West Brom are not renowned for innovation, but when they sacked Steve Clarke in December 2013 they became the first – and so far only – Premier League club to publicly cite calendar year form as a reason. While some of Clarke’s defenders (and there were many) argued that the Baggies were not even in the relegation zone, the West Brom board decided that they needed to arrest a decline that went back further than August.
In a departure from the terse norm, a statement on the club’s website said that the sacking of the likeable Scotsman was ‘the unanimous decision of the club’s board of directors following a disappointing performance throughout 2013. Albion have won only seven of their 34 Premier League games during the calendar year – a 20% win rate yielding a total of only 31 points – despite a substantial investment in the first-team squad.’
Now whether spending £12m on Stephane Sessegnon and Victor Anichebe on the very last day of the transfer window can be considered ‘substantial investment’ is a one-sided argument for another day, but West Brom set a precedent that Tony Pulis may be about to test. And if £12m counts as ‘substantial investment’, how does £40m-plus and £100,000 a week on Grzegorz Krychowiak sound? It sounds awfully like West Brom should have had a Premier League win over the last two months.
While the ‘winners’ of an annual league table might tell you only who is infuriatingly peaking at the wrong time – Arsenal have won it twice this decade and Tottenham are streaking ahead in 2017 – the identity of the teams at the bottom end generally reveal a malaise. And right now West Brom’s 29 points from 28 games puts them only a point ahead of a shambolic Crystal Palace side who have had three managers. Things are truly rotten at the Hawthorns.
There are Baggies fans who are vocal about wanting change because of the stultifying style of play, but in truth, style only becomes an issue when results are poor. Like history, it is irrelevant when goals are being scored and points are being won. Right now, and for pretty much the whole of 2017, neither is happening for West Brom. They have scored only four more Premier League goals in 2017 than Hull, and the Tigers have not played a Premier League game since May.
In 2013, Clarke paid with his job for delivering less than a point a game, while 2014 saw a disastrous procession of underwhelming managers set up Pulis perfectly for a rescue operation. Under the Welshman, 2015 brought 50 points from 38 games and 2016 yielded 46 points from 38 games. We would say that mathematically Pulis was now on course for 40 points in 2017 if we had any faith at all in him somehow picking up 11 points from the next ten games.
Right now, it looks more likely that Pulis’ 2017 West Brom will match Clarke’s 2013 West Brom – two points from six games against Manchester City, Huddersfield, Chelsea, Tottenham, Newcastle and Crystal Palace will do the trick; a record of three wins in their last 25 games against top-six opposition probably means you can write off three of those fixtures right now. The 12/1 you can get on them beating Manchester City at home on Saturday looks nowhere near generous enough.
That West Brom play eye-bleedingly pragmatic football with set-piece takers Chris Brunt and Matt Philips topping the ‘chances created’ charts with eight apiece is not the issue; it’s that such eye-bleedingly pragmatic football is not delivering the joy that comes with results regardless of style. It is awful to watch but it is also awfully difficult to see how things can change. The graph – year on year – has a downward curve and that ultimately leads to only one place.
There has been a disappointing performance throughout 2017. Unless results somehow improve, football’s most pragmatic manager may well fall victim to the most pragmatic of sackings. Manage by percentages and you can have few complaints if you are sacked by them too.