West Bromwich Albion go into their sixth consecutive season in the Premier League on the back of a 13th-placed finish under the guidance of a manager who has never been relegated. Tony Pulis; who joined the club at the turn of 2015, will be eager to assemble his own side after inheriting a squad containing 10 of Alan Irvine’s signings that; Lescott apart, have all struggled. A recent takeover from a Chinese consortium failed to materialise so Jeremy Peace remains the owner going into the new season, doubtless with debatably realistic ambitions of replicating the 11/12 and 12/13 seasons by finishing in the top 10.
Story of Last Season
Seven defeats in Alan Irvine’s last nine games brought an end to an unpopular six months at the helm for the former Preston manager. After the surprising sacking of Steve Clarke and the bizarre appointment of Pepe Mel (who spoke little-to-no English and was not afforded any Spanish-speaking staff), supporters wanted a statement of intent with a bold appointment. They envisaged a Sean Dyche, an Eddie Howe or; though nobody would admit it now as he manages three miles down the road, Tim Sherwood. Irvine, a well liked and respected coach among the football community, was the conservative choice. In truth, Irvine never received fan backing and it was no surprise he received his P45 after a 2-0 defeat to Stoke with the club sitting only two points clear of relegation in 16th place. Tony Pulis was appointed, Darren Fletcher was signed and the Baggies pulled away from the bottom 3 to finish 9 points clear of the drop. Saido Berahino continued his rapid improvement and looks to be developing into a superb Premier League striker scoring 20 goals in all competitions – his 20 yard curled finish against Chelsea the pick of the bunch. Defensively West Bromwich Albion were an impressive outfit, boasting 16 Premier League clean sheets bettered only by champions Chelsea, as Pulis assembled an increasingly strong unit at the back.
James McClean – Signed for £1.5m from Wigan, McClean will provide width to a squad chronically lacking in natural wide men. More of his type will be required if West Brom are to achieve their objectives this season.
James Chester – The former Hull defender is made for a Tony Pulis side. Brave, versatile and impressively experienced for one not yet at their peak, Chester will provide further depth at centre back and ability to cover at full back.
Rickie Lambert – The former Liverpool man endured a difficult 12 months at Anfield making only 15 starting appearances in all competitions. Despite this, Lambert had an excellent Premier League record (29 in 2 seasons) at Southampton and will look to link up with Saido Berahino as West Bromwich Albion hope to achieve a top 10 finish.
Joleon Lescott – The former England defender struck up a formidable partnership with Gareth MacAuley in the second half of the season as Pulis’ organised Albion comfortably avoided relegation. The former Stoke boss has abundance of choice at centre half with Chester, Olsson, MacAuley and Dawson all natural central defenders but it is merely a question of who will partner Lescott. The former Man City man is the first name on the team sheet.
Darren Fletcher – The Scotsman had an excellent second half to the season and his experience was instrumental in the Baggies’ rise from the lower reaches of the table. Club captain Fletcher formed a combative and hard working partnership with Claudio Yacob in the centre of midfield while his experience of playing Champions League football with Ronaldo, Rooney et al will have earned instant dressing room respect after his move from Manchester in January ’15. Despite his tenacious on-field style and exposure to regular football at Europe’s top table, it is his ability to recover from the chronic bowel condition that marred his later years at Manchester United that reveals most about the character of the man. To bounce back from such a debilitating illness is nothing short of remarkable.
Saido Berahino – Even as a young and burgeoning talent, his influence on the side cannot be overstated. Simply put, without Saido Berahino West Bromwich Albion would have been relegated last season. He scored three times as many goals as anyone else in the side while the improvement of his movement and hold up play increased substantially over the course of the season. He is destined for a Champions League club if his rise continues at the rate of the last two years and the club will do well to keep him out of the clutches of clear admirers Tottenham and Manchester City.
Modern day football is more about the strength and depth of the squad rather than just the first 11. However, based on a combination of minutes played in pre-season and the sentiment suggested in Tony Pulis’ recent interviews this is how I think the side will line up against Man City. Pulis will want to sign a natural left back, at least one more winger and a striker before transfer deadline day but as things stand I expect the following to play:
You know where you stand with Tony Pulis’ sides. Invariably they will be well organised, strong from set pieces, contain two runners in the centre of midfield with a target man ahead of them, feature minimal pressing in the opposition half in favour of compact banks of four making the team difficult to penetrate through the centre of the pitch, while also looking to utilise the counter attack after regaining possession in their own half. Stoke City played this way as did Crystal Palace and; since of the turn of the year, so do West Bromwich Albion. The results achieved are there for all to see. As sure as Arsene Wenger will assure you of a place in the top 4, Tony Pulis will assure you of a place in mid-table.
Pulis has had his detractors in the past, especially during his early years at Stoke, but there can be no denying the commitment and work ethic of the man. Intensive work on the training ground regarding team shape, set pieces and the transition from defence to attack are revealed in interview by players at each of his previous clubs. It may not be free-flowing attacking play but it reaps rewards, particularly against the bigger clubs. Pulis has a superb record against the top 7 as a manger, as last season’s victories over Chelsea, Manchester United and Southampton testify.
First Six Fixtures
(h) Man City – Draw
(a) Watford – Win
(h) Chelsea – Loss
(a) Stoke – Loss
(h) Southampton – Win
(a) Villa – Draw
I cannot see Albion losing to both Manchester City and Chelsea. As previously mentioned, Pulis’ sides are built to stifle opponents who dominate possession. A draw against City would be a good result and I fancy Lambert to come back to haunt the Saints in a home win.
If you are a side with top 10 pretensions then beating the promoted sides is a must and I think the Baggies may have too much for a new-look Watford side. West Bromwich Albion have a dire record against Stoke and fans know better than to hope for anything at the Brittania. In this life you are assured of four things. You are born, you pay taxes, you die, West Brom lose to Stoke. It is just the way the world works. As for Aston Villa – a pair of losses in four days lingers long in the memory of supporters. Making that into a trio of Villa Park defeats in six months does not bear thinking about.
Final Standing Prediction – 15th[separator type=”thin”]
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