From strength to strength: Matt Phillips and Salomon Rondón.
It’s a fact: West Bromwich Albion are currently enjoying their best footballing times since the late 70’s. After four years of narrowly reaching their modest ‘keep us up’ goal, the team is finally progressing. It’s only February and The Baggies are on 36 Premier League points, which is only seven short than their overall tally for the previous season. And not only that: they’ve already netted 32 goals – two less than they’ve squeezed by May 2016! Their Saturday result, 1-0 win over Stoke in a tense Midlands Derby, was the sixth league win in the last seven matches played at The Hawthorns. They might not be taking points off the big sides this time – but apart from that, they’re ruthless. And all of the critics of their ‘tedious’, ‘unwatchable’, ‘nauseating’ style have to remain silent – because, in the current, post-Leicester state of English top division, WBA have enough to finish in the top half of the table.
In many ways, this is the story parallel to the Foxes’ fairy tale last season – only without the dream ending. After all, just like Kasper Schmeichel, the goalkeeper Ben Foster has been once rejected by the big Manchester club and spent a fair share of his career on loans before he’s found a new home. Gareth McAuley, the veteran centre-back, actually used to play for Leicester during the previous decade, during the times of LCFC’s most brutal sporting decline. Darren Fletcher and Danny Drinkwater both have Manchester United history – and even though only the former had a long and fruitful career as a Red Devil, they both ended up as the victims of a ruthless, top-team natural selection process. And Jonny Evans? Once upon a time, he’s been dismissed by Louis van Gaal in exactly the same way José Mourinho has once disposed of Robert Huth…
Of course, there are differences too. First and foremost, unlike Claudio Ranieri, Tony Pulis does not rely solely on cheap signings and big club’s rejects with a thing or two to prove. The dramatic, but happy conclusion to the 2014/15 campaign has proven how urgent the reinforcements are. The new boss at Hawthorns did not hesitate to spent £14 million on a new pair of centre-backs in form of Evans and James Chester. Soon afterwards, the team’s top goalscorer, Saido Berahino has refused to sign a new contract and went on a long, frustrating war with his employers. His logic was simple: since WBA, a small club, won’t be able to sign a better striker, it will give the player a leverage necessary to either force a transfer out or a substantial bump in the offered wages. And, for a while, the lad did seem to have a point: at that time, Tottenham were seriously interested with him.
His managers’ next move, however, surprised and confused everyone. Out of the blue, faced with a crisis of loyalty from his top 2014/15 performer, and the crisis of quality in the #9 position, Pulis has broken Baggies’ transfer record by hiring José Salomón Rondón from Zenit St. Petersburg. At the same time, the boss has rejected the £12 million offer from Spurs for Berahino – an offer that would cover to Rondón expenses with interest. It was a stern display of managerial power in times when it’s players and their greedy agents who are holding many clubs hostages. Demoted to the reserves and U-23 team, Berahino briefly reconciled with his club and even scored a few goals before going on yet another, desperate strike. It took over 17 months and at least six rejected offers from Spurs, Newcastle and Stoke, to end that beef – and the young, frustrated outcast was finally allowed to go in January 2017.
The 2015/16 league campaign was the most bizarre nine months the Premier League has ever enjoyed. Cinderellas from Leicester have fought their way into the unimaginable first ever title by displaying exactly the style of football Pulis has been advocating through his entire career. Meanwhile, West Bromwich’s results have been unstable. The team in violet and white was able to take out Manchester United and Arsenal at home and bring 3 points from Goodison Park; at the same time, it stumbled at home to Bournemouth, Norwich and Watford. There was certainly a sense of complacency in the squad after reaching the typical margin of league survival (39 points) in March. During the following spring, Baggies picked up only four points from nine games, remaining winless for full ten weeks and eventually finishing 14th. Without that huge drop – they’d comfortably land a top-half spot.
Tony Pulis: after years of beating the relegation, is it time for something more?
Well – this seems to be finally happening now. This term, Pulis’ lads might’ve been unable to get anything out of the top-shelf opponents (0-4 vs Man City; 0-4 vs Spurs; 0-2 vs Man Utd; 1-2 vs Liverpool; 0-1 vs Arsenal; 0-1 vs Chelsea), but against rest of the pack, they’ve been nearly faultless. The team is not just hard to beat, like it always used to be: it genuinely possesses a range of attacking qualities that go beyond playing crosses to a target man or utilising spot-kick specialist to win through set play. Right now, the balance between open play and set piece efficiency is completely equal: 14 goals to 14. And yes: the team still does not score for fun – but to move from scraping 1-0 wins each week to the results like 4-2 or 3-1 (already three such cases this season!) – is a big leap forward in itself.
What should be particularly helpful in this unexpected bid for a single-digit place is WBA’s new-found manpower going forward. Despite playing for an overwhelmingly defensive side, winger Matt Phillips is currently the second-best assisting Premier League player, on level with superstars like Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez and Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen. In Pulis’ old-fashioned footballing approach that demands wide players to be particularly prolific at crossing the ball – Phillips is is a fantastic fit. After all – he has spent the last three years finding Charlie Austin’s head in the penalty boxes of QPR’s opponents. It finally seems that his career has taken the right turn, upgrading from the bumpy stints in relegation-doomed sides to the much-needed EPL stability. And he’s paying back for it: his terrific, incisive displays against Burnley, Leicester, Southampton and Hull were the things to remember.
Phillips’ heroics are largely aided by the efforts of injury-free Chris Brunt. A year ago, the footballing days of now-32 years old Brunty took a major hit when a wild scramble with Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha resulted in a complicated cruciate ligaments injury to his right knee. Afterwards, he would not only miss the remainder of the season but also the very first EURO tournament for his Northern Ireland national team. For him, the following six months were a monumental struggle to get back to fitness: he would lift approximately 2000 tonnes worth of gym weights, spent over 700 hours standing on the injured legs in order to strengthen the surgically fixed ligaments and completed over 400 kilometers of cycling. Today, despite shifting between playing as a left-back and as a right winger, he’s back to being a pillar of WBA’s team, with 3 goals and 3 assists in 17 league appearances.
It should’ve and probably would’ve been even better if not for the unfortunate Nacer Chadli’s story. The midfielder, who was once the beneficiary and the victim of Gareth Bale’s transfer fee, has been on a very long slump this season. His assist to James Morrison against Stoke broke the streak of 13 league matches without a single goal contribution – a run that made £13 million spent on his signature look rather silly. However, prior to that, the Belgian had a sensational game against West Ham and his late goal against former employers Spurs was worthy of a precious one league point. The key to the recent struggles was the players’ minor knee injury sustained in October. It opened an unexpected window for experienced James Morrison to get back into the side – and since he’s been milking that chance ever since, the former Tottenham winger had to reconcile himself with either the bench, or a far from perfect position down the left wing.
Behind all that, there’s Pulis himself. 25 years in the football management job, 1019 games in charge of eight teams, the same one tracksuit and baseball cap and the reputation of a perfect firefighter. “If I’ve got a load of centre halves who can’t pass water, never mind the ball, do you really want them to play out from the back?” – he asks, only half-jokingly, while imposing the style that allowed his Stoke to narrowly stay up in 2003 and save Crystal Palace in 2014. One would think that, in the days of foreign takeover at the Hawthorns and a fantastic influx of attacking quality among the other Premier League members, the ‘Pulisball’ will become more and more obsolete. It is not the case, though: should he win 18 points out of the remaining fourteen games, he’ll break the 50-point barrier and register West Brom’s best top-division conclusion in 22 years. And with home fixtures against Bournemouth, Palace, Southampton and Leicester left: that is certainly a possibility.