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.

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 clichés 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.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

It Could have been Worse

Albion Fans rallying behind Pepe Mel 
The problem with this season was that it was almost "normal" for West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League. On the basis that the club has around the 15th largest wage bill in the Division and over time there is a very strong correlation between wage bill and league position then 15th is roughly the outcome one can expect. To achieve that a team will need to accrue around 42 points. The final outcome was below par by roughly 6 points or 2 wins across 38 games. If the players do not perform to their collective potential Albion will face a tough season and that is what has happened.  

We underperformed and that was always a possible outcome but the sense of crisis that has gathered around the club seems to be far greater than one poor season. Why? I think there are a number of reasons

Recent History

Albion over achieved by finishing 8th,10th and 11th in the preceding seasons and aside from the odd flirtation with the bottom half of the Division had not been under serious threat of relegation since Di-Mateo left the club in 2011. To be part of that battle for most of the season was a shock to all attached to the club.

The Season Before

The team's form over the second half of the season was pretty dire and from January to the close we picked up less than a point a game which is relegation form our 8th place finish put a better gloss on the situation than many of the performances merited.Whatever the distraction of the Odemwingie saga too many players form dropped off a cliff and the coach got into the habit if providing under performing players with excuses and grumbling about not having enough players in his squad.

The Summer of the Chelsea reject

Aside from the Chairman's PR gaff which I wrote about at the time (here) it was the summer where two new appointees  Director of Football Richard Garlick and Head of Recruitment Dave McDonough were responsible for the club's recruitment activity. It also seemed that the Head Coach also had an agenda which did not fit with the club's stated aim of having a squad of 22 Senior players supplemented by under 21's. The fact we ended the window with 25 Senior Pros suggests that Clarke won that battle.

For whatever reason the focus seemed to be on players with Premier League experience Anelka, Sessegnon Sinclair and Anichebe were bought in as were the experienced Amalfitno and Luganno. The only up and coming recruit was Vydra. The fact that Anelka and Sinclair were players that Clarke had worked with at Chelsea and we also pursued Kalou and Lukaku would suggest that the club was being pushed in a certain direction by their Head Coach. We also retained the veterans Reid and Gera and the journeyman left back Popov on loan.

In short we got it horribly wrong. The team had been built by careful scouting and research looking for gems who would regard joining the club as a step up or an opportunity. We had assiduously avoided buying players recycled from other Premier League outfits whose careers had plateaued and whose motivation was questionable. It latter transpired that some of the signings had been made despite negative scouting reports and Anelka was signed pretty much on his past glories and his training stats gleaned from Juve.

McDonough and Clarke steered us away from what had made us successful and Garlick either lacked the gumption or authority to challenge them. The squad had plenty of experience Morrison, Mulumbu, Brunt Foster, Reid, Gera, Olsson and Ridgewell all had more than a hundred games in the Premier League. The last thing the squad needed was more experience. It needed younger hungry players to add energy and push those players who had slacked off the previous season, in fact some of those players needed to be moved on.

What was required was a small tight knit group (22 plus under 21's) working to a clear tactical blueprint. What we got was a bloated squad with no clear tactical blueprint and a half a dozen new recruits who either had no clear role or replicated what we already had and increased the average age of the squad.

Ultimately the new arrivals failed to impress and some will go down as among the worst signings in the club's history and others were just a little bit too inconsistent or injury prone.

Clarke's Tactical cul-de-sac 

By the end of the window Clarke had assembled a lot of players but still had no clear idea how to deploy them. During pre season Clarke had played Rosenberg and Anelka as a front two in a 442 with some promise That combination never saw active service in a competitive game however we started with a 442 in the opening games and it was largely ineffectual not just because our marque signing Anelka came up short but because our midfield was ill equipped to deal with the demands of that system.

Clarke got it right one time, it all came together for ninety minutes at Old Trafford, deprived of Anelka Clarke reverted to 4-2-3-1. When the generally ineffectual Sinclair limped off and was replaced by the  live wire Berahino the team clicked Sessegnon playing just off the excellent Anichebe had one of his better games and Amalfitno looked nothing short of breath taking. The 2-1 win was a highlight that Albion fans needed to savour because it was all too fleeting. From that point on we seldom put together a whole 90 minutes of football that came close to that performance.

Sessegnon proved why he was labelled inconsistent by his former club's supporters.  Anichebe had more muscle strains than the human body has muscles. Amalfitno answered the the question "How could Marsaille let such a quality player out on loan?" by disappearing for large parts of games. Anelka returned which I think led to Long playing on the right wing at some point. By the time we got to Cardiff we were a tactical mess playing poorly and sliding down the table.

Clarke was sacked some might say harshly but there was very little backlash from the fans who had witnessed the rapid unravelling of a team that finished 8th the previous season. (see here)

The Men In Black

I think it is probably fair to say refereeing decisions did not even themselves out and there were games which to some degree turned on those decisions. The Ramires dive at Stamford Bridge was outrageous and deprived the team of a crucial 2 points. However too often Clarke would talk about a refereeing decision when had the players done their jobs the decision would never come into play or not had the impact that it did. Virtually in every game where we were on the wrong end of poor penalty decision we had spurned opportunities to score or made basic defensive errors in the lead up to the decision. In short too often a poor refereeing decision was used as an excuse and once coaches start blaming things beyond the players control it is a short step to players not taking responsibility for the things they can control.

The message is clear referees make mistakes, deal with it and don't use them as an excuse. One of the things I never want to see again is an Albion coach moaning about refereeing decisions Di-Matteo did it frequently prior to his demise and Clarke had got into the habit both of their teams were in a tailspin by the time they left.

Anelka he came, he saw, he saluted. 

I had more than a few reservations about Anelka's arrival but given his pre-season form I was warming to the idea by the time the season started against Southampton. However almost from the start it was very apparent that Anelka was not up to the high intensity football of the Premier League.The following week he suddenly retired prompted by the death of his friend Eric Manasse only to be talked round after a week of compassionate leave.  At the time I only felt sympathy for the grief stricken player but as events unfolded those who talked him into to staying did the club a terrible disservice.

In the run up to Christmas his form was indifferent and he was frequently sidelined with relatively minor injuries. He then popped up with 2 goals against West Ham but plunged the club into the maelstrom of the
'quenelle' goal celebration. Initially I was taken aback by the controversy that it generated as the gesture had no meaning on this side of the English Channel. However things took on an altogether darker tone when Anelka himself gave his actions the context of support for his friend  Dieudonné who is a rabid anti-Semite.

Following a lengthy FA investigation Anelka was found guilty of making an offensive gesture and one which plainly had anti-Semitic overtones. He was somewhat fortunate to be banned for five games given the independent commission's findings (here) and could have returned to the fold had he apologised and accepted a club fine. However Anelka chose to quit via twitter only to be sacked the day after for Gross Misconduct. It was a fitting end to an inglorious Albion career.

In summary Anelka played 12 times,scored twice walked out as often, was injured or suspended as frequently as he was available and poisoned the relationship between the club and it's major sponsor. All this for this at a cost of over £1 million. Thanks for absolutely nothing.

Mel to the Rescue

The standard football narrative is a struggling team sack the Head Coach who has lost the plot, appoint a new one who quickly galvanises the team and they live happily ever after or at least to the next sustained down swing in the team's form. This seemed to be the idea behind Albion's appointment of  Pepe Mel. However things did not run smoothly.

Firstly Mel is not a quick fix coach. He is has a style of play and a philosophy which did not necessarily fit the squad that he inherited. Secondly his takeover was delayed because of a difference of opinion about the number of coaches he could bring with him and the compromise took time to be thrashed out. Thirdly the players did not buy into what he was trying to do and finally he lost players to injury, suspension, sale and dismissal.

In terms of unwanted distractions Mel had to contend with the Dave McDonough sacking a post match bust up between Berahino and Morrison which has heavily reported in the press, not to mention the Anelka affair which rumbled on through the first two months of his tenure. It took time for the first win to arrive against Swansea and in the run up to it Mel was facing questions about his future. However throughout he remained positive and endeared himself to the fans with his dignity and charm.

The turning point was reached when we beat Norwich at the beginning of April which was followed up with a draw against Spurs and a precious win against West Ham which was enough to see Albion across the line.
No matter what happened on the pitch the questions over Mel's future wouldn't go away and at the time of writing his future seems to be hanging in the balance pending a meeting with the club's hierarchy.

I have no idea what has gone behind the scenes but the mood music emanating out the Hawthorns suggests that despite keeping the team in the Premier League Mel will be leaving. I find this turn of events perplexing but I suspect the fall out from the player mutiny and the McDonough dismissal might have lead  the board to question the wisdom of Mel's appointment. Personally I think that if the club embraces his style of high pressing football he will succeed and his impact could transform our prospects next season. However it is a risk and it does require the biggest overhaul of the playing squad since the summer of 2007 when we backed Mowbray and allowed him to break up a squad which like this one had grown complacent and barely cooperated with a newly appointed Head Coach.

Conclusion

The season from hell is over and after everything that could go wrong went wrong we still find ourselves in the Premier League . However be in no doubt we were lucky, we survived with a points total that would have often seen us relegated and we will have to improve if we are to extend our time in the top flight.

There are many big decisions to be made. Hopefully the club will chose to back Mel but regardless of the Head Coach the club must overhaul the squad too many players have under performed for too long and they cannot be allowed to get yet another Head Coach the sack.

Ultimately the only good thing that happened is that Albion weren't relegated that aside nobody walks away with any credit.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Pepe Mel Back Him or Sack Him

 For the last month or so there has been a bit of speculation surrounding  Pepe Mel's future as Head Coach  at West Bromwich Albion. Obviously pressure mounts when a team is struggling at the wrong end of the table and the future of a Coach is on the line if he fails to achieve the sole objective of staying in the league. However even after a couple of wins and a series of creditable draws which have gone a long way to securing the club's Premier League status uncertainty seems to surround his future. 

The latest round of speculation was sparked by Mel's own comment about being uncertain as to whether or not he will be here next year. There have been reports of behind the scenes strife and a players rebellion. Dave McDonough Albion's Head of Recruitment was dismissed (sorry left the club by mutual agreement) and he was instrumental in Mel's appointment. McDonough is now seen as the villain behind much of what has gone wrong at the club this year, whether this clouds the Albion's hierarchy view of the Mel appointment I don't know, but at no point has the club moved to stem the tide of speculation  particularly ahead of the Swansea game. I do not have any particular insight as to the inner workings at the Hawthorns but the mood music is not great.

Despite the background of near constant crisis Mel has remained positive, engaging and has struck a cord with the fans in a way that no Albion coach has since Tony Mowbray. It is plain that he has a philosophy of attacking football played to feet, which is something that the Albion supporters are looking for after a series of progressively more "pragmatic" coaches has reduced the team to a counter attacking long ball operation grinding out enough results to stay in the league. 

The board has a stark choice either back Mel or sack him. Backing him entails giving him license to break up a squad of players who have grown complacent and bring in players that fit his tactical blueprint. It will cost money in fees and wages but the books can be balanced with a little bit of player trading. If they do not want to go down this route or are only half hearted about it then sacking Mel is the only sensible alternative. Install a Clarke mark II coach who will revert to the tactics of the slow retreat, take no risks and be rewarded with a glorious 14th place finish in the Premier League until one season things go a little awry and hello Championship. 

There are consequences of sacking Mel that the club need to consider. Firstly it sends a terrible message to an under performing dressing room. Secondly it runs the risk of further alienating the clubs fan base which has taken to Mel. Neither of which will make a successors task any easier nor indeed make the club a more appealing prospect to potential Head Coaches. 

I firmly believe backing Mel is the only sensible alternative. Yes it is a risk but one that the club has to take for it's long term health. We have a choice of dying on our feet or dying on our knees the outcome might be the same but the former has some pride to it whereas the other carries a burden of shame and a lingering sense of what might have been.