Slaven Bilic has gone.
The dust has barely settled, Slaven’s seat is still warm – but, that is the way the football world goes sometimes. It is easy to forget that Albion went through four managers the season they got relegated in 2018/19 (one being Gary Megson, if your brain hasn’t decided to erase those weird nine days).
We must now pull ourselves together, however reluctantly, to get behind Sam Allardyce’s West Brom and perhaps more importantly, get behind the players. We all saw from Sam Johnstone’s Q&A a couple of weeks back how important fan support can be and you can bet they are going to need it.
Bilic meant so much to all of us. He revitalised a club in turmoil with his pride and his passion, reintroducing an attacking, exciting brand of football to The Hawthorns — and even got us promoted at the first time of asking. If we are all gutted, then one can only imagine how some of the players must be feeling.
But like us, they must move onto the next phase in their Albion careers — that’s the game. What will this phase look like?
Allardyce’s teams are renowned for their defensive solidity, their grit, their fight, their passion and most notably, their ability to survive. He survived with Crystal Palace, with Sunderland, with Everton and with Bolton. As for Bolton, he got them into Europe for two years, which you’ll be forgiven for forgetting.
So how could Albion line up going forward?
Allardyce favoured a 4-1-4-1 in his recent role at Everton, so this is a plausible possibility in the immediate future.
Possible XI (4-1-4-1)
Sam Johnstone has been immense so far this season, so there is very little possibility of him being dropped.
Dara O’Shea has looked poor at full-back in the Premier League, and Darnell Furlong has proved himself to be incredibly useful, especially going forward. Beyond that, there aren’t many other options for Allardyce to choose from, unless he fancies a 33-year-old Lee Peltier.
Conor Townsend has also been solid so far this season, and offers slightly more in terms of defensive balance compared to Kieran Gibbs, especially with Furlong. However, Allardyce liked to attack via his left-back in Patrick Van Aanholt at Crystal Palace, so expect some rotation at in that role.
The biggest question comes at centre-back. Semi Ajayi has settled in well; he offers pace, power and dominance in the air, so Allardyce is unlikely to change him — the question is, who will partner him? O’Shea played incredibly well against Man City, so he’ll be given a chance. But Kyle Bartley seems to be in Allardyce’s mould of centre-back: tall, towering, strong, physical, and a leader.
For the sake of experience, Bartley will likely get the nod ahead of O’Shea, but expect the latter to feature.
Someone who could drop off is Branislav Ivanovic. This may sound like a surprise as five years ago he might’ve been Allardyce’s dream but he has been poor this season. He’s looked slow and weak; he’s just not up to it anymore, it seems.
This is where the majority of Allardyce’s changes are likely to come in. In the CDM role, Allardyce will want someone who can cut passing lanes and put in crunching tackles. Jake Livermore could work in that role but if Big Sam can fit in two defensive midfielders, he probably will.
Conor Gallagher will also retain his place, given his passion, energy and willingness to tackle.
The wide positions are also up for debate. Matt Phillips impressed in Bilic’s last few games and was best suited to Tony Pulis’ RM/RWB role due to his willingness to track back and guard the more attacking Furlong.
Allardyce does realise we’ll have to score though, and likes his tricky players, shown by his usage of Jay-Jay Okacha at Bolton. He also has an appreciation of young English talent, so Grady Diangana may actually thrive under Big Sam.
Karlan Grant’s pace aides Big Sam’s plan to get in behind the defence quick and fast, so don’t be surprised to see him keep his place. But also don’t be surprised to see Hal Robson-Kanu and Charlie Austin playing key roles given their ability to press from the front and hold up play.
Sawyers was Bilic’s project. From the moment Albion signed him, Bilic sung his name from the hills and argued he had the ability to go to the top. He struggled at first but started to find his feet against Sheffield United and Manchester City. But Sawyers’ silky passing and steady attitude might not be enough in Sam’s defensive, aggressive style of play.
Like Sawyers, Krovinovic might just prove too silky for Big Sam’s system. Also like Sawyers, he was Bilic’s project, the man he fought for all summer. Things do not look good for the Croat.
While Sawyers and Krovinovic might be cast aside, Pereira’s issue is about where he might fit into an Allardyce side. He could play right midfield, but Phillips offers more tracking back. He could play central midfield, but he won’t fit in unless he plays attacking midfield. There is no room for this in a 4-1-4-1. He’s our best player by far and Allardyce will know this. What happens next is a mystery.
Possible XI 2.0 (4-4-2)
The main difference here is Robson-Kanu playing alongside Grant. Big Sam undoubtedly prefers a more direct style of football (more comically known as ‘hoof ball’). Kanu’s ability to hold up play here could work, as it so often did under Pulis. Could we see Johnstone to Kanu, Kanu to Grant, Grant in the back of the net? Let’s hope so.
Whatever the formation, something has got to change. Not many Albion fans wanted to see Bilic go but there is no doubt the players got too comfortable under ‘nice guy’ Bilic. We conceded 26 goals so far this season, by far and away the worst in the division. We’ve also only scored 11. In his first press conference, Sam Allardyce spoke about the ‘minute details’. Indeed, if all games had finished at half-time, Albion would be 14th – that is clearly a mentality issue.
Big Sam’s never been relegated. We need to stay up. A marriage of convenience for now, let’s hope Luke Dowling’s gamble pays off.