West Brom can excite under Bilic


West Bromwich Albion are back in the Premier League after a two-year absence, and with this being their joint-longest spell outside the top flight since the turn of the century, it is safe to say they are a yo-yo club.

But neutrals will be pleased to learn that Slaven Bilic’s West Brom are notably different from previous iterations, playing attractive possession football with a quick and dynamic front three. They will struggle to play that way in the Premier League.

Norwich failed to learn last year and went down, while Aston Villa realised just in time, avoiding the drop by abandoning their expansive approach for more conservative banks of four during Project Restart. Bilic has been through this process before, too, taking his West Ham team to a 7th-place finish in 2016 before gradually retreating to a more counter-attacking approach in later years.

State of play

Fortunately, West Brom have the personnel to sit a little deeper and look to hit opponents on the break, even if they are currently struggling to add new players in the transfer window, so far only bringing back some of the on-loan attackers who propelled them to second in the Championship last season.

Using the 4-3-3 formation that became a staple towards the end of the campaign, Bilic will be hopeful that his players can cope with the transition from a possession game to a counter-attacking one. To stay up, they need major reinforcements in almost every area of the pitch. It really doesn’t look likely, making West Brom to go down, at 11/10, a good bet.

Strengths & Weaknesses

West Brom’s central midfield was the focal point of Bilic’s progressive tactics last season, with Jake Livermore complimented by the elegant box-to-box play of Romaine Sawyers. This two-man pivot orchestrated everything, feeding a fluid front four of Grady Diangana, Matheus Pereira, Filip Krovinoviฤ‡, and Hal Robson-Kanu.

The three attackers behind the striker were great fun to watch as they tore down the flanks, with crosses from out wide – or from resulting set-pieces – their main source of goals. On the bench, Kamil Grosicki, Callum Robinson, and emerging youngster Rayhaan Tulloch give West Brom depth. Having so much creativity and pace in these areas also ensured West Brom could outscore the best of them, hence why they only lost seven of the 20 games in which they conceded first.

Salven BIlic WBA side shot 1280.jpg

But they clearly cannot survive if they keep going a goal down in the Premier League. That central defence of Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi needs improving, while the Baggies also conceded 16 goals from set-pieces, a criminal number in the top flight.

Equally problematic for West Brom is goalscoring. They had 19 different scorers in the Championship last season and, with Robson-Kanu and Charlie Austin rotating, they didn’t have a single player in the division’s top 25 scorers. Bilic desperately needs a new leading man.

Transfer business

Having secured Diangana, Robinson, and Pereira for a combined ยฃ21 million, the main priority for Bilic is to capture Krovinoviฤ‡, the fourth player who excelled on loan at the club in 2019/20. The Baggies have also signed centre-back Cedric Kipre from Wigan and goalkeeper David Button from Brighton, although both will only be squad players.

They also need a striker, and so far the hunt isn’t going very well. Bilic retains an interest in Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos, while Karlan Grant of Huddersfield and Watford’s Troy Deeney have also been linked. Clearly West Brom don’t have big money to spend – and that’s why they are among the favourites to finish bottom, at 7/2.

What supporters expect

West Brom fans are used to going down, but this time it does feel a little different. Their young and exciting front line is a notable departure from the days of Tony Pulis or Alan Pardew, and so they will be hoping for a strong battle against the drop and a 17th-place finish.

More importantly, they will hope for good performances and some dazzling football at times, with enough on show to suggest Bilic can continue to lead them in 2021/22 no matter their final standing this year. It is easy to envisage the board panicking and regressing back to a fire-fighter manager like Sam Allardyce in winter. Nobody wants that.

Look out for…

Pereira making headlines: The 23-year-old Brazilian playmaker was sensational in the Championship, and the club will be pinning their hopes of survival on his performances. Likely to be deployed on the right wing this season but with licence to drift infield, Pereira will be the man to feed Diangana and – hopefully – a new striker.

A daunting start: West Brom face Leicester City (h), Everton (a), and Chelsea (h) in their first three games, which is hardly the kindest fixture list. The Toffees have some exciting new signings making their home debut in that second outing, sandwiched either side by games against two of the best clubs in the country. The Baggies must try not to panic if they are on zero points after three rounds.

Crunch games at the death: If they can stay in the fight against relegation right up until May, then West Brom will be involved in two of the most exciting end-of-season Premier League matches. They host West Ham in their penultimate fixture before ending at Elland Road against Leeds United. Both could be six-pointers.