The 2020/21 Premier League season got to the 13th round of games and while that number is unlucky for some, it was cruelly unlucky for Slaven Bilic. My choice of the sack race didn’t come off (I eventually went for David Moyes) and the Croatian was removed from his role as Head Coach of West Brom following their very credible 1-1 draw at Manchester City. The Hawthorns [Image above from West Bromwich Albion] club statement read:
‘West Bromwich Albion have today parted company with Head Coach Slaven Bilić. Assistant Coaches, Dean Računica and Danilo Butorović, and First Team Coach Julian Dicks have also left the club with immediate effect. The Baggies are currently 19th in the Premier League table with seven points from 13 fixtures. Albion would like to thank Slaven and his coaching staff for their efforts in achieving promotion last season and wishes them all well in the future. The club will make no further comment at this time.‘
I really feel for Bilic. Rumours had been circulating about his position in the hours before their game at Man City. The way the club handled it was very public and shamefully done but the decision does seem to have already been made regardless of what happened at the Etihad. That is the impression you get from the comments made by the clubs Sporting and Technical Director Luke Dowling:
‘Every year is important to stay in the Premier League, and every club will tell you that this year, even more so with the situation every club finds themselves in. You can keep letting games come and go and results drift away and then you can be, not scared, but wary of, the man that you want might not be around – and the man that we’ve got next to us is the person we wanted. So to get that opportunity, we couldn’t turn down.’
Despite the handling of the situation by the club, Bilic appeared humble in his reaction to being sacked:
‘I am hugely disappointed to have left West Bromwich Albion. I am honoured to have managed this unique football club with full commitment and integrity. I would like to place on record my sincere thanks to all the players, my hard-working coaching team and our dedicated staff. I am incredibly proud that we secured automatic promotion from the Championship in our first season. It was a real shame to not have our loyal supporters there with us during that moment and upon our return to the Premier League. In what has been a really difficult year for so many, those special fans have stood alongside us throughout it all. My staff and I are grateful for having had the privilege to serve them. They would have enjoyed some of our excellent performances where the team showed how much they wanted us to succeed. Ultimately, I am sad that it hasn’t worked out in the way we wanted. But I leave with my head held high, along with some wonderful memories that I will always cherish. I’m sorry that I cannot say goodbye to you all properly at The Hawthorns. I genuinely wish the club well for the future.‘
Considering the comments from Bilic and the way the club treat him and their handling of the situation has probably made the Baggies the neutrals choice to be relegated.
Assessing Bilic at West Brom
How would Slaven Bilic’s spell in charge of West Brom? I would say fairly successful. He arrived in the summer of 2018, replacing caretaker Jimmy Shan with the brief of earning promotion back to the Premier League. At the time, Bilic stated, ‘We want to improve and Albion have convinced me they want to return to the Premier League. Albion have a short-term project and a long project and they do not clash. They made it clear they wanted me to be the one to lead them and I didn’t think twice once they had spoken to me.’
Ultimately, Bilic achieved that aim at the first attempt gaining promotion from the Championship in 2nd place behind Leeds. However, they struggled across the line failing to win any of their last four games including a shock 2-1 defeat at relegation-threatened Huddersfield Town and losing leads in all but one game. Despite that, they ultimately saw off the challenge from Brentford and the job was done.
Gaining promotion, the club needed to back Bilic if he was to keep the club in the top flight. In the window, they spent approximately £22.3m but most of that was spent on players that had been out on loan in the promotion campaign like Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana. Karlan Grant arrived from Huddersfield but has only scored once. Branislav Ivanovic was brought in to try and help solidify the defence that conceded 45 goals last season but in truth, they did not recruit many Premier League calibre players and that was something I mentioned in a previous post.
That form would have been a concern for the club coming into the new season and not to mention the short time frame between the end of the 2019/20 season before the current campaign. So far, they have conceded more goals than any other side (26) at an average of two goals conceded per game and only have one victory which came against fellow strugglers Sheffield United.
Goals have been difficult to come by. Last season, they scored 77 goals in the Championship; the same as Leeds. Leeds recruited well and this season have scored 22 goals compared to West Brom’s 10. The attacking players that were so effective last season; Pereira and Diangana who were involved in 24 and 15 goals respectively last season. This season they’ve been involved in 3 and 1. Their top scorer has been on loan midfielder Connor Gallagher along with striker Callum Robinson but they have only scored two each.
It is clear from Luke Dowling’s above comments that West Brom had a replacement in mind when they made the decision regarding Bilic and probably would not have dismissed him if they did not have the replacement already arranged.
They clearly got their man in the shape of Sam Allardyce.
This will be Allardyce’s 8th Premier League job after managing Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Everton in the top flight.
He also brings with him an unblemished record of having never been relegated from the Premier League. That includes brig Bolton up in 2002 and taking them into Europe before an ill-fated spell with Newcastle. After Newcastle, it was to Blackburn before falling foul of new owners again in the shape of Venkys who opted for Steve Kean. He brought West Ham up in 2012 and kept them in the Premier League before being replaced by the man he has just replaced at the Hawthorns. Miraculously, he kept Sunderland up in 2016 before repeating the feat with Crystal Palace after leaving the England job in disgrace. Then there was Everton where he replaced Roberto Martinez after a disappointing start to the season but was not kept on beyond the end of the 2017/18 season.
The situation he arrives at with West Brom is not alien to him. Blackburn were 19th when he arrived in December 2008. They finished 15th at the end of the season. Sunderland were in the same position in 2015 and Allardyce guided them to safety. So were Crystal Palace when he arrived the following season and The expectation from West Brom is that he will be able to repeat that feat.
Allardyce will hope he can to as he stated in his press conference, ‘It would kill me’ if he failed to keep West Brom up. It is a club close to his heart even though he supported Wolves as a boy. This is the club that his coaching and managerial career started when Brian Talbot brought him in as a player-coach in January 1989 who he worked under for two years.
The job is simple, keep the club up. West Brom are 19th and only two points behind Burnley who occupy 17th. The Clarets also have two games in hand but with 25 games to go, including the imminent and hectic Christmas schedule, the start will be important. Allardyce’s first game in charge is the Midlands derby with rivals Aston Villa. That will be a big game for them and with games coming thick and fast getting a good result in the derby would do wonders for morale in that squad just before Christmas. The importance of the first game wasn’t lost on Allardyce:
‘What I have to try and hope for, is the stimulation of a new manager – as we all know on occasions – can lift a team to perform and play well enough to win a game and that’s with little or no influence from the new manager, other than he’s a new manager and the players say, ‘I have to play my best because I want that manager to pick me.’
It has been more than two and a half years since Allardyce last managed a game; his longest spell out of football management in his career. The hunger is still there but has he been out of management for too long? Only time will tell. One thing is for certain, he will have his work cut out for him.
What impact will he make and can he keep West Brom up?
Allardyce will try to work on the defence. West Brom have already conceded 26 goals, perhaps the weakness was typified by being opened up within 20 seconds by a Newcastle side ravaged by Covid. However, compared to the opening games of the season where they conceded 11 in their first three games it has improved slightly but ultimately not good enough. So, the defence will be key. If you can have a solid defence you need to only take one or two chances.
To do that, he will also try to make them a more physical side, winning every header and focusing on set-pieces. Looking at the fixtures, if he can get a reaction in the first game, then that could be big and rejuvenate the dressing room. I think he could capitalise on the weaknesses Leeds have had in defending set-pieces so that could be a winnable game for them.
In terms of the FA Cup, they have Blackpool away in the third round. The Cup will probably be secondary for Baggies and even if he plays a weakened side at Blackpool, I would think they have enough. Coming within the first few weeks of his time there, it may only serve as an extra game for Allardyce to assess his squad. Even if they get best Blackpool, I would not expect their Cup exploits to go much further.
There is still a long way to go in the season but looking at the squad they have at the moment, I would have to say no, he won’t keep them. I didn’t think they had enough quality at the start of the season and that hasn’t changed.
January will be a key month in terms of recruitment and Allardyce will already be looking at recruitment. Allardyce insists ‘There’s some money, some opportunities…I understand the situation and we’ll try and improve the team if we can find a player. We talked about that as a key area, once I’ve fully assessed the whole squad. I’m not certain, but I’m sure I will.’
Recruitment was key to keeping Sunderland up as he brought in the likes of Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchoff then at Crystal Palace when he brought in Patrick van Aanholt and influential midfielder Luka Milivojevic. Crucially, given the pandemic, what resources will be given to him as they also battle the cost of Covid and not having fans in the stadium. One thing I think Allardyce will want is a centre forward. Grant has only found the net once, Robinson twice. Maybe, some investment in defence to help shore up the defence.
Allardyce will want to succeed and as Dowling said, ‘With Sam in the club, we feel we’ve got a great chance‘. They do, and I think West Brom will be more difficult to break down under him. They will get some results, maybe surprise a few teams such as Leeds who struggle defending set-pieces and those around them but will it all be enough to beat the drop at the end of the season?
Crucially, however, I just don’t see there being enough quality players there in the current group for them to stay up. January and what he does in the transfer window might help them but for now, I don’t think he will be able to pull it off.
With West Brom being the first to act in the hiring and firing of managers, who else could make a move? At the time of writing the overwhelming favourite with SkyBet is Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta followed by Chris Wilder at Sheffield United. The Blades have suffered the worst ever start to a Premier League season after 13 games with only one point. Given what he has done with the club, taking them up from League One I think they will give Wilder more time. Of those two, I do think Arteta more likely to be the next managerial casualty with the Gunners currently in the bottom half of the table and without a league win in seven.