Gameweek 13 has come and gone and West Brom are in no better or worse position than they have been all season; that is, in and around relegation, fighting for survival. And yet, Slaven Bilic has been sacked.
If you had told the Baggies fanbase that they would be just two points from safety after 13 games, the vast majority would have taken it. And yet, this is where we find ourselves, with the fanbase seemingly divided over Bilic’s fate, just like Albion’s hierarchy.
But in football, honesty is key; with the financial hit caused by COVID-19 and with the Baggies already one year ahead of a two year project, could Albion really be doing much better?
There is one game that stands out when pondering that question. Yes, that is the 2-0 loss to Fulham away at Craven Cottage. Albion really were poor that game; they looked lost, nervous, disjointed, uninspiring – you name it. That was meant to be the game Bilic & co. could build their season on, with all due respect to fellow new-boys Fulham.
Albion had just come off the back of two decent games against fellow struggles Brighton and Burnley, respectively, picking up a point in each. They looked good at times in both games, especially in the second half vs. Brighton – at times, Bilic’s boys dominated.
But Albion’s character has shone through since that poor performance against Fulham: the Baggies put in two admirable performances against Premier League giants Manchester United and Spurs and were unlucky not to get anything from those games.
The second game that stands out when pondering that question is the 1-5 trashing at home to Crystal Palace. Granted, star-boy Matheus Pereira was unfairly sent off (VAR at its worst), but there really was no excuse for capitulating the way the team did. Even still, Albion competed until Pereira’s sending off, as they did against Burnley and Brighton – who knows what would have happened without the red card?
The result against Newcastle seems worse than it is, likely due to it coming right after the Palace loss. Steve Bruce’s mind games regarding his squad’s fitness levels probably got the fans’ hopes up too much about how depleted their squad would be; in actuality, they looked quite well rested. Losing 2-1 away, however, to an established Premier League side, can and should be forgiven.
All of this stands, without even having mentioned the results picked up elsewhere this season. A 3-3 draw with Chelsea is a solid result however you look at it, no matter the second half performance. This is, after all, a Chelsea squad worth nearly half a billion pounds.
The 1-0 victory over bottom-place Sheffield United was certainly reassuring and shows Albion have the fight and the quality to overcome teams in and around them.
Yesterday’s result at the Etihad was perhaps Bilic’s most impressive of the season, not only because of City’s quality but because it came so quickly after the respective losses to Crystal Palace and Newcastle. This shows a real determination by the players, by the staff and perhaps more importantly, by the manager, to keep fighting no matter what.
This fight is not an isolate affair: it was directly after the disappointing loss to Fulham that Albion came out swinging vs. Manchester United and Spurs; it was after the 5-2 demolition at Goodison Park that they picked up a point from title-contenders Chelsea; it was after the 2-0 loss to high-flyers Southampton that Albion stood firm against Brighton and Burnley.
The players deserve credit, but so does Bilic. This fight and this resilience shows Albion could have had what it takes to fight through this relegation battle, despite the lack of investment over the summer. And let’s be real, the summer investment simply was not enough – just three players who started vs. City had prior Premier League experience before this season (Kieran Gibbs, Matt Phillips and Jake Livermore).
Perhaps Bilic’s fate was sealed the moment Ahmed Hegazi was sold from under him. Not only because Hegazi was sold but because, perhaps unlike any other manager, Bilic was not afraid to speak his mind. This undoubtedly created tension between Bilic and the board, and may have done irreparable damage.
This is the same Bilic who got Albion promoted at first attempt last season, leading us through one of the Baggies most exciting and riveting seasons in recent memory. Albion led the way right from the off, picking up memorable wins against QPR, Swansea, Bristol City, Huddersfield and Birmingham City, all before the New Year.
This is the same Bilic who revitalised the club after a shambolic three years, bringing in an exciting and attacking brand of football in the process. He attracted talent from across Europe in Pereira, Filip Krovinovic and Branislav Ivanovic, whilst getting the best out of Grady Diangana, Semi Ajayi and Jake Livermore.
This is the same Bilic who’s name the Albion fanbase chanted for hours upon hours right up until the COVID-19 pandemic led to football being played behind closed doors.
There is no doubt that Albion have struggled since ‘Project Restart’ – did the break kill their momentum? Or is it the lack of fans? Who knows, but ultimately, Albion won promotion and nothing should be taken away from Bilic and his men in achieving that.
And yet, could there be a silver lining in Bilic’s potential sacking? Nobody wants a return to Pulis-style ‘hoof-ball’ under a Sam Allardyce or Mark Hughes, but with recent reports coming out that ghost-boy Guochuan Lai wants to sell up, survival at all costs could be in Albion’s interests.
After all, West Brom are a much more attractive proposition to foreign investment with Premier League status – so sacking Bilic might have been a painful yet necessary evil to steer Albion back on track. Or, Bilic could go, Albion go down anyway and we head down the same dark, depressing path as Sunderland and Blackpool.
Worryingly, the power to determine these futures lies at the hands of Lai, who is yet to prove he has any of Albion’s best interests in mind.