry £4 million. Romelu Lukaku arrived on a season-long loan from Chelsea to an already successful strike-force of Peter Odemwingie, scorer of 25 goals over the previous 2 seasons, and Shane Long. West Brom had ammunition the likes of which hadn’t been seen around B71 since the days of Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. The Baggies had hit upon a winning formula as the defensive organisation of Roy Hodgson’s West Brom married perfectly with the counter-attacking style employed by his successor and the Baggies were sitting pretty in 3rd place after a 4-2 away victory to Sunderland at the end of November 2012. While a downturn in form was predictable, as Albion had neither the depth of squad nor the quality to sustain a European challenge, a meagre 6 wins between November and May followed. Despite a Premier League best finish of 8th the loss of form was stark when compared with the early season form; no doubt influenced by Peter Odemwingie’s decision to sit in a West London car park one January evening… West Brom have had few players to make the impact that Odemwingie did in his first 30 months nor has a player so roundly gained the affections of the Hawthorns faithful. The final 6 months of his time in West Bromwich saw him booed with the gusto usually reserved for ex-Wolves players. A crying shame given all he had done for Albion’s efforts to consolidate in the Premier League but, given the nature of his actions, not altogether unsurprising.

The season ended with a 5-5 draw in Alex Ferguson’s final game as Manchester United manager and Romelu Lukaku said his farewells to the Midlands with a hat trick to end the season with 17 goals, the most of any Albion player in the Premier League. The most significant departure of the summer was Dan Ashworth; deservedly rewarded for his work behind the scenes at a now established Premier League outfit. However, all of Ashworth’s hard work was jeopardised by Peace’s decision to appoint Richard Garlick as his successor. Garlick, a former legal director, had no background in player recruitment and this became patently evident in the club’s transfer policy in the summer of 2013. While Ashworth’s signings were scouted in depth and were incredibly successful given the minimal financial outlay the same cannot be said for Garlick’s. West Brom lost Lukaku at the end of his loan deal while Odemwingie was shipped off to South Wales embarking on an unsuccessful stint at Cardiff. With 22 goals between them in 12/13 they were replaced with Victor Anichebe and Stephane Sessegnon. Both canny players on their day but in the nigh on 2 seasons that have followed they have a combined total of 10 goals in 83 league appearances. When you consider that Shane Long was sold for £7 million in January 2014 and not replaced it becomes clear that Albion’s atrocious 13/14 season was entirely predictable.

Steve Clarke was sacked after 16 points from 16 games with Albion in 16th place after 38 points from 38 games in the calendar year of 2013. Peace saw the figures and feared regression and thus relieved Clarke of his duties. The following month saw Albion fail to appoint a Head Coach as Keith Downing became caretaker. Albion finally appointed Pepe Mel, a man who spoke next to no English and was not afforded a single backroom member of his choosing and if you believe what you read had little control on the training ground; his work delegated to Downing and Kiely. Yet he gained cult status at West Brom despite only 3 victories in half a season. An act of defiance against a management structure who offered him no support or as an act of good will towards a man who conducted press conferences in English despite possessing next to no command of the language? A bit of both. Whatever the reasoning supporters were fiercely unhappy at 12 months of regression following season after season of incremental improvement. 17th place was not good enough after 11th, 10th and 8th between 2011-13.

Peace shook up the infrastructure of the club and Garlick retreated into an administrative role and was replaced as Technical Director by Terry Burton while Mervyn Day was recruited in the restructuring of the scouting department. The two would work in tandem and recruit new signings ala Ashworth. All this seemed promising, as there appeared to be a tacit admission from Peace that there had been considerable failings in 2013/14. What the fans wanted was a statement of intent with a big name or faith in a young manager in the Mowbray or di Matteo mould… Alan Irvine was appointed much to supporter dismay. Lauded as a superb training ground coach and universally spoken of positively in the football world, unfortunately, Irvine was the wrong man. It was clear from the outset yet, from the outside looking in, you can understand the rational. A training ground coach to mould a side capable of challenging for the top 10 coupled with a new recruitment infrastructure. The plan was falling apart at the seams within weeks as Albion adopted a scattergun transfer policy; 11 incoming players, 6 of which had never played in the Premier League. Irvine lost 7 of his final 9 games and the writing was on the wall by the turn of the year. A nice man, a dignified man but the wrong man.

2013 and 2014 saw Albion achieve 8 home wins in 39 home games. 2015 saw Tony Pulis appointed and Albion embarked on a run of 6 wins in his first 7 home games with 6 clean sheets and there is now growing confidence among supporters that Jeremy Peace has learned from the Mel and Irvine fiascos and appointed a manager with a proven track record in the Premier League. Jeremy Peace is not universally popular at West Brom but has made a series of important decisions when required. The sackings of di Matteo, Clarke and Irvine were ruthless but probably justified given the tens of millions resting on Premier League survival. Albion are as close to solvency as is possible in the Premier League with debts amounting to just £1 million. The future seems brighter with Tony Pulis at the helm but a big summer of recruitment lies ahead. Chris Brunt and Craig Dawson are not full backs and Craig Gardner is not a left winger but needs must for the Baggies as the season draws to a close. It will be interesting to see where West Brom are in 12 months time once Pulis has had the opportunity to make his mark on a club now established at this level.

Manchester United

How will Manchester United line up with Alexis Sanchez?

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

The most highly-anticipated transfer of the January window has finally been confirmed. Alexis Sanchez is now officially a Manchester United player after joining from Arsenal in a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It is quite a coup for the Red Devils to have snatched the Chilean from the clutches of Manchester City, who had long been the frontrunners for his signature.

Sanchez scored 80 goals in 165 appearances for Arsenal and his arrival at Old Trafford significantly strengthens Jose Mourinho’s attacking resources. United are second in the Premier League, but lie a distant 12 points behind their Manchester rivals. So how might the Red Devils line up with Sanchez, who will wear the iconic number seven shirt?

What will have most attracted Mourinho to Sanchez is his ability to play in any number of attacking positions. Although his goalscoring ratio for both Barcelona and Arsenal is close to one in two, he would not be classed as an out-and-out striker.

Wenger did sometimes deploy the 29-year-old on his own up top, but more often than not the Gunners boss favoured him on the left of an attacking three, alongside the likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud.

Mourinho is hardly short of forward options. He signed Romelu Lukaku from Everton last summer to spearhead the attack, while Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba have all shown to be more than capable of chipping in with goals.

Sanchez provides another dimension altogether, though. He is more physical than the aforementioned quartet and his tireless work-rate is exactly what Mourinho looks for.

Sanchez could rotate with Lukaku in the number nine role – or even play alongside hm in a front two – but it is more likely that he will occupy one of the three spots behind the Belgian.

When fit, British record signing Pogba is guaranteed to slot into a central role in front of a deep-lying central midfield pairing, which gives the Frenchman the freedom to express himself. That leaves one of the two wider positions, currently occupied by two of Rashford, Martial and Lingard.

Of late, Mourinho has opted for Martial and Lingard, both of whom have been in scintillating form with goals and assists aplenty. To leave out either would seem harsh, but given the high-profile nature of this signing, one will surely make way to accommodate Sanchez, whose inclusion may also help to get the best out of the unconvincing Lukaku.

If Mourinho’s vision is similar to Wenger’s, then the fall guy would appear to be Martial. However, the Portuguese may have other ideas and such is Sanchez’s versatility that the United manager knows he can select the Chile international anywhere in attack without diminishing his influence.

The increased competition for a starting berth can only benefit United and it certainly would not be a surprise to see Sanchez selected as a number nine, should Lukaku’s form continue to suffer.

With the Red Devils hoping to go deep into the latter stages of the Champions League as well as the FA Cup, the flexibility Sanchez offers will be invaluable in facilitating squad rotation. Games come thick and fast at this stage of the campaign and, consequently, player burn-out is a real possibility.

By landing Sanchez, United have issued a massive statement of intent. Despite an improved Premier League season, they will almost certainly have to watch on as City lift the title in May.

Whether the former Barcelona star is the man to shift the balance of power back towards the red half of Manchester remains to be seen. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly improves Mourinho’s squad and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in a United shirt.

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Arsenal

How Arsenal could line-up with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Arsenal prefer not to do business in the January transfer window, but their hand has been forced this month due to the contract situations of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere.

They could all leave the club before the start of next season and Arsene Wenger will recognise the need to prepare for those departures. Sanchez is the only one to have left the club already this month, as he has joined Manchester United.

In return, the Gunners have secured the services of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The former Borussia Dortmund player has struggled in England, but he has the talent to produce more at the Emirates Stadium.

Considering they are facing a battle to qualify for the Champions League, there could be more arrivals this month to improve their chances of making the top four.

Sky Sports reported that Arsenal are attempting to secure a deal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dortmund could be tempted to make a clean break from the striker

The Gunners are at risk of missing out on the Champions League for the second successive season, but their reputation remains strong across Europe. It would be a statement of intent to sign the Gabon international and an exciting move for supporters.

How could they line-up at the end of the window?

Arsene Wenger has favoured a 3-4-2-1 formation this season and it has achieved relative success. It was a major reason for their FA Cup win last season, as it provided more balance and made the side solid at the back.

However, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are both attacking players and will be expecting to start most matches. It could be that a switch back to 4-2-3-1 is required to fit both into the starting eleven.

One major problem that Arsenal have faced this season is their lack of quality at the back. Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal are serviceable as a three-man defence.

However, it has been rare for all three to be fit at the same time and the squad is lacking in depth. Per Mertesacker is passed his best, while Rob Holding and Calum Chambers remain inexperienced at the highest level.

A change back to a four-man defence would be a smart move unless a quality centre-back is signed this month. A tactical switch would likely mean Monreal loses his place in the starting eleven.

This would be a shame considering his impressive season to date, but he would offer stern competition to Sead Kolasinac.

It would be a boost if they were to sign another centre-back. Sky Sports reported earlier this month that Arsenal had made a fresh enquiry for Jonny Evans, but no reports suggest that a deal is in the pipeline for this month.

If they were to make no defensive signings, their back five would pick itself when everyone was available.

Petr Cech is not the player that he once was, but he remains the best goalkeeper at the Emirates Stadium.

The full-backs would provide the width, as Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac are both excellent at going forwards. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal would offer good competition on the left side.

By playing two attack-minded full-backs, Arsenal can afford to play with narrow attackers, which will get the best from those playing in the forward positions.

There has been a resurgence in the career of Jack Wilshere, but he is unlikely to make the starting eleven when everyone is fully fit.

The midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka has been the most balanced of those chosen by Wenger this season.

The former has provided the drive and attacking support from deep, with three goals and six assists in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the latter sits deep and contributes in both halves of the pitch.

There is still more to come from the Swiss international and it will be next to Ramsey that he takes the next step forward.

The four attacking players would be best suited in a fluid attacking set-up as they are all intelligent players and capable of fulfilling any role. It would likely be a narrow formation with the full-backs providing width.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be the ones asked to start on the wing. It would be great to see the former be given a sustained run on the right flank, giving him a great opportunity to re-capture his Dortmund form.

Although Aubameyang is primary a striker, he has played on the left-wing during his career and he would be given freedom to interchange with the rest of the front-line. His pace will cause problems and he has the dynamism to excite supporters in the Premier League.

The 28-year-old has 13 goals in 15 Bundesliga appearances this season. In addition, despite Dortmund’s poor Champions League form, the forward found the back of the net on four occasions.

He is a top-tier striker and will add goals to the Arsenal attack. It will be exciting to see him link-up with Mkhitaryan again if a move does go through. Arsene Wenger will be hoping they can be as productive as they were in Germany.

Alexis Sanchez may have left, but Mesut Ozil is probably going to stay at the club until the end of the season.

The Evening Standard report that Arsenal are hopeful that the German international will extend his contract if they do sign Aubameyang alongside Mkhitaryan.

The 29-year-old will be given a central role in the team as the club try to convince him to stay and as the number ten position is his favoured role, this will likely be where he plays.

Alexandre Lacazette has had a mixed first season in the Premier League. It wasn’t easy to come into an Arsenal side that was short on confidence and Wenger will be wanting the Frenchman to kick on alongside the new arrivals.

If Aubameyang does sign, it will increase competition to start up front.

The current Gunners’ number nine has scored nine Premier League goals and contributed three assists. He is involved in a goal every 142.25 minutes, which is not bad, but he will be hoping to improve during the second half of the season.

If the club do sign Aubameyang, it will be a major statement of intent and serve as a reminder to the rest of Europe that Arsenal remain a force to be reckoned with.

A front four of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan and Ozil promises to be exciting to watch and provide lots of goals.

No one player will be guaranteed a start and that is beneficial to the squad. The rest of the team needs strengthening, but this window would represent a good start to the rebuild.

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Burnley

Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Three talking points from Turf Moor

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United recorded their third consecutive victory by seeing off Burnley at Turf Moor. In a game devoid of end-to-end entertainment, the Frenchman struck in the 54th minute when his right-footed shot found the net via the underside of the crossbar.

Burnley tried in vain to force a leveller but could not find a way past David de Gea, as their winless run extended to seven Premier League matches. United, meanwhile, have maintained their grip on second spot but remain 12 points drift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Here are three talking points…

United pass another away-day test

Despite rumours of unrest at Old Trafford, United are now unbeaten in eight Premier League matches. While their hopes of reeling in Manchester City may be remote, Jose Mourinho’s men are red-hot favourites to finish as runners-up. That would be a huge improvement on last season – their first under Mourinho – where United finished sixth. It was only their success in the Europa League that guaranteed them a place in the Champions League.

The Red Devils are definitely progressing and the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez would give them another dimension. In particular, their away form will please Mourinho. This was United’s fifth victory in their past six Premier League games on their travels, a run that is helping to keep the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool at bay.

Burnley is a notoriously tricky place to visit, but United withstood the physical threat of the hosts and just about had enough to claim all three points.

Burnley are feeling the effects

When looking at the table, Burnley’s position appears to be very comfortable. In eighth place and with 34 points to their name, the Clarets are all but guaranteed to be playing Premier League football again next season. That would have been manager Sean Dyche’s priority and he can feel satisfied with the job he has done.

Nonetheless, this is a difficult period for Burnley, who have not tasted victory since they beat Stoke City on December 12. Scoring goals has been their biggest problem, having drawn a blank in four of their seven-game winless  run. The Clarets are not renowned as being free-scoring – they have found the net only 19 times this season – and rely on a solid defensive foundation.

Perhaps the exertions of their promising start have taken their toll on a settled side. The challenge for Dyche, who had been linked with the Everton job during the height of Burnley’s success, is to ensure his players do not fall into the trap of thinking they have nothing to play for.

Martial is making rapid progress

The Frenchman began the campaign out of favour at United, but he has regained his place in the side thanks to a series of consistent performances. His output has been productive, too. His goal against Burnley was his third in a row, taking him to 11 for the season. Allied to his seven assists, Martial is beginning to fulfil his immense potential.

He cut a frustrated figure at being kept out of the starting XI by Marcus Rashford – there was even speculation he might be on his way out of Old Trafford. But Martial said all the right things publicly and is no longer in the ‘supersub’ category. Competition for places will only intensify if and when Sanchez’s switch from Arsenal is completed.

But the former Monaco starlet should not fear the Chilean’s arrival, but relish it. He has proved he can be a trustworthy player for United. Like Luke Shaw, he is another to have benefited from some stern words from Mourinho, who will soon have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon.

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