When you look back, some relegations seem inevitable. Sunderland last year, of course; Middlesbrough too, since from day one they couldn’t put the ball in the net. Should Huddersfield go down this year, we’ll all say they didn’t have enough talent, and that David Wagner could only keep them above water for so long.
But although Huddersfield may not go down, West Bromwich Albion almost certainly will. And although the Baggies are so far adrift the raft has disappeared over the horizon, this is a relegation that, at least from this writer’s perspective, did not seem inevitable at all.
For starters, the season began with Tony Pulis as manager. Tony Pulis teams do not get relegated full stop. They also don’t entertain much, but bookies don’t quote odds on entertainment. When the season began, there were eight sides at shorter odds to go down.
Then there’s the defence. Jonny Evans may not be Champions League material at this point, but he’s a good top-flight centre-half. In the summer Ahmed Hegazi came in on loan, then signed in December, and he’s proven himself worthy as well. Add in Kieran Gibbs at left–back, Craig Dawson at right-back and Allan Nyom for depth, and you’ve got plenty to work with.
Oh, and don’t forget the man behind the back four, Ben Foster. He’s had a steady year between the sticks, and although he’s been surpassed by younger men in the England squad, he wouldn’t be out of place in international competition even now.
The team also got off to a strong start, with back-to-back wins over Bournemouth and Burnley. Only a rather fortuitous Peter Crouch goal prevented them from making it nine points in three. Both wins were by 1-0, but what would you expect? Through eight games the Baggies were in 10th place with a reasonable 10 points, and although that was below par for an easy opening run of fixtures, there was no hint of disaster.
And yet here we are. It’s early March, and West Brom are anywhere from 1/12 to 1/25 to go down. What’s gone wrong, besides everything?
Number one, obviously, is that Pulis wore out his welcome. After those 10 points in eight games, Albion lost four in a row, culminating in a 0-4 thrashing by Chelsea at the Hawthorns. The side had been lifeless. People throw around the phrase ‘lost the dressing room’ way too often, but you really wondered if it was true this time. He had certainly lost the fans months before. The sack seemed worth the risk, but still it was a leap in the dark.
Then there were the injuries. The side isn’t blessed with attacking players, and two of their best, Nacer Chadli and James Morrison, have missed virtually the whole season. Matt Phillips, one of the few players with pace, and who was so deadly on the counter-attack last year, started the season with hamstring problems, and never found his form.
Although Hegazi turned out to be a good acquisition, and Gibbs has been adequate, other summer moves were less successful. Jay Rodriguez at £12m was a considerable risk: he’d had only one productive season with Southampton, and a torn ACL had left him without regular football for three years. He’s been mostly fit, but not at all firing.
There were high hopes for Grzegorz Krychowiak, the on–loan Poland international midfielder. He hasn’t been as bad as some have reported, but it’s hard to find him a clear role. He’s not quite disciplined enough to sit in front of the back four, and not quite creative enough to be a playmaker.
A third newcomer was Gareth Barry, who came from Everton for a pittance. You can’t say he’s been a huge disappointment, because he was a known quantity. He’s had some good games, and in a stronger or faster side might still hold his own, but can no longer push a team to greater achievement.
So although defence was significantly bolstered, the rest of the squad, with injuries taken into account, dropped in quality or stayed stagnant. And that’s the cue to talk about Salomón Rondón. You’ve probably read one of Ben the Baggie’s missives: how the Venezuelan lacks skill, toughness, application and anything else required of a Premier League striker.
Although I can’t go that far, at the core I sort of agree. For a big man, he can be much too reluctant to get stuck in. He bullied defenders while at Zenit St. Petersburg, but the top flight in England is another matter. He doesn’t get into enough good shooting positions – this year he ranks 37th in the league in xG from his shots – and his finishing has never been better than average. This is his third full year in the league, and not much is likely to change.
But let’s go back to November 25 of this season. Pulis had just been jettisoned, to universal approval. Under the interim management of Gary Megson, the Baggies had to go to Wembley to face Spurs. They delivered their best performance of the season: aggressive and fearless, greatly outshot but never outclassed. It was a well-deserved 1-1 draw, and the man of the match was Salomón Rondón. For 90 minutes he was the striker everyone had hoped for, powerful and decisive. If you want to talk bullying, find the video and watch what he did to Davinson Sánchez, no less!
The next week West Brom went up 2-0 on Newcastle at the Hawthorns, with crosses from Gibbs and Phillips, goals from Hal Robson-Kanu and an exciting young midfielder Sam Field. Rondón hit the crossbar. Although the team faded late on, it took a farcical own goal to cost them the win. The home crowd, drained of energy under Pulis, was alive again. The season had promise. The team had potential.
And then Alan Pardew showed up.
Okay, I’m being unfair. Nothing is that simple. You can’t say Gary Megson, or anyone else for that matter, would have kept them up. You can’t say that Rondón would have been a different striker. You can’t say it’s all Pardew’s fault, because it isn’t – as noted, the squad has serious deficiencies. But when Pardew took over, West Brom were in 17th place, the lowest they’d been all season. Now they’re in 20th. And it feels like 30th.
I’m a stats man, and when someone says ‘passion’, I reach for my calculator. But numbers never tell the whole story. The stats say West Brom have done better under Pardew than under Pulis. Shots for, shots against, xG, all the rest.
But there are two problems with that. First, Pulis knew how to beat the numbers. His system maximised returns from a low level of performance. Second, success in a relegation race, with several teams roughly at the same level, requires intangibles that turn zero points into one, and one point into three. You can call it ‘passion’ if you want, but I’m guessing it’s more the self-confidence that comes from playing with teammates you understand, in a system where you’re comfortable, under a leader you respect.
It never happened with Pardew at West Brom. At first I thought he was unfortunate to inherit a Pulis team, but you can tell when a manager is moving things in the right direction. Even when results were decent, this was never a side with momentum. After creditable performances against Liverpool and Manchester United, they fell to Stoke. After snatching a late-late draw with Arsenal, they lost to a late-late goal at West Ham.
Several West Brom fans have written eloquently into the mailbox regarding tactics and personnel decisions, and it’s worth scanning the archives to get the details. My tuppence is that Sam Field should have been given more of a chance. In any case, the real potential showed under Megson vanished.
But maybe the squad needed new personnel. So when January arrived, who walked in the door? Ali Gabr, a central defender, already their most solid position. Daniel Sturridge, yes, a striker – but come on, you knew what would happen. He did manage 78 minutes over three games. Gabr hasn’t played at all.
Well, what’s done is done. On Saturday Albion lost their fifth on the bounce, and Rondón missed a free header that would have given them the lead. Nine games left, and you never give up until you’re mathematically eliminated. Hey, by the time you read this, there may even be a new manager.
Still, seven points adrift. Did it absolutely have to happen? I don’t think so.