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Super Slaven Bilic always a hero in his homeland

By Joseph Masi | West Bromwich Albion | Published:

He has captured the hearts of minds of Albion fans ever since his appointment as boss.

Slaven Bilic head coach / manager of West Bromwich Albion (AMA)

But how has Slaven Bilic’s success at The Hawthorns gone down in his home county of Croatia? The 51-year-old, a proud Croat, joined the Baggies with a point to prove after two successful years at West Ham were followed by a disappointing third campaign. The head coach then had an underwhelming spell with Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia.

Back in England, though, Bilic has masterminded Albion’s push for promotion with his team second in the Championship and on course to win promotion to the Premier League when football resumes from the coronavirus pandemic.

We spoke to Croatian football experts Ivan ZeZelj and Richard Wilson to get their take on Bilic’s time at The Hawthorns so far.

What did you make of Albion’s appointment of Slaven Bilic as boss?

IZ: Slaven had a break after his unsuccessful Arabian stint. I expected him to come back to the Premier League, but the Championship is a tougher challenge. He had eight offers, three from England – and opted for WBA.

RW: It was certainly one of the more interesting appointments of the summer, along with Phillip Cocu at Derby.

Any time you see someone with the history Bilic has choose to step down to the Championship, it raises an eyebrow and suggests there must be a good plan in place at the club to be able to bring a manager of his stature, particularly one who would want convincing of the project before joining as Bilic would have.

Are you surprised at the success he has had so far?

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IZ: Not really. Slaven has proven himself on several occasions in his career. He was decent at Lokomotiv Moscow and Besiktas.

His West Ham story didn’t end well, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I think after his Arabian episode he was ready to get back to English football with fresh ideas to his approach.

RW: Success doesn’t come as a surprise – Albion were fourth last season so a net gain of two places isn’t spectacular.

What comes as a surprise is how quickly Bilic has taken to the Championship. He got rid of the big wages in the side and brought in hungry players with the right mentality and experience to take to the division.

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Players like Romaine Sawyers, Kamil Grosicki and Charlie Austin don’t fit the profile you’d expect a big-name foreign manager to sign, but it shows how quickly Bilic warmed to the task at hand.

How is Bilic now viewed in Croatia?

RW: Fans are aware of what’s going on in the Midlands – English football is well covered in the region with Bilic a high-profile manager and high-profile players such as Ivan Sunjic (Blues) and, of course, Filip Krovinovic. It means regional news outlets will carry stories about the Championship every week.

As a nation which is a large exporter of talent, it’s common for there to be updates on how ex-pats are performing but Bilic’s stature puts him more in the public eye than perhaps all except Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic.

Croatia’s largest sports outlet, Sportske Novosti, carried nine articles on Bilic last month, including a long interview with him. Bilic has the charisma that makes people warm to him and want to know how he’s getting on above that of other high-profile figures and his coverage reflects that.

What have you made of the football he has introduced at The Hawthorns?

RW: He’s a student of the game more than most managers and it’s shown with his use of defensive midfielders.

Albion’s style has been similar to what I’ve seen over the past two seasons at Dinamo Zagreb – structure at the base of the midfield allowing the attacking players to press higher up the pitch.

In defence, this keeps the side compact while, in possession, it gives the option to either explode on the counter or to always have deep options available to pass to and retain possession.

When it works, it frustrates any effort at an opposition counter-press as their striker falls between four covering players. It’s an interesting way to play as it requires some specialist players to get the best out of it, not least in the centre forward role, which becomes more about deep link-up play with the attacking midfielders than it is the traditional striker play you’d see at other sides.

Bilic’s West Brom do it well but there’s still evolution to go for them to be connoisseurs of this particular tactical art form and, should they be a Premier League club next season, there’s definitely room for further refinement and improvement.

What do you think are his strengths and weaknesses as a manager?

IZ: Bilic is the type of guy who’s always ready to learn. He’s willing to accept new concepts, changes to his old ideas and approaches/philosophies.

Compare West Ham and West Brom and you’ll see what I’m talking about. They are two very different sides.

Also, he is very aware of his weaknesses and he doesn’t live in illusions. That’s very important.

His great strength is his character.

His charisma is what he uses to have kind relationships with his players.

It’s sometimes can be double-edged sword, but I think he is aware of that. As he gets older, he gets better and better. He has a law degree and is fluent in four languages – the guy is not a fraud.

Joseph Masi

By Joseph Masi
Football MMPJ - @josephmasi_star

West Bromwich Albion reporter.

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