West Brom met expectations last season by finishing 10th in the Premier League. Should Tony Pulis’ side aspire to more in 2017-18?
INS: Jay Rodriguez (£11.65 million, Southampton), Yuning Zhang (undisclosed, Vitesse), Ahmed Hegazy (loan, Ahly)
OUTS: Craig Gardner (£1.49 million, Birmingham City), Sebastien Pocognoli (free, Standard Liege), Darren Fletcher (free, Stoke City), Jack Rose (released)
THE STORY: West Brom had a very Tony Pulis season in 2016-17. They finished 10th. They finished with a minus-8 goal difference. They ended the season on a nine-game winless streak, and won only once, against Arsenal, in their 12 matches after reaching 40 points.
There was a period, in the middle third of the season, when the Baggies looked downright decent. While they struggled against the top seven, Pulis’ side dominated the bottom half of the league, winning big against West Ham, Burnley, Watford, Swansea and Hull. Then they reached 40 points, and the wheels fell off.
This is nothing new for Pulis, or for West Brom since Pulis has been around. They went on a nine-match winless run to finish the season in 2015-16 as well, the wins drying up after a 1-0 win against Manchester United lifted them onto 39 points. They finished well in 2014-15, but then Pulis only had half a season to work his mid-table magic.
The criticism, which has followed Pulis for the past decade, is a lack of ambition. Perhaps the best illustration of that was the Baggies’ record against the top seven last season: played 14, lost 11, drew two, won one, with a goal difference of minus-22.
Pulis is obviously a talented manager, and his ability to ensure Premier League is survival nothing to sniff at. That’s especially true for West Brom, who were a perennial yo-yo team and on the brink of another relegation when Pulis showed up.
But how long do the club need to be mediocre before the owners begin to aspire to something more? The Baggies are never going to rival the league’s elite in transfer spending, but even so, their recent business indicates the ambition of a flightless bird.
The only big signing this summer so far has been Jay Rodriguez, a talented player no doubt, but one who hasn’t cracked 30 league appearances for three seasons due to an awful injury record. He joins a talented group of attackers, including Matt Phillips, Nacer Chadli and Salomon Rondon, that is likely to be limited once more by Pulis’ defensive tactics.
The only other notable addition to the team was Ahmed Hegazy. The center-back has bounced around Italy and Egypt on various loan spells and free transfers. There isn’t a lot to say about him unless you’re a devotee of Serie B or the Egyptian Premier League. He was cheap, though. West Brom paid his club El Ahly Cairo only £850k for a year-long loan. If he’s no good, no problem. He’ll be gone at the end of the year anyway.
But again, this looks like a move from a team that’s happy where it is. The squad is talented, as far as the mid-table goes, and it’s absurd to predict doom and gloom for the club. West Brom will be just fine next year. The question is how much longer “fine” is enough.
KEY PLAYERS: The success of a Pulis team always depends on a strong defense, and the key men at the back last season were Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley at center-back, and Ben Foster in goal. There’s no reason to expect the quality of Evans’ or Foster’s performances to decline, but there are questions about McAuley, who’s 37 years old and coming off an injury.
Pulis was reportedly interested in finding a long-term replacement for the Northern Irishman this summer. Whether Hegazy is that player is unclear, but for now it seems McAuley is going to see significant playing time.
In attack, it will be interesting to see how Rodriguez links up with Phillips and, in particular, Chadli. The former Tottenham player is the only real creative playmaker in the side, and is coming off a season in which he scored five goals and added five assists in 31 appearances, decent numbers on a team that scored only 43 goals.
Rodriguez is capable of combining with Chadli in the final third, and the two could add a new dimension to an attack that’s still heavily reliant on set pieces. Rodriguez’s fitness remains a concern, but his signing should encourage West Brom fans hoping to see a more fluid team.
MANAGER: Pulis is what some people would call an “old-fashioned” manager. He employs old-fashioned tactics, hates modern training facilities and reportedly once head-butted a player during an argument, while naked.
Look, he’s probably not a bad guy. He’s just grumpy and seems stuck in his ways. Does that mean he shouldn’t have a job? That’s not for us to decide.
But he’s pretty clearly at his ceiling. Last season felt, for a time, like a turning point for Pulis. After two stabilizing years, his side were scoring more goals and winning more games than they ever had in the past, but it collapsed once survival was guaranteed.
West Brom won’t ever pull in the kind of talent they need to challenge the top six or seven, but the criticism of Pulis is that the talent already at his disposal is capable of more than reaching 40 points and calling it a season.
The club is in safe hands with Pulis. He’ll probably never deliver a top-seven finish, but he also won’t lead the team to relegation. But a full season’s worth of effort, and maybe a decent cup run, would go a long way to proving he’s more than a specialist in relegation-avoidance.
BEST CASE: West Brom reach 50 points, and finish in the top half.
WORST CASE: The Baggies start poorly and find themselves in the relegation battle.