Romaine Sawyers has returned to West Brom as passmaster with a calming influence
After an unconvincing and sometimes haphazard passing style last season, the Baggies have looked in far more control of the ball this campaign.
It’s early days of course, and Slaven Bilic deserves plenty of the plaudits, but that shift can also be somewhat attributed to the return of Romaine Sawyers.
No player in the Championship has made more successful passes than Sawyers so far. For the record, that’s 189 in three games.
Not only is he accurate – enjoying a 98 per cent pass success rate at Luton on Saturday – but crucially, he’s comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces.
His composure in possession has been a visibly calming influence on players who didn’t always look so assured last season.
Sawyers has struck up a blossoming relationship with Jake Livermore, who snaps into tackles and wins the ball back for him. He appears to be getting the best out of the on-field skipper.
Kyle Bartley also looks more comfortable this season, partly because he’s playing in a back four that suits him, and partly because he knows he can give the ball to Sawyers if necessary and trust him to keep it.
Pass success rates can be deceiving, and there have been times when Sawyers has moved the ball sideways or backwards, but even when he’s simply recycling possession he looks for the forward ball first.
Darren Moore attempted to control possession last season, but it wasn’t always this successful. It may have been down to the manager, or it may have been down to personnel.
Chris Brunt has been one of the club’s most reliable passers of the past decade, but age catches up with everyone, and he didn’t always have the legs to back up his left foot.
Sawyers is seven years younger and in the prime of his career. He appears to have found a new groove at his old club.
Jimmy Shan helped coach him when he was coming through Albion’s academy, and the relationship continued into the midfielder’s senior career.
Shan used to go and watch Sawyers play for Brentford when he could, and afterwards the pair would discuss areas of his game that needed improving.
“I’m not just saying this because of my time at West Brom, and my bias to him, but I think he’s the best signing in the Championship by some way,” Shan told the Express & Star.
“I think he’s a complete player. He’s tactically very bright, the more you watch him and the more confident he gets with the group, the more you’ll see him orchestrate patterns.
“He’s clever, astute, and unselfish, which is probably why he hasn’t been on the radar of many Premier League clubs.
“He makes sure the team is tactically balanced – if a full-back bombed on and couldn’t get in he’d fill in that position.
“He’s an unbelievable technician, very confident off both feet, and can manage the ball in tight areas.
“He moves the ball with one or two touch and he’s got that ability to unlock defences.”
Sawyers has an affinity to the club, he knows its history and its fans, summed up by his message of thanks to Jeff Astle’s daughter Claire this week after she praised him on Twitter.
But he was released by Albion six years ago at the age of 21, and had to work his way back to The Hawthorns via Walsall and Brentford.
Shan said: “The instant feedback we got from Walsall and (Dean Smith’s assistant) Richard O’Kelly was ‘you’ve got it wrong here, you’ve let a player go with a Premier League brain’.”
Sawyers was a no.10 under Smith but was moved back into a central midfield role under Brentford boss Thomas Frank last season.
He’s playing even deeper under Bilic, in the quarterback role at the base of midfield.
Six goals and 18 assists in 130 Championship games is hardly an eye-catching return for a No.10, and the man himself has previously claimed he plays the assist for the assist. Which is why moving him back makes sense.
“I think he can do either,” said Shan. “He can start in that number four pocket and operate as a no.10 between the lines.
“What he’s done is matured physically over the past two or three years, now he looks really powerful and can get away from people.
“Maybe as he starts to peak physically at the age of 27, he can operate as an eight.
“It doesn’t surprise me [he’s been moved back], it’s the way Albion want to set up this year, they want to build through the thirds and control the ball.”
The Baggies have made 701 successful passes in the opposition half so far, more than any other team in the division.
Leeds are second with 647 and then there’s a huge gap to Preston, Brentford, and QPR – who are on 524, 522 and 520 respectively.
This statistic is largely down to the game against Millwall, when the Lions sat back and gave the Baggies 73 per cent of the ball.
But thanks to Sawyers, the Baggies are controlling games more this season.
Against Luton, they added cutting edge up front, but the platform behind those attackers is just as crucial.
Bringing Sawyers back for £2.9million could be one of the shrewdest bits of business of the summer, and early signs suggest he is exactly what Albion were crying out for in their engine room.