As Tammy Abraham eliminated his penalty to send Aston Villa to Wembley, West Brom’s hearts broke. In a stormy atmosphere in The Hawthorns last May, it was football that confirmed a playoff loss for the Baggies.
Fast forward nine months, and perhaps that failure was a blessing for Albion. It facilitated a reset and, under a different manager in Slaven Bilic, they have six points ahead of the top of the league and the division’s top scorers.
Not that they will take anything for granted in another captivating championship promotion race. On December 20, West Brom and Leeds were respectively 12 and 10 points behind third place, but such is the unpredictability of the championship that Bilic’s team has failed to win in seven games and since then Leeds has collected only nine points in 10 games. Leeds live up to Fulham in third place, with only three points behind Bristol City, in seventh.
“The championship is very interesting,” said Bilic ahead of Saturday’s game against Nottingham Forest. “Good quality is important, but I don’t see a big difference between the teams, which means you have to focus on double.”
West Brom, despite their fourth place last season, has relied heavily on Dwight Gayle, Jay Rodriguez and Harvey Barnes, who were on loan during the first half of the season. Those three players scored 61.8% of West Brom’s goals and their moments of brilliance routinely saved poor teams. Take a 4-0 win over Rotherham for example. Rotherham missed a penalty, made an effort by clearing the line and twice blocking the joinery, but Dwight Gayle’s sumptuous hat-trick masked the shortcomings.
There is a marked improvement in the whole team this season. Their top scorer, Charlie Austin, has only eight league goals, but there have been 17 different scorers. In 2018-19 West Brom maintained eight draws from 46 league games, but under Bilic they have seven from 32. To concede 1.33 goals per game last season, it has been reduced to 1.06 goals per game during this period. .
“Yes, we have improved over the season. The mood is good and we have a good spell behind us, “said Bilic.” But we have suffered before and we have been hurt. We have never stopped believing and working hard. It is much easier to be third, fourth or fifth of the first or second: they are dreaming of being among the first two. But you have to face it if you want to be successful. It is easy to be average but if you want to be the best actor or surgeon it costs a sacrifice. “
Last season’s team was mainly attracted to the relegated team in 2018 and an aging team needed rejuvenation after the play-offs. More than £ 25 million was raised from the summer sales of Craig Dawson, Salomón Rondón and Jay Rodriguez.
West Brom traditionally thrived in recruiting relatively dark affairs. For example, Peter Odemwingie, their Premier League top scorer, was torn from Lokomotiv Moscow, and Gareth McAuley made 227 appearances after joining a free man from Ipswich.
Towards the end of their most recent eight seasons in the top flight, West Brom compromised this model. George Graham once said, “Never buy a player who is stepping down to join you. He will act as if he’s doing you a favor.” Perhaps the signatures of Grzegorz Krychowiak, Daniel Sturridge and Oliver Burke, whose previous clubs were Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and RB Leipzig respectively, perhaps prove it.
The reset allowed the club to return to its successful recruiting tactics, with Semi Ajayi, Darnell Furlong and Romaine Sawyers arriving from Rotherham, Queens Park Rangers and Brentford respectively for just over £ 5 million in total. Everyone impressed. Matheus Pereira, signed on loan from Sporting Lisbon but never a regular there and sent away by his mother club for the third consecutive season, dazzled, with six goals and 11 assists. In January the strategy was reaffirmed with the acquisition of Kamil Grosicki for £ 800,000 from Hull. The Pole has 18 assists and 15 goals in the past two league seasons. “With WBA my dreams can come true,” he said.
The comparisons were made with Tony Mowbray’s West Brom which, after losing the 2007 play-off final, sold players like Jason Koumas and Curtis Davies for multimillion-dollar fees and brought emerging talent including Chris Brunt, the captain. of the club almost 13 years later. The team won the championship the following season.
Bilic, who led West Ham in his Premier League points record and humiliated Steve McClaren’s England while in command of Croatia, has rekindled the club and the connection between players and fans is thriving.
They have played sparkling football, managing 54 goal attempts in the last two games, and appear to be superbly prepared for the match with Bilic focused on the challenge ahead. “There is no time for compliments,” he said. “It is time to be confident, but it is not time to rest and say yes, we are great. We still have games to play. Forest is a complete team, so we have a very difficult game. “