West Brom comment: Relegation finally puts an end to top flight limbo

It’s done – Albion have been relegated from the Premier League.

Karlan Grant of West Bromwich Albion reacts after missing an opportunity to score a goal. (AMA)
Karlan Grant of West Bromwich Albion reacts after missing an opportunity to score a goal. (AMA)

And in truth, their fate being sealed actually comes as a relief because it’s felt as though the club has been in a state of limbo for a number weeks now.

The reality is, despite two excellent wins over Chelsea and Southampton, the Baggies were down the moment they failed to beat Newcastle and Crystal Palace back in March.

You could argue the task was next to impossible when they failed to secure wins against Sheffield United and Fulham in back-to-back games at the beginning of the year.

But at least now everyone can start to look forward.

And supporters should look forward because there is absolutely no reason why the Baggies won’t be very competitive in the Championship next season.

Before we do, though, it is important to look at the reasons why Albion have struggled so badly in the Premier League this year and to see if there are any lessons that can be learnt.

And without a doubt, one big thing the club got wrong last summer was its recruitment.

Slaven Bilic did a fantastic job winning promotion in his first and only full season at the club.

It was a promotion that was imperative and one that will be felt for many years to come due to the financial impact coronavirus has had on all football clubs.

But everyone could see the Croatian needed to sign a conventional centre-forward and a holding midfielder last summer.

Instead – when it came to a striker – he hung his hat on Karlan Grant, a player Albion will ultimately pay £16million for.

But it wouldn’t have taken a lot of research to discover the 23-year-old is at his best when he is cutting in from the left.

He is a winger – or an inside forward if you will – just like Callum Robinson is.

And when you throw in Grady Diangana as well, Albion signed three forwards last summer who all have two things in common.

The first is they are all at their best when deployed wide on the left.

And the second is that they all have very little experience playing as an out-and-out centre forward.

A striker like Mbaye Diagne – who is currently leading the line – should have been signed last summer.

And so too should a holding midfielder like Okay Yokuslu who has done so well since arriving on loan from Celta Vigo.

Okay Yokuslu of West Bromwich Albion. (AMA)

Bilic did want a holding midfielder, he said so on record.

But he felt additions in other areas were more important.

Technical director Luke Dowling however felt a striker and holding midfielder should have been the absolute priorities for the summer window.

In the end, Bilic got his man in Grant. And he used the money available for a holding midfielder elsewhere.

Dowling was right, but that doesn’t make him blameless here. In hindsight, he must wish he had been stronger.

Bilic was a real gentleman in his time at The Hawthorns with his Baggies side playing some outstanding football last season.

But it became clear pretty early the players weren’t fit enough to cope with the demands of the Premier League when the season got underway.

That was also true at West Ham when the Croatian’s time in London came to an end.

And it is baffling now that the 52-year-old didn’t learn from that experience and get Albion’s players in the best possible shape before a ball was kicked.

Those factors ensured Bilic lost his job in December.

He was replaced by Sam Allardyce whose experience in this position ensured it took him no time at all to assess the squad and spot its failings.

The striker Albion needed arrived in Diagne. The holding midfielder they needed arrived in Yokuslu while the midfield was also strengthened with the additions of Robert Snodgrass and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

But while Allardyce was able to rectify those things quickly, he came across other problems.

Having been out the game for 18-months, it’s fair to say the boss was taken aback by how football was operating while the world continued to battle Covid-19.

Limited time on the training ground. Team meetings having to take place in small groups rather than everyone being together.

Even team bonding at lunch time was impossible – with the players given their meals in takeaway boxes due to not being allowed to sit together.

Allardyce’s successes at keeping teams up in the past have been based on organisation and team spirit.

But he simply couldn’t have the impact he wanted under the conditions he was working.

And that ensured his start was disastrous with the boss winning just one of his first 13 games.

Allardyce believes Albion were way off the pace when he first arrived at the club.

There is absolutely no doubt they have improved vastly over the last few months, particularly at the back.

But even with those improvements, they have still lacked a cutting edge up front.

The last 10 or so games should have yielded so many more points.

But whether it was Man United, Burnley, Newcastle, Palace or Villa, they failed to get the results their performances deserved.

Albion have been relegated, then, for four main reasons.

The recruitment last summer wasn’t good enough. At the start of the season they weren’t fit enough.

Coronavirus had a big impact. And when things did improve, the players didn’t have enough quality to get the points their performances deserved.

So there we have it, the Baggies will be a Championship side again next season.

It’s disappointing and it’s not where the club wants to be.

West Bromwich Albion manager Sam Allardyce.

But they will be strong next year.

Albion may have an absent owner unwilling to invest in Guochuan Lai.

But he does leave Albion to their own devices and doesn’t take money out of the club.

The Baggies are well run and thanks to their parachute payments they should have a very competitive budget next season.

That budget will probably be enhanced further by the sales of Sam Johnstone and Matheus Pereira.

And Albion already have some excellent players on their books.

Going forward, Robinson, Grant, Diangana, Snodgrass and Matt Phillips have all shone in English football’s second-tier in the past.

The defence looks really strong with Darnell Furlong and Conor Townsend both excellent full-backs while Kyle Bartley, Semi Ajayi and Dara O’Shea are top quality centre-halves.

And if Allardyce does stay as boss, he will sign a striker in the mould of Diagne and a midfielder in the mould of Yokuslu if he can’t complete deals for the two loanees.

Even if the 66-year-old moves on, though, Albion’s status as one of the biggest and most stable clubs in the division will see them attract another top boss, someone like a Chris Wilder.

With no fans in stadiums, fixtures being moved all over the place by broadcasters and disappointing results – the 2020/21 season has been flat from the very beginning.

Going up under Bilic was so important because of the financial implications Covid-19 has had on clubs in the Football League.

The riches of the Premier League were crucial to the clubs long-term success so in one way his season has been a means to an end.

Let’s consign it to history knowing Albion are likely to be strong next season.

Hopefully, they can bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking – with that return built on more solid foundations.

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