The Season Just Gone
If ever there was a season which proved that years of painstaking incremental development work can be undone by one madcap managerial appointment, West Bromwich Albion’s 2014-15 was that season. After the best part of a decade spent yo-yoing between the Premier League and the Championship in order to gradually establish themselves as a solid top-flight side, the Baggies almost threw it all away by appointing Allan Irvine to run the show.
In late December, after seven defeats in nine games and with the January transfer window looming large, the hapless Irvine was sent packing and Satan’s favourite football manager, T*ny P*l*s, was parachuted in to oversee West Brom’s return to midtable solidity. While not as impressive as his escape act at Crystal Palace, P*l*s’ performance at the Hawthorns was nonetheless notable: his side eventually finished 13th, nine points clear of the drop.
The Season Ahead
This time around, the idea is simple: stay as far away from the relegation zone as possible for the entire season. After two years in which the Baggies’ Premier League status has regularly appeared to be under threat, a solid, unspectacular campaign in which they constantly hover around 10th would satisfy pretty much everyone at the club as well as the supporters, who could really do without the stress of another needless relegation battle.
In the case of a conscious move towards mid-table mediocrity, there are a few narratives to keep the fans interested, most notably the arrival of a new club record signing. Venezuelan striker and semi-professional Clarke Carlisle-lookalike Salomón Rondón has put up respectable numbers wherever he’s been and, should he produce the goods, will all-but secure Premier League survival by himself. Bright young thing Saido Berahino is expected to depart before the close of the transfer window and his loss will be felt hard by the fans, but if Rondón plays to his potential, Berahino’s absence won’t be notable on the pitch.
It should probably be pointed out that, given that T*ny P*l*s is the manager, absolutely nothing will be notable on the pitch anyway.
HOOF! STAMP! HOOF! SHOVE! HOOF! BLUDGEON! HOOF! HACK! HOOF!
Seriously, they’re a P*l*s team. You know what you’re getting: it's basic and it ain’t pretty.
Normally, the first thing that leaps out when you watch a team trained by T*ny P*l*s – apart from the complete absence of joy and the bone-snapping violence – is defensive solidity. Michael Owen famously described training under the anti-football Welshman as "mind-numbing" but it consistently produces results for those clubs who, like West Brom do now, desire nothing more than a safe and steady campaign which ensures that the Premier League money keeps pouring in.
None of this defensive solidity has been visible in the opening two games of the season – Manchester City absolutely destroyed them and Watford should have taken three points with ease – but you can bet your bottom dollar that West Brom will be better drilled for this game and that P*l*s will have made clear the paramount importance of keeping things tight.
It’s also worth saying that despite the glaring absence of Rory Delap, West Brom will be dangerous from set pieces. One suspects that a good portion of pre-season was given over to rehearsing and perfecting routines and extending the distance of everyone’s long throws.
As ever with teams run by such extremely defensive managers, goals are hard to come by. P*l*s’ teams routinely average worryingly low Goals Scored figures and this season appears to be no exception: two games in, West Brom are still waiting to open their account. Rondón offers a significant threat, but aside from him and Berahino, there really isn’t a lot to worry about.
Given the rudimentary nature of their build-up play (and that really is the kindest way of putting it), it’s no surprise that they struggle to keep hold of the ball. Chelsea should find it very easy to monopolise possession and pen West Brom back in their own half. If (when) Chelsea score the first goal and West Brom have to come out and play, it could get pretty brutal for the home side – especially when we consider that Craig Dawson is likely to be Eden Hazard’s direct opponent.
After West Brom’s total collapse at home to Man City, P*l*s accepted his portion of the blame for getting his tactics wrong, playing two strikers instead of having a third man in midfield and consequently giving David Silva the freedom of the Hawthorns. The same mistake surely won’t be repeated on Sunday: expect a congested middle and an isolated Rondón up front on his own. Saido Berahino should start, but don’t be surprised if he chooses to pull out on the morning of the game in a bid to force a move to Tottenham Hotspur.
José Mourinho probably won’t put new signing Pedro Rodríguez straight into the starting eleven, especially when the opposition manager will certainly be telling his men to "get stuck in" (read: "shatter their femurs"). After a truly dismal start to the season, there’s a chance Branislav Ivanović will be taken out of the firing line, but this means dropping Abdul Baba Rahman in at the deep end. Oscar should return to the starting line-up after a knock.
Chelsea have looked slow and sluggish for the last few weeks and West Brom are going to make life very difficult for them, but they should have enough to find a way through and win the game. If they score first and early, it could be a rout – and, on behalf of all football aesthetes everywhere, I sincerely hope that P*l*s gets torn apart.