The Baggies are dreaming of a return to the Premier League under new manager Slaven Bilic. Jack Wooldridge analyses where it has all gone right.
Slaven Bilic’s reign as West Bromwich Albion manager could not have gone much better after six months in the hot seat. The Croatian has led Albion to the top of the Championship table, losing only one of their first 19 league matches.
West Brom edged out 2-1 winners against Nottingham Forest in their first game of the Championship season. After suffering an early exit from the League Cup, West Brom went eight games unbeaten before losing 1-0 away to Leeds United. Since then, the Baggies are unbeaten in nine and are currently on an impressive five-match winning streak, finding themselves two points ahead of Leeds and seven points ahead of third place. With the top two teams being automatically promoted to the Premier League, this seven-point buffer means Baggies’ fans can dare to dream of a return to the top flight.
There can be no doubt that a large part of West Brom’s fortunes are a result of their exceptional recruitment. The club let go fourteen players including long-serving centre-back Craig Dawson and forward Jay Rodriguez, whilst on-loan Mason Holgate and Dwight Gayle returned to their parent clubs.
Bilic acted swiftly in his first transfer window, bringing in ten new players. The additions have given a fresh and more youthful look to the team. The permanent signings of Semi Ajayi and Romaine Sawyers (below) have proved successful, whilst Bilic dipped into the loan-market bringing in Grady Diangana from West Ham and Mattheus Pereira from Sporting Lisbon.
Not all of Albion’s standout players have been the new arrivals. Bilic managed to retain most of Albion’s key footballers from last season and has reinvigorated the original crop of players. The transformation of centre-back Kyle Bartley is evident from his performances this season. After a man-of-the-match performance against Sheffield Wednesday, Bilic was full of praise for the ex-Swansea man: ‘he is one of the reasons why we are where we are.’ Meanwhile, Hal Robson-Kanu has made an impact in recent games. Having been something of a super-sub earlier this season, the Welshman has been rewarded with a place in the starting eleven and has a steady return of goals with five in his last eight matches.
Bilic sets up his players in a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation, encouraging his team to play out from the back and dominate possession. The attacking players are also given licence to play with freedom and the link-up play between the likes of Diangana, Pereira and Robson-Kanu has been a joy to watch. The pace and power in attack pose constant problems for defences.
There is no finer example of Albion’s attacking threat than in their 4-1 victory over Bristol City. ‘The only negative is that we didn’t score enough,’ Bilic exclaimed to the media in his post-match press conference. No team has scored more in the league this season, with a total of 36 goals thus far, and it is no wonder that Bilic has been delighted with his attackers’ performances.
West Brom have even managed to find ways to win without being at their best. It shows that the team has the character and quality needed to get results on an off-day. Bilic will be happy to grind out results, especially against promotion rivals like Preston. This is a typical trait of title-winning sides, which bodes well for the rest of the season.
Albion, however, have been vulnerable to careless mistakes at the back. Yet, this must take nothing away from their defence, which has been excellent this term. Despite conceding goals at home, the Baggies have notched up four consecutive away clean sheets. Bartley and Ajayi have been imperious together at the back, whilst goal-keeper Sam Johnstone and young Nathan Ferguson have also impressed.
West Brom are in good hands under Bilic and it is hard to see West Brom not returning to the Premier League, especially after winning their last three games, all against top-eight opposition. With Swansea, Brentford and Leeds coming up, they will look to carry on their strong form into the busy festive period and remain in contention for promotion.