After Slaven Bilić’s men secured their return to the Premier League, attention has swiftly turned to doing everything possible to ensure that the stay is not a brief one.
Last Sunday’s defeat to Leicester and Saturday’s rollercoaster ride at Everton has dampened spirits although there is still plenty of football to come and, with that, many chances for Albion to make this a positive season.
Here are four things that we can expect to see from West Bromwich Albion throughout the 2020/2021 Premier League Season.
#1 Playing an attractive style which might just need tinkering
Throughout the 2019/2020 Sky Bet Championship season Albion played their football in a style which captivated the Hawthorns faithful and won plaudits from rival fans and the media.
Whilst The Baggies will look to play with the same principles in the Premier League, Bilić and co will need to make certain adjustments to ease his side back into the demands and intensity that comes with the top flight.
The defensive showings so far have proved that there is still plenty of room for improvement. Bilić’s choice in formation surprised the majority of Albion fans and it proved to strengthen some aspects of the performance, in particular limiting Jamie Vardy’s opportunity to get in behind and cause danger from open play.
Albion also used the width provided by Darnell Furlong and Kieran Gibbs to their advantage in that game with the former often beating James Justin in down the right hand side and posing a threat to the Foxes’ defence.
However, the second half was completely one sided with Brendan Rodgers’ men showing the difference in class. At Goodison Park, Albion never looked defensively secure as crosses weren’t being dealt with and James Rodriguez caused trouble by picking up dangerous pockets of space.
In both matches the 3-4-3 formation left the two Albion centre midfielders exposed which was a big issue for Romaine Sawyers — a technically gifted and skillful midfielder who lacks a strong defensive side to his game — with Jake Livermore often making up the ground of two players which allowed the likes of Dennis Praet, James Maddison, Richarlison and, as previously mentioned, Rodriguez to consistently cause havoc.
Bilić may look to stick with the 3-4-3 formation and change the personnel or potentially revert to the previously successful 4-3-3 which will add more cover and protection to the midfield, which will come with the arrival of Conor Gallagher on loan from Chelsea.
Most Baggies fans were fully aware of our defensive deficiencies and recognised it needed improving prior to Sunday’s defeat with a number of poor goals conceded in the Championship, and Bilić acknowledged in pre-season that “We were training last season to defend and suffer without the ball, to play on the counter attacks, so we’ll have to adjust but we won’t have to change totally the way we play.”
To simplify his comments, everyone at the club realises that we will have to have less of the ball and perhaps be more cautious in our play. Having less of the ball also means we are required to be clinical with chances when they are presented to us: only 32.65% of our shots were on target last season, that percentage needs to be increased whilst having less of the ball, which is why there is desperation for a striker amongst the fan base and staff.
Although we don’t expect for the style of play to revert back to a highly defensive one that the likes of Tony Pulis brought to The Hawthorns, as there are elements of play from last season that the coaching staff will look to keep.
For example, Matheus Pereira made the second most ball recoveries in the final third last year with 39 recoveries which demonstrates how well Albion could put pressure on teams and play on the front foot. Why remove a strong aspect?
Callum Robinson claimed after returning on a permanent basis that whilst survival is the priority we will not “neglect” the principles that served us so well.
Albion will look to dominate the ball against sides who set up in a system that will look to counter attack whilst staying defensively sound, for example a team that does this with great efficiency is Burnley. Although against top six teams it is inevitable that the opposition will have a great amount of possession and our structure out of possession will be tested.