By Matt Fortune
Don’t be fooled, West Bromwich Albion are here to stay.
The Baggies are back in the Premier League after winning the Championship last season with a combination of requisite grit and free-flowing football fit for the purists.
Manager Tony Mowbray inherited a collection of experienced heads – Paul Robinson, Jonathon Greening, Neil Clement. But for their return to England’s top tier, he has kitted out the Albion squad young, vibrant talent - Gianni Zuiverloon, Scott Carson, Luke Moore.
Ahead of the big kick-off we spoke with a man who knows all about the team from the Hawthorns, Chris Lepkowski of the Birmingham Mail. Read on to hear his views on the manager, the new faces in the squad, the ambitions of the board and the huge void left by Kevin Phillips.
The season ahead...
“We have been here before, twice in fact, but this season is one filled with more optimism in many ways. The team’s style of football didn’t particularly lend itself to the Championship but it did get them out of there. They will continue to play that way, which is similar to the style Arsenal use, although perhaps the players may not be household names. They like to pass it around and the manager preaches attacking football, keeping it on the ground and I think Albion fans will be in for an entertaining season in many ways. I think it is fair to say they will lose a few matches and concede a few goals but they certainly have the basis to provide a few shocks every now and then.
“Looking at it from the outside I suppose survival is the main thing, but inside the club there is a real sense of optimism. The manager has said many times that he doesn’t view 17th spot as a success, which goes against what many managers have said over the years, including former Albion ones. Tony wants to push the club on and get them towards mid-table.
“He has used Villarreal and AZ Alkmaar as potential models of what he would like to install at the Hawthorns. He sees those two clubs from Spain and Holland as mould-breakers who challenged the big teams in their leagues, and did well out of it. He wants that at Albion and the challenge is there for him. I suspect the fans would be happy to survive this season and then build on that the following year. But the manager and the chairman have far loftier ambitions.”
“The transfer dealings have been quite interesting in the fact that the four players brought in so far are not of the attacking nature that Albion’s football might suggest. There is a goalkeeper who was rated at £8 million last year but was signed for under £4 million, a left back, Marek Cech from Porto, who is good technically – he was signed for around £1 million simply because he was in the last year of his deal. Gianni Zuiverloon from Heerenveen, he won’t play on Saturday as he is at the Olympics, has come in and has pace, technical ability and likes to get forward. Also Abdoulaye Meite has come into the centre from Bolton. So they have strengthened and are looking for more players, especially in midfield. The team needs one body in the holding role and then one to replace Zoltan Gera further up-field. If they get the players they want they could have a different team by the first of September.”
Boy most likely...
“Jonathon Greening might be a very unspectacular player but he has really grown in the last year. He was given much more responsibility as captain and completely transformed himself, not into a midfield general but into a player who can dictate play from midfield. He orchestrated a lot of goals from there and one game last season saw Neil Warnock claim that you needed two players to man mark Greening. He had that effect on the team last season.”
Cause for optimism...
“The team are better prepared than they were before, in the fact they have players that have played in the Premier League; people like James Morrison, Ishmael Miller, Jonathan Greening, Paul Robinson. So they do have a nucleus in the team and they are trying to bring more in as we speak. The Albion team that we eventually see after the transfer window closes will probably be different to the one we see at Emirates on Saturday.“
Cause for concern...
“If I tell you that West Brom conceded more goals last season than relegated Leicester, then that gives its own indications about where they need strengthening. In my opinion I feel the spine of the team is a bit weak. They are perhaps a body short of doing the dirty part of midfield work, the ball winning side of things. Then of course there is a huge void left by Kevin Phillips. Replacing a player that scores 25 goals, albeit at a lower level, takes some doing. Having said all that, they are getting there.”
“Mowbray has gone with five in midfield pretty much all of pre-season and Albion, I would say, were at their best playing that last season. It is easy to lumber that particular formation as negative, but the way Albion play it, they have one or two holding back slightly and get three attacking midfielders supporting the lone striker. In many ways then, when they are on the front foot it is almost a 4-1-5 formation. It is adventurous, free-flowing football. I can’t see them deviating from that, other than to go 4-4-2, but even then the team will still play the way they know and you won’t get defenders hoofing the ball up-field.
“They won’t abandon their philosophies. That illustrates that Tony Mowbray wants to do things properly, and although aims and ambitions may be different, and the end product will be different, it doesn’t shield that Albion want to go about this the right way, a way that the purists and football aficionados might appreciate.”Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source