Season Preview: West Brom

by Jonathan Lines

It’s been a busy twelve months for both West Bromwich Albion and their boss Roy Hodgson. A year ago, Roberto Di Matteo’s Baggies were finalising their preparations for the new season. They made a superb start, scoring freely thanks to the goals of Peter Odemwingie and their impressive midfield. They spent the first two months of the season near the top of the league, and went to the Emirates and scored three to beat Arsenal, and won 4-1 at Goodison Park too. By the end of 2010, promoted West Brom were level on points with Roy Hodgson’s pre-season title-chasers Liverpool, who had disappointed after early optimism at Anfield.

But West Brom went into freefall, losing 13 out of 18, and Di Matteo was removed as coach. Hodgson, meanwhile, was out of a job too. While he was not solely to blame for Liverpool’s poor performances, his time at the club was an unmitigated disaster.

As it turned out, Hodgson’s move to West Brom came at the right time for both parties. Di Matteo’s supposed tactical inability, particularly his defensive naivety, was replaced with Hodgson’s measured intelligence, an attribute which we never saw from him at Liverpool. Hodgson’s stock is rising again. Perhaps it’s because this is a role Hodgson is more familiar with, and far better suited to. The Baggies’ end-of-season revitalisation was not dissimilar to Fulham’s miracle escape in 2008, also under his guidance, a club he then led to Premier League stability. Can we expect him to do a similar job at his new club? West Brom’s first priority this season, though, will be survival.

Manager: Roy Hodgson
Last season: 11th
2010/11 odds: 1001/1
In: Gareth McAuley (Ipswich) free, Billy Jones (Preston) free, Ben Foster (Birmingham) loan, Zoltan Gera (Fulham) free, Martin Fülöp (Ipswich) free, Shane Long (Reading) undisclosed.
Out: Abdoulaye Méïté (Dijon) free, Scott Carson (Bursaspor) £2m, Ryan Allsop (Millwall) £100k, Gianni Zuiverloon (Mallorca) free, Boaz Myhill (Birmingham) loan, Giles Barnes (Doncaster) free, Chris Wood (Birmingham) loan, Borja Valero (Villarreal) undisclosed

Keys to the season

The most important, and most encouraging, aspect of West Brom’s pre-season is that they have not only retained their best players, but they have managed to strengthen too. With Odemwingie, Brunt, Youssuf Mulumbu, Paul Scharner and James Morrison retained, and the likes of Shane Long, Ben Foster and Zoltan Gera added, there is quiet optimism around the Hawthorns.

Foster may not be a keeper for the very highest level, and is prone to the odd mistake, but is a certain improvement on Scott Carson, whose poor distribution particularly frustrated fans. He is one of a few shrewd, and cheap, acquisitions. With the improving pacey striker Shane Long signing from Reading, West Brom are assembling a solid squad. But the defence is still the weakest area of the team, shipping 71 goals last term.

The Team

West Brom typically line-up in a 4-4-2 formation, but are flexible in both tactics and personnel. They draw from a large squad of players, which will likely serve them in good stead for the season. In front of Foster, Jonas Olsson and Nicky Shorey will probably start the season as first-choice full-backs, with Gonzalo Jara, Paul Scharner, Pablo Ibañez and new boys Gareth McAuley and Billy Jones in competition for places. In the midfield, the creativity of Morrison, Brunt and Somen Tchoyi is balanced with the strength of Mulumbu and often Scharner. The typical attacking options of Odemwingie, Simon Cox and Marc Antoine Fortune will face stiff competition from Shane Long, who will likely partner Odemwingie up front. The squad looks reasonably strong going forward, and there are enough defensive options for Hodgson to get things right.

Key Player

Chris Brunt. Probably the Baggies’ best player, he is the most important member of the team’s greatest asset – its sturdy and creative midfield. While the goals of Peter Odemwingie were important last season, and will be again this time season, it’s probably fair to suggest his finishing left something to be desired at times, and his form fluctuated. This is why the service from Brunt, who laid on 11 goals in 2010/11, will be so important to the team. His form and fitness might go a long way in deciding their fate.

Opening Fixtures

Man Utd (H), Chelsea (A), Stoke (H), Norwich (A), Swansea (A)

West Brom have been dealt a rough hand with their opening games, playing last season’s top two, and two hungry promoted clubs, a fixture wanted least of all early on in the campaign, in their first five matches. The pressure for points will be on from an early stage, and the games at Norwich and Swansea will be a big gauge of the Baggies’ standard.

Where will they finish?

West Brom may be one of the most unpredictable teams this year. If they get things right, they have the squad, particularly in the midfield, to reach 40 points. With some momentum, they might even challenge for the top half. Equally, if they suffer some bad luck with injuries, and if the goals dry up, they could possibly struggle. But, on paper at least, it looks like they should certainly avoid relegation. 12th

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