Saturday, 24 January 2015

It' s a Dog and It Barks

Within moments of the Albion team being announced on Monday evening for the game against Everton there were dozens of tweets along the lines of where's Varela? The answer was at home packing his bags for Parma.

The Portuguese winger was an undoubted talent but his time at West Brom had been blighted by injury and lack of fitness. Although there were signs that he was capable of making a contribution. However it was plain from the off that Pulis did not fancy him and he has been shipped out as part of the clear out that accompanies the appointment of a new Head Coach when the transfer window is open and a team is under going a turnaround.

To date Samaras Blanco and Daniels have also left and in truth these players were on the fringe of the team even under Irvine but certainly didn't have a future in Pulisball. I would guess that anything up to half the squad does not fit the Pulisball model and whatever happens during this window more players will be leaving in the summer.

Pulisball is based on a rigid 4-4-2 which sits deep and counters with wingers being the sole source of creativity in the team. It is based on solid defensive organisation and getting the ball forward quickly. It requires players to be physically fit and disciplined. Players are judged by their contribution off the ball as much as on it.

Throughout his management career Pulis has tended to shun rotation both at Stoke and at Palace he had a core of players he played week in week out. That is part of Pulisball methodology the more close knit the unit is the stronger is it's bond and the stronger the team ethic. As such he will settle on a line up he trusts and unless something happens to radically change things those players not in the side may as well pack their bags.

Bearing in mind this window is only the opening salvo in the Pulis revolution outlined below is how I see the squad shaping up or in some cases shipping out.

Goalkeepers Foster Myhill with the promising Rose being promoted to the first team as backup. Neither keeper is prone to thinking that they really are footballers and playing silly buggers with the ball at their feet which I guess would be a trait that would give Pulis a minor coronary.

Defenders are expected to defend and are judged on their contributions as defenders and this includes the full backs. It is little surprise that Gamboa and Pocognoli are out of favour both can be barnstorming as axillary wingers but can be a little flakey as defenders for Pulis this is the wrong way round. Wisdom and Baird are solid defenders hence their inclusion.

With regard to Centre Backs he will have a favoured pairing and it will be played week in week out. At the moment it would appear to be MacAuley and Lescott. The question marks around the centre backs are not specifically to do with the style of play but ones which any coach need to resolve at some point, namely does MacAuley have another year in his ageing legs? Is Dawson good enough to be first choice? If Olsson is not a regular starter will he be content to get the occasional outing  as a squad player? None of the answers to these questions will be resolved much before the summer unless we recruit another Centre Back which an answer in itself although to which question remains to be seen.

Midfield  A 4-4-2 requires central midfielders to be all rounders and be able to cover the ground box to box. Of the current squad only Gardner fulfils the specification. Mulmbu whose form has been sporadic for a little while is out for the next 4 to 6 weeks in any event and I fear that his indiscipline in a positional sense might not find favour with Pulis longer term.

Yacob presents an interesting dilemma. He is absolutely not a central midfielder in a 4-4-2. His whole footballing education and instinct is to play as a no 5 in the classical Argentine tradition which in the modern game is most often associated with a 4-2-3-1 formation. The danger when deployed in a 4-4-2 it becomes a 4-1-4-1 which was pretty much the shape at Everton on Monday night although Yacob delivered defensive master class. While Yacob's willingness to tackle anything that moves will find favour with a coach that values defensive solidity above all else in the short term but longer term if the team is to become more progressive I suspect Yacob will be replaced with a genuine all rounder.

There are three players you could argue are best deployed as attacking midfielders behind a lone striker  Morrison, Dorrans and Sessegnon the bad news for those players is that role don't exist in Pulisball and if they are going to have much of a future they need to find a new role in the team. Morrison is too light weight to do the heavy lifting in the central midfield and while Dorrans is more physically robust there has to be a real question mark over his ability particularity as a central midfielder at Premier League level.

I could write a whole blog on the enigma that is Sessegnon but regardless of how he is deployed it is difficult to see Pulis being happy with the one brilliant performance in five particularly when he is not in the mood he really can be totally anonymous . Coaches have lost their jobs backing Sessegnon,  Pullis won't nor will he deploy him centrally unless he pushes him up alongside the main striker or perhaps as a winger. In truth I cannot see this working long term.

Finally Chris Brunt who now Varela has gone is the only wide player at the club (aside from possibly Sessegnon). Ironically if played with an attacking full back like Pocognoli Brunt can be quite effective in a 4-4-2. but he absolutely is not the type of winger required to make Pulisball work.

Attackers.

In a team which will typically sit deep a target man is a must ideally one that is good with his back to goal,win more than his fair share of possession and bag a few goals. Anichebe is okay in many respects but has a question mark over his fitness and has never been prolific. Neither Idye or Berahino are classic target men in the Pulisball tradition (think Crouch Fuller Beattie and Chamakh ) but partnered with the right target man i.e. one that would drop a little deeper and allow their partner sit on the shoulder of the last defender could be effective and deliver the team's main goal threat.

Ideye has not flourished since his arrival and part of that is his attributes are very much the same as Berahino's therefore it is difficult to imagine a partnership between the 2 working. Plainly at the moment Berahino has won the battle for the shirt and it does not look Ideye will be around beyond the summer if he is not moved on by the end of this month.

The question marks surrounding Berahino's future are nothing to do with Pulisball but are entirely dependent on his willingness to sign a new contract and even then the possibility of a stellar bid materialising cannot be discounted.

Recruitment 

This summer's work is currently being undone and the club is busy in the market trying to recruit as many as four players. There are many questions as to how system that delivered success as recently three summers ago could have completely unravelled in such a short space of time. I think the departure of Ashworth was key and since then there has been growing disconnect between the Recruitment Department and the club's Head Coaches.

With a bigger role in scouting for the coaching staff under Pulis with an extra coach hired and two Senior Scouts let go it should be hoped that any new arrivals will be hired to fill a role in the Pulisball model. Thus far the players where there is a confirmed interest namely McManaman. Fletcher and Ameobi are all players that fit the template and it is obvious where they might fit into the side.

However the one thing that the arrival of Pulis will not change is the player budget and fans that think there will be any improvement in quality of the players in the squad will be disappointed. The players might look better but that is only because they are playing in a set up that fits their attributes.

Conclusion

The arrival Pulis marked the end of a number of Albion careers and the beginning of the end for others. Pulisball is what it is, those fans that are looking for creativity in the middle of the park will  not find it. Players that don't deliver on a consistent basis won't be tolerated and the full backs will not be rampaging forward. To pine after these things or to expect free flowing high scoring football is pointless that is not Pulisball and never has been. You know exactly what you are buying into when Pulis is put in charge of your club you are buying a dog and it barks so you should not be surprised nor complain when it does.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Who You Going to Call ?

Track back or die, okay?
Stoke City and West Brom two similar clubs were promoted  from the Championship in 2008. Albion were managed by Tony Mowbray and Stoke City by Tony Pulis.

It was Cavaliers v Roundheads. Mowbray's side was a fluent passing team which won plaudits for the style of football as they swept to the title. Stoke on the other hand were dogged, hard working and played rugged no nonsense percentage football.

Many people thought the Albion were better prepared for life in the Premier League, alas that was not the case. Mowbray's team carried on getting plaudits for playing the right way but never the less finished rock bottom the following season. Stoke unencumbered by any notion of the beautiful game and often criticised for their robust approach stayed up comfortably. One - nil to the Roundheads.

Mowbray's departure in May 2009 (not sacked despite his side being relegated) marked the end of the Baggies Cavalier phase each management appointment since was a little bit more pragmatic than the last (Pepe Mel aside). The free flowing football was quietly ditched for something a little bit more solid and less expansive particularly under Hodgson. but the football was never as industrial as that served up by Pulis's Stoke sides.

Less than seven years on the chief Roundhead is about to take charge of the one time Cavaliers, which is a bit of a turn up for books. The fact that he has been invited to take the reigns is a reflection of how high his stock is following his transformation of Palace last season from relegation certainties to a team that looked entirely at home in a mid-table berth. To some extent his reputation has been further enhanced by the fact that Palace have regressed this season which makes him look even more like the Red Adair of the Premier League.

Equally the fact the board seems to be prepared to push the boat out financially and compromise on coaching appointments is a reflection on how the team has lost it's way recently and needs a strong personality to take it by the neck and give it a shake. The moment seems right for Pulis to come in fight the fires and steady the ship.

Longer term I am not sure that it is a marriage made in heaven. I personally still hanker after the Cavalier days of Mowbray. Swansea and Southampton have both shown that smaller clubs can thrive in the Premier League without resorting to hoofball, although both of those clubs laid down their blueprints while they were in the lower leagues and not burdened by the annual war of attrition to stay in the Premier League. Although the other leader of the Roundhead tendency Sam Allardyce has shown that given the players even he can move to a style that is a little easier on the eye. So maybe Pulisball will evolve into something a little bit less industrial there were signs that happened at Palace but let's not kid ourselves you would never of mistaken his Palace side for Brazil.

I am under no illusion that just staying in the Premier League is an achievement and 5 straight years in the top flight is not be sniffed at and if we want a sixth appointing Pulis is entirely logical, but  I feel it is surrendering any hope that the quality of our football will evolve or that the youngsters in our academy will be given a chance of breaking into the first team squad. For the club to grow that needs to happen, to get beyond the annual war of attrition to stay in the league we have to be bold. Unfortunately the Pulis appointment is the opposite and while we cling onto the hard won Premier League status maybe we are right to be cautious and maybe only when that battle is lost will we be able to properly regroup and rebuild under a regime that brings the Cavalier spirit back.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Much Ado about Saido

Berahino leading English marksman in the Premier League
Last year Saido Berahino burst onto to the Premier League scene with a winning goal at Old Trafford. At that point it looked like the Baggies had an unearthed a genuine prospect. A new contract was quickly agreed to keep him at West Brom for the next few years. He made 32 appearances in total but his form was at best fitful and his star was definitely on the decline on the back of some unwelcome tabloid reports that suggested that he was fonder of partying than training.

This "attitude" problem seemed to be at the heart of the post match bust up following the Cardiff home game when he gave the ball away in the dying seconds of the game which lead to Cardiff's equaliser. So enraged was James "the hit man" Morrison that he reportedly cuffed the youngster round the ear. At the time I thought that whilst Saido had shown naivety in giving the ball away there were nine Albion players behind the ball and there were at least three or four senior pro's who were as culpable in allowing Cardiff to equalise. I suspect that Morrison's over reaction was a consequence of Saido's big time Charlie attitude behind the scenes as much as anything that had happened on the pitch,  

By the close of last season Berahino's career at the Hawthorns seemed to be sinking into the morass that was Albion's Annus horribilis. From bright young thing to infant terrible in the space of six months, most Albion fans were losing patience with him and few would have suggested building the team around him.

New Season New Beginning  

The 2013/2014 season was one to forget for West Brom and change was needed. During the closed season Alan Irvine was appointed into the Hawthorns hot seat. This might have been the first piece of good fortune that Saido enjoyed because Irvine has a reputation for nurturing young talent from his Everton days. Equally a new Head Coach meant a clean slate and an opportunity to move on from his previous mistakes. The second piece of good fortune was that Albion's record signing Brown Ideye spent much of the pre-season kicking his heals in Nigeria because his visa application was delayed by mind numbing red tape and religious holidays. His delayed arrival gave Berahino a chance to stake a claim for a starting place.

It is fair to say that after grabbing 2 goals on the opening day Saido has gone from strength to strength. He currently has 7 goals from 9 games and has been one of the leading lights of the England under 21 set up. He is rapidly developing into the one of the best young players in the league and as such he is one again being thrust into the limelight. At this moment his coaches and teams mates have nothing but praise for him he seems to be enjoying life under Irvine and working diligently on his game.

The difference between this year and last is quite marked. It is notable that he looks physically stronger, at a slender 5ft 10 Saido is not the biggest centre forward and he will always be competing against larger Centre Backs but it is vital that he can hold up the ball up under physical pressure which is starting to happen. Secondly his decision making and awareness is improving. Finally he has always had an eye for goal but there seems to be more composure in front of goal and this was demonstrated most clearly against Man United when he had one chance and took it with great aplomb, when he was through on goal I would have bet my house on him hitting the target something I wouldn't have done last season.

Siren Voices 

So far so good, but a recurring theme of this blog is that fans and pundits are too quick to rush to judgement. A good run of form turns a decent prospect into a world beater and a couple of uncharacteristic errors turns a good player into the worst player ever. In this fevered environment it is small wonder that young players lose their way. Equally there are the siren voices that can lead players astray

In Berahino's case  the penny seems to have dropped, either he has worked it out for himself or he has at least listened to someone who has told him a party lifestyle and the life of a professional athlete are incompatible on any number of levels. Firstly there is the physical aspects of partying into the wee small hours and secondly there is negative PR, neither is good for a player. It would be unreasonable to expect a young man to live the life of Trappist monk but equally when you are making headlines for your lifestyle rather than your performances on the pitch it is time to take stock.

If Saido ignores the party siren he also needs to ignore the lure of the big move siren. Given his current form speculation is rife about a move to more glamorous surroundings. As an Albion fan I want two things to happen firstly I want Saido to live up to his undoubted potential develop into a 15 plus goals a season forward and secondly I want him to retire from the game as in his mid 30's with every major honour and still be a Baggie. The first is possible but the second is unlikely.

It is the nature of the modern game that once a player shines at a relatively modest club the vultures start to circle. From the player's view he only has one career and if he wants to scale the summits of Champions League football that is not going to happen at West Brom. The latest rumour is of interest is from Liverpool who are rumoured to be on the verge of offering £25m to lure him away which is £10m more than Spurs were apparently to be prepared to pay a month ago which demonstrates how fevered the speculation is that surrounds the game in general. The story will run forever on the basis of big club struggling for goals Berahino seems to be scoring for fun answer buy Berahino. Eventually it will come to pass but now is too soon for both player and club.

What Next ?

It is almost unreasonable to hope that Saido will score goals at his current rate and a down swing in his form is almost inevitable. It is then that we will find out if his apparent new found maturity is for real, it is easy to do the right thing when things are going well but it takes inner resolve to carry on when things are going less well. If he comes through that then we have to say he is the genuine article.

A new contract is in the pipeline and hopefully this will not go to his head in quite the same way as his first big contract did but from the club's perspective a long contract is vital to secure a top price should the almost inevitable move happen, but it is also pushes it down the the road for at least twelve months and quells the constant press speculation which is good for both club and player.

With regard to England he is going to play a key role in the under 21 Championship and given the choices that the England manager has he is probably only a couple of injuries from a call up to the full squad, but he is still behind Rooney Wellbeck and Sturridge. He needs two good seasons but by the time the 2016 Euro's come around he might force himself into the reckoning.

Club and player need each other in equal measure at this point in time. Saido is making a contribution in the here and now but the brighter his star burns the better for the club in the future. He is the poster boy for the club's academy which has struggled to hold onto talented youngsters but from now on we can point to Saido and genuinely say "stay with us if you are good enough you will get your chance"  and that is a watershed moment for the club which has struggled to re-establish a tradition of youth development which once produced the core of each generation of Albion players.

I do not want to get carried away by a few good performances but I am hopeful that in Saido Berahino we have found a home grown talent that we can be proud of.

Post Script

This week Saido was called up to the England senior squad, which was not entirely surprising given his form and Sturridge's continued absence. It might be a little too early for him but with limited options available to Roy Hodgson  it was almost inevitable that he would turn to Berahino. From a playing perspective given the quality of the opposition in Scotland and Slovakia Saido should be able to make the step up. However the level of attention surrounding England and the media circus is something that Saido has yet to encounter and something that many players who have been bought up at far higher profile clubs than West Brom have sometimes struggled to adjust to.  

 Almost as soon as the call up was announced at the pre-game  press conference Berahino said "My  ambition will be to play in the Champions League and be involved in England seniors and go and play in big trournaments like the World Cup and the Euros".  Not an altogether unreasonable  ambition for the top English goal scorer in the Premier League, but obviously sparked yet another flurry of transfer speculation and a few brickbats from the West Brom twitteratti.

Aside from obviously raising his profile a couple of notches the call up changes nothing with regard Saido's future as a Baggie. His contract position is such that there is no pressing need to sell him regardless of who comes calling in January. Everything else hinges on two things his continued form and secondly if he signs an extended deal with Albion. If his form dips interest will quickly dry up but assuming it does not and without a new deal there is very little hope that we will be retain him beyond next summer or at the very latest the following year.

I think we should enjoy his talent for the time being and trust the club to extract maximum value from the deal when the day comes for him to move on to the bigger stage.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Window on a Mad World

The cells are empty and the lunatics have taken over the asylum
Jim White's near hysterical reporting on Sky Sports News and the massed ranks of idiots drawn moth like to the Sky camera's up and down the land is entirely appropriate backdrop to the closing of the football transfer window. It looks bonkers, it sounds bonkers and it is entirely bonkers. At the close Premier League clubs have spent a staggering £842 even allowing for incoming fees of £440m that is still a net outlay of £402m

A number of factors have fuelled this turbo-charged spending spree. There is a lot of new TV money sloshing around the Premier League and this has driven prices up. The Suarez transfer for £75m injected additional funds into Liverpool who would have been strengthening in any event and one of the world's richest clubs Man United are rebuilding under a new coach after their worst season in a generation.

Hey Big Spender 

Club  Total Fees Out  Total Fees In Net Spend
Arsenal  £       83,000,000 £19,900,000 £63,100,000
Aston Villa  £         4,200,000 £1,000,000 £3,200,000
Burnley  £         4,200,000 £0 £4,200,000
Chelsea  £       92,300,000 £75,800,000 £16,500,000
Crystal Palace  £         9,660,000 £4,900,000 £4,760,000
Everton  £       33,000,000 £1,600,000 £31,400,000
Hull City  £       37,950,000 £15,000,000 £22,950,000
Leicester City  £       11,400,000 £0 £11,400,000
Liverpool  £      117,000,000 £84,460,000 £32,540,000
Man City £55,200,000 £25,500,000 £29,700,000
Man United  £      147,500,000 £31,700,000 £115,800,000
Newcastle United  £       35,800,000 £13,000,000 £22,800,000
QPR  £       30,500,000 £16,200,000 £14,300,000
Southampton  £       57,700,000 £92,000,000 -£34,300,000
Spurs  £       34,330,000 £26,020,000 £8,310,000
Stoke City  £         4,400,000 £3,000,000 £1,400,000
Sunderland  £       15,250,000 £4,400,000 £10,850,000
Swansea  £       22,700,000 £20,400,000 £2,300,000
WBA  £       15,500,000 £2,000,000 £13,500,000
West Ham  £       30,850,000 £3,000,000 £27,850,000
Total £842,440,000 £439,880,000 £402,560,000

The above figures are an estimated based on reported fees which may or may not be completely accurate equally some deals do include performance related add-ons and it is not always obvious whether the reported fee includes or excludes those elements. Even with that caveat it is obvious that the Premier League Clubs have spent a staggering amount of money on players.

The following clubs have broken their transfer record this window Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion Everton,Man United and Hull City. It is impossible to say who had a good window and who had a bad one there will no doubt be some expensive lemons but equally some inspired "free" transfer that surprises everyone.

Only in football would something that might cost millions would be labelled as "free" but this is the case with free transfers. Many fans would be staggered at the sums players receive as signing on fees. It is rumoured that in order to keep their wage structure intact Swansea agreed a cool £8m signing on fee for Gomis who joined from Lyon.

Loan fees are not in the above figures and these are seldom reported at all and the costs vary depending on whether the parent club as in the case of Nani is picking up all or part of the players wages. Whether this is a net  inflow or out flow is anyone's guess but it given the number of players being loaned it is not insignificant.

The bottom line is the figures probably understate just how much clubs have spent this window.

Where's the Money Gone

A large amount of the turnover has been between Premier League clubs but aside from Ligue 1 in France (even Newcastle cannot buy enough French players to make up for the folly of PSG buying David Luiz for £40m)  the Premier League has a balance of payments deficit with every other major football league totalling £406m of which £59m went to the Championship with the balance in excess of £342m going overseas.

The Curious Case of Shane Long

Whenever the market surges there is a "how much?" moment and this window's was provided by Shane Long. At the death of last summer's transfer window having made it clear that he would not be signing a new contract with West Brom Shane Long was about to move to Hull City for a reported £5m. The deal fell through when Hull tried to haggle the price down. In January with even less time to run on his contract a deal was done for £7m and Shane moved to Hull. Many Albion fans believed that was a good price imagine the shock when an not noticeably improved Shane Long went to Southampton for £12m.

However the deal demonstrates the market dynamics as follows

1. Strikers, even average ones go for a premium.
2 The known quantity of a player with 3 seasons of premier league experience also has a premium compared to the possibility of an expensive newcomer might not settle in the English game, Southampton themselves had their fingers burnt last summer with Osvaldo.
3. Contract length matters Long had 3 years left on his Hull contract compared to the 1 he had at West Brom
4. Southampton had lots of money following the mass exodus and a need to bring in players quickly, Hull knew this and exploited the situation. This is only a smart move if they can line up a replacement for less than £12m.
5. Between last summer and now other completely nutty benchmarks had been set by other clubs most notably Fulham's £11m purchase of Ross McCormack a player who has never kicked a ball in the Premier League.  

Taking everything into account it is possible to see how the price ended up at £12m. Does the deal make sense? No, but very few transfers fees do.

The Beacons of Sanity

Take a bow Burnley who seem not to have joined the party mindful that relegation would leave them with a massive financial hangover. Fans might moan about a tight fisted board but the Premier League bonanza might be short lived and the money does have to be build a better club long term as well as putting a team together for the here and now.

Too Much too Young

One of the highlights of the window was the absolute gem from Jose Mourihno about Chelsea's inability to compete for Luke Shaw. At a stroke Mourihno heaped pressure on Shaw and United by outing his £5m a year salary and got his excuses in early lest Chelsea have a less than stellar season.  However it is not just a bit of Mourihno boloney he does have a point. Shaw is a player of real potential with one and a half seasons as a first team player under his belt, but he has never tested at the highest levels. Despite this he is commanding a salary that would imply that he is the finished article, add in the jaw dropping fee £27m fee and you have another young English player going down the well trodden path of getting the big move early in their careers and not living up to the hype.

We Can see you sneaking out

If anyone is getting really excited about the big money signing their club has just made there are a number of players who joined the Premier League circus with much fanfare last summer who are left with a great deal less this window. Ricky Van Wolfwinkel leaving Norwich on loan to St Eitinee and Osvaldo heading back to Italy from Southampton are cautionary tales. Finally shortly after he passed on the poisoned chalice of British transfer record onto De Maria, Torres left Chelsea for Milan on loan, remember this is a player amongst other things "guarantees you goals", "shows Chelsea's ambition" and "justified  the fee because he is a world class striker". So the next time you hear one of these cherished clich├ęs being peddled by a pundit, remember Torres.

Conclusion

It is mad, clubs never seem to learn the lessons every time new money comes into the Premier League it goes out in the form of fees and inflated salaries. In the meantime the grass roots of the game struggle to find the resources for decent pitches and youth coaches are barely paid a living wage. The English national team is struggling on the World stage but the circus carries on regardless. One does wonder what happens when the money runs out and the English game wakes up with the hangover to end all hangovers.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Global Search

Gardner the first of many?
This is going to be a busy summer at West Bromwich Albion. While the World Cup is unfolding in Brazil the club's recruitment team will be burning the midnight oil to find anything up to 10 players to supplement a squad much depleted by players contracts expiring or in the case of those on loan not taking up the option of permanent moves.
One could argue the merits of some of those decisions but on the back of a poor run of form stretching to the back end of 2012/13 few fans could argue that the squad needed to be overhauled. The question is can the club get the right players in and can the new Head coach get them to gel into an effective unit?

I wrote a this last summer (Full entry) in part because I thought that the club were pretty smart operators in the market but they abandoned what was a winning strategy under the wholly malevolent influence of Clarke and McDonough. The winning strategy had been built on seven principles six out of seven were broken last summer

1. Build a team - The club had a bloated squad of 25 Senior Pro's trumpeted as the biggest and best squad in the Premier League era but no effective first 11.
2. Research Research Research We had scouted Lugano we had concluded he was not right for the Premier League and McDonough ignored the scouting reports
3. The Wisdom of Crowds Clarke and McDonough drove the agenda and marginalised the opinions of the scouts
4. Multiple Targets We got mired in the protracted pursuit of Kalou and when it fell through it was very evident there was no plan B.
5. Target Players on the Up Escalator Only Vydra from last summer's recruits could have been described as up and coming the rest were recruited from backgrounds which suggested plying their trade at the Hawthorns was a bit of a come down.
6. Plan for Failure Possibly the only thing we got right given the structure of the contracts we were able to get rid of Anelka Sinclair and Lugano who were possibly three of the worst signings in the club's history
7. Never Shop at Harrods Last summer we did try to shop at Harrods but with an Aldi budget it didn't work.

Back to Basics

The dismissal of McDonough and Clarke and the hiring of Terry Burton to oversee recruitment marks a return to the principles that underpinned the club's success in the market. From Burton's comments in the a recent interview in the B'ham Mail it is apparent the squad will be slimmed down and there will be a greater emphasis on developing our younger players. This window there will be focus on quality rather than quantity which should be music to every Albion fan's ears.

Back to his Midland root Lescott signs

To date we have picked up two players on "free transfers" from other Premier League clubs in Lescott and Gardner. Both add something to the squad Lescott is a hugely experienced defender and Gardner is a midfield all rounder that we have needed for a couple of seasons. My only concern is about their motivation as a move to the Hawthorns does not represent a step up for either player and I hope both are consummate professionals in the Scharner mould rather than egotistical has been that was Anelka.

As ever we have been linked with a myriad of players Cresswell, Snodgrass, Robertson Hibbert, Rodwell and Riviere amongst others. How real the club's interest in any or all of these players is hard to tell. Given the absence of any full backs in the squad obviously we are in the market for full backs and probably another striker but after that a lot depends on how Alan Irvine wants to set up his team (see point 1 above).
Outbound

Letting players go that don't fit or are on the fringes of the squad is very much part and parcel of managing the club's playing resources and moving on senior pro's who are not part of the first XI is vital to clearing a pathway for younger players. Two of Albion's most promising younger players have handed in transfer requests both Dawson and Thorne have grown frustrated at the lack of first team opportunities. Whether either merit starting places is debatable but their frustration is understandable and not helped by the fact that the squad got bloated last year. During the first half of the season there was always at least 5 senior players not getting into the match day squad, in that environment it is difficult for youngsters to see a way into the first team.

If any of our existing senior pro's do not fit into Irvine's plans they need to be moved on there is no point in retaining players as third choice in their favoured position nor trying to fit square pegs into round holes or keeping a player because he might be useful on the off chance the coach might want to depart from their stock formation.

On this basis I would be surprised if all the existing squad make it through the window.

Harrods is Closed

There is no value in the Premier League transfers that involve a fee. I think the £8m deals for Snodgrass and Livermore prove that beyond reasonable doubt, there might be an exception but I am hard pressed to remember it across the last few windows. Equally the World Cup is an awful shop window I absolutely guarantee that a player will be snapped up by a European Club on the basis of a few good games in Brazil and completely flop. Gonzalo Jara is having a good World Cup he was released by West Brom and Nottingham Forest for a reason,I rest my case.

If not Harrods where? The answer is the continent unless a team is in the Champions League Albion can pay better wages than most of the continental clubs with the exception of some of the Russian and Turkish teams. There is talent in abundance at reasonable prices in Holland Germany, Belgium, Spain, France and Italy not to mention the lesser leagues. The smaller clubs in these markets along with the Championship have to sell to balance their books and as such they are more likely to accept a reasonable offer i.e. they cannot get through a window without selling. The key is to avoid a multi-way bidding war for high profile talent like Bony under these circumstances the price is much more likely to be akin to a Premier League transaction, that is to say devoid of value and loaded with downside risk.

Conclusion
I don't think the club will be repeating the mistakes of last summer, however as ever I think the fans who crave high profile signings with the big fees will be disappointed. Unless they are a very dedicated follower of every European league many of Albion's potential signings will need to be Googled by fans to get a some idea of who we have been linked with. Equally until the window closes at the end of August will we have the full picture of what the squad will look like. I will venture it will be better balanced and smaller than last year's but aside from that I would not try to second guess it's composition. 

PS
I think we might sign a full back or two

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Have a Little Faith

The appointment of Alan Irvine as the Albion's new Coach has not been greeted with universal approval. I have to admit to having my reservations but I could pretty much say that of any candidate.

Personally I am a coaching agnostic I don't believe the hype surrounding coaches good or bad. There is no coach on this Earth who could transform Albion's prospects either way the club's position in football's hierarchy is determined by it's resources and in the short term those are fixed irrespective of who the coach is.Of course the Head Coach has influence on the outcomes he has to organise the players and get the most out of individually and collectively.

However any competent Coach could do that and past reputation is no indication that any new appointee will be able to achieve this in the particular circumstances that present themselves at the Hawthorns. In that context I cannot hand on heart say Irvine "terrible" Sherwood "wonderful" at best I might say I think Sherwood is better than Irvine but I  have no first hand knowledge on which to base that judgement so I am as likely to be wrong as right. It's a coin flip.

I don't know if  Irvine will be a success, nobody does and forecasting imminent disaster on the basis of his appointment is almost as silly as attributing flooding to God's reaction to gay marriage. Obviously his previous forays into management have not ended well. All coaches fail at some point in their career and that failure is almost inevitable given that most clubs do not have the resources to meet their fans and some owners aspirations. Only a handful of coaches are fortunate enough to work for clubs where that is the case and even there longevity is the exception rather than the rule. The reality at Preston and Sheffield Wednesday was that both clubs were in situations where relegation to Division One was always a possibility, but in neither case would fans nor owners accept that and the Head Coach was duly sacrificed to the Gods to make things better, which in Preston's case has not worked and it has only been a partial success at Wednesday where relegation to League One is still more likely than promotion.

Obviously from the preceding paragraph I do not share the sense of moral outrage that many Baggies seem to have concerning Irvine's appointment I know I am in the minority and will not be rushing to join any demonstration (views on the ownership here)  nor try to get my season ticket refunded. However the danger is that the fan reaction to the appointment is so toxic that the doom and gloom envelopes the club and the negativity alone scuppers the season before it has even started. It is arguable that the McLeish appointment had a such an impact on Villa and they have struggled ever since. I doubt it is an outcome that most fans want but some seem hell bent on it because the club has had temerity to appoint a Head Coach they don't approve of.

The challenge ahead of the new Head Coach is difficult enough without the chorus of fan hostility, Irvine has three priorities before a ball is kicked in anger in August

1. Tactics 
It might seem a statement of the bleeding obvious but the coach needs to settle on a tactical format that fits the players at the club and drill them Hodgson style until they know their jobs inside out. According to players who have played under him he is going to be meticulous in his approach and his sides will be very well organised. Judging by his previous clubs he favours a 4-4-1-1 and given his long association with Moyes I think it is safe to say whilst not being an exponent of the long ball game in the way Allardyce is he will be a pragmatist rather than a coach who values beauty over results.

2. Discipline 
The new Coach needs to get a grip on the dressing room from day one. There has been a gradual decline in our discipline both on and off the pitch. Irvine  needs to demand a minimum level of professionalism from his new charges and if that is not forthcoming the club need to back him by shipping out the bad apples regardless of their reputations or past performances.

3. Players
Albion let 10 players go at the end of the season and there is no guarantee that even the players remaining will be retained. George Thorne has put in a transfer request and others have been linked with moves away and equally not all of the current squad might have a role in Irvine's team. All of which points to a busy summer at the club and while Irvine does not have sole responsibility for player recruitment but he does set the tactical blueprint which underpins the club's transfer activity. I think it was Clarke's lack of tactical clarity which sowed the seeds for last season's debacle. Ultimately Irvine will need to bed in at least 8 new recruits and no one should under estimate this challenge.

Aside from Moyes perhaps no candidate would have been greeted with universal acclaim and I don't know who is the more deluded, the Albion fans who thought he was a realistic target or Moyes himself thinking he is going to get another a shot at Champions League football in the short term. However whatever other candidates were spoken to or considered Albion have appointed Alan Irvine. Fans may grumble or harp on about what might have been that is irrelevant.

I suspect many of our Monday morning quarterbacks will be sitting on their sofas waiting for him to fail so they have the dubious pleasure of saying "I told you so" to my mind that is a pointless and self defeating mind set. Alan Irvine is our new Head Coach embrace the fact hope for the best and see what happens.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Unusual Suspects

Jol best English based option?
Having chosen to sack rather than back Pepe Mel Albion are looking for their third Head Coach in two years. Personally I would have preferred the club to back him but I think the whole project looked doomed after the fall out from the Villa and Crystal Palace defeats saw a player rebellion and the dismissal of McDonough who was instrumental in bringing Mel to the club.


 It may have been naive for Mel to try to implement his particular style of football with a squad that was singularly ill equipped to deliver it but from the outside it looked like the players were reluctant to give it much of a go. The view from some club insiders was that it wasn't working nor was it going to work and without the intervention of the Senior Pro's and Assistant Head Coach Keith Downing we would have been relegated. I would counter that by pointing out that the same Senior Pro's and coaching staff had put us in that position prior to Clarke's dismissal which might explain why most fans are not completely won over by this argument.


All recriminations aside the season is over and we start afresh. The last two appointments were far from resounding successes therefore the pressure is on the club to get it right this time. As ever there is very little information about who the club is actively considering and most names linked with post are no more than pure conjecture. If the lessons from the last two appointments are to be learnt promoting a coach however well respected into their first Head Coach position might be seen as a risk or importing an overseas coach with limited English and a radically different footballing philosophy to that had gone before might also be deemed a little bit too left field.

The position is an attractive one by dint of the club being in the Premier league it is one of the top 50 clubs in Europe. While the cull of 10 players from the first team squad presents any coach with the challenge of bedding in an influx of new players at least it gives him the opportunity of influencing shape of the squad they will be working with.

One issue seems to dominate Albion's Head Coach searches and that is control. Firstly the club has adopted a continental approach where the Head Coach is responsible for the day to day running of the squad but a Technical Director is responsible for scouting and recruitment. Secondly the club is reluctant to have a complete change of first team coaching staff when the Head Coach is appointed.

Both policies deter the traditional British gaffer and this structure might be a stumbling block for some of the names that have been linked with the position Moyes Hughton and MacKay are all keen on having control of all footballing matters. I would however point out that more clubs are implementing management structures that dilute the  power once enjoyed by the traditional British gaffer. Moyes' reputation might find a club willing to do things  his way but MacKay and Hughton might need to rethink their their opposition to working with a Technical Director if they want to work.

Hyypia knows the English game
In some respects it would easier for the club to appoint a continental coach that has worked with a technical director and is therefore comfortable with the club's structure. However unlike Mel they need to be English speaking and pragmatic enough to realise that the current squad has limitations and if we are to move to a more progressive style of play it will evolve rather than happen overnight. The downside of this is unless the Coach has first hand experience of the English football culture and the intensity of the Premier League they might take a while to find their feet, and on the back of a poor season there is limited scope for any coach to settle in.  Of the names that have been linked with the club Mauricio Pellegrino and  Sami Hyypia having both worked or at least played in England seem to be a decent fit.

If Premier League experience is vital whoever is available will have slightly damaged reputations. Of those available Moyes and Jol have the most experience but their last jobs didn't end well. Sherwood who has been linked has a few months of caretaker experience under his belt and very mixed reviews from his time at Spurs. In terms of fit Jol might be the best bet. Moyes might be more desirable but there are a host of reasons why he might not be interested in the job.

Overall I do not envy the club's task there is no coach they are likely to appoint that will meet with universal approval and whoever it is they will have their critics from the "wim doomed" brigade regardless of reputation or experience. Whoever is appointed will be operating within the constraints of a mid to lower Premier League club in the most fiercely competitive league in the world it is a tough job just keeping Albion in it, whoever we appoint I wish them well.