Close your eyes and imagine, just for one second, that you wake up on Sunday 14th March and West Bromwich Albion, off the back of an unexpected turn of form, sit in 18th place with 24 points, only a couple away from safety following four wins on the bounce. Impossible? No. Unlikely? Most definitely.
The arrival of Sam Allardyce hasn’t done much to improve things at Albion. Arguably, it’s got worse. 10 league games, 1 win, 2 draws, 7 defeats. Only 8 goals scored and an alarming 28 goals conceded. Even the most optimistic fan would have a hard time believing Albion could go from that form to winning 4 of the next 5, yet this is the position Albion are in and, if staying in the Premier League is the end goal (and why woudn’t it be?), 4 wins out of 5 must be the minimum expectation.
There are a few things that Allardyce will cling on to for hope. One of which will be belief in his own ability. When he joined Crystal Palace in December 2016, Allardyce came up against similar issues. In that job, he only won 2 of his first 10 – still one more than with Albion – and many believed it would end up being his first relegation. Come the end of the season Palace finished 14th, avoiding relegation by 7 points.
The poor run of form at the start, however, is where similarities end. The Crystal Palace team Allardyce took over possessed far more quality than the current Albion squad does…the likes of Cabaye and Zaha, for example, are far superior to most of what Albion has…and he was afforded the luxury of over £30m to spend in the January transfer window, something that he would have never recieved at Albion in the best of times, let alone in a post-Brexit covid time.
There were some early signs that Allardyce might be able to work his magic. The draw against Liverpool, his second game in charge, demonstrated a very disciplined look to the squad, almost reminiscent of Roy Hodgson’s Albion, and it served some hope. However, since then – bar the win against Wolves – the Albion have seemed incapable of putting any sort of performance together for any longer than 45 minutes. The Leeds game (lost 5-0) was appalling, the Man City game (lost 5-0) felt as though we’d given up before even starting and the first half against Fulham (which ended 2-2) was one of the more abject displays I’ve ever witnessed from an Albion team.
The two games that followed the Fulham game, a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United that felt like a relegation confirmation and a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham, that included a poorly thought out joke throw in from Allardyce, only served to seal fate for the majority of supporters. The joke throw in felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth – while you’re struggling, losing, going down…do you really want to see your manager doing light hearted jokes? Is it a lack of care? Or, maybe, is it his way of trying to give the players something to smile at and try to raise morale? If it was the latter, it feels very much like something David Brent may do…which would be fairly fitting; West Bromwich Albion, an awkward comedy.
Many have started to compare Allardyce’s time to Alan Pardew’s time at Albion. Pardew was a disaster, managing only one win in 18 games as Albion hurtled towards relegation. Darren Moore somehow, nearly, gave Albion a fighting chance…but it was too late. And now there is that potential that history may repeat itself as, if Albion don’t win 4 of the next 5 then any chance of survival will be gone and, as some rumblings are starting to suggest, Allardyce may be gone, too.
Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to compare Pardew and Allardyce. The squad Pardew inherited was a very capable one and one that should have done better. From the starting 11, how many would deny Jonny Evans, Jay Rodriguez, Craig Dawson or Salomon Rondon a place in the current team? Would Sam Johnstone, undoubtedly Albion’s best player this season, keep Ben Foster out? Would Romaine Sawyers keep Claudio Yacob out? Give Allardyce that team, you’ll see different results. As it is, he has taken charge of one of the weakest Albion sides in years. That’s not his fault. Tactics? Failure to recognise his best team? That’s on him. But the strength of this squad? The blame lies more on Slaven Bilic, Luke Dowling and Lai Guochuan (or whoever it is that actually does own the club).
So, is there any hope? On a poor run of form, with a poor squad, 11 points from safety (with the two teams above, Fulham and Burnley, having a game in hand)…it looks bleak. And that’s being kind. The only hope can be based around Allardyce’s past history, a belief in miracles and the potential impact of the signings Albion made in January.
Robert Snodgrass gives Albion some much needed experience and when he plays well, as he did against Wolves, he can give a creative edge. The loan signings, Okay Yokuslu, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Mbaye Diagne, are the key and they all have different motivations. Maitland-Niles, an England international, will want to prove he can play consistently in the Premier League in order to help force his way in to the Arsenal team…somewhat similar to how it was for Kieran Richardson when he joined Albion on loan from Manchester United all those years ago. Yokuslu will view the move as a chance to put himself in the shop window and show how good he can be, in a hope to look for a move to a Premier League side. Diagne, at 29 years old, will see this as the final chance to secure a Premier League career. The best way for them all to achieve that is to do well at Albion. And they will get their chance. Yokuslu and Maitland-Niles should replace Sawyers and Livermore in midfield, Diagne has already shown more threat up front than any other Albion striker so far this season.
But then comes the glaring omission for a team that has conceded 28 in their last 10. No new defenders. Full backs remain an issue…Gibbs isn’t good enough anymore, Townsend has done well but isn’t of the quality needed and Furlong often feels like more of a winger than a full back…O’Shea slotted in to right back last year but he is still young, still has a lot to learn and isn’t a natural right back. Bartley and Ajayi have been inconistent and Ivanovic a massive disappointment.
What this means is that Yokuslu and Maitland-Niles will need to sit deep to protect the back four, with the risk then being Diagne will find himself isolated up front. Matheus Pereira’s performance behind Diagne will be vital, as Diagne will have to hold play up to lay on to him. Grady Diangana will need to produce far more than he has so far this season to drive forward counter-attacks. It will be route one football, it won’t be pretty…but it needs to be effective. Back to signs of hope, this is what Allardyce is good at. He finds players that make an impact, players that change a team, players that create better results. He’s done it at so many clubs. Yet, at Albion, even with those signings (of which there is no guarantee they’ll be successful), it feels a stretch too far.
But, for one second, close your eyes and imagine waking up on that Sunday 14th March. Albion have beat Burnley, Brighton, Newcastle and Palace. Just imagine.
It’s nice to dream, sometimes.
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