A comprehensive view of West Bromwich Albion's current situation and how Middlesbrough can get the better of them so you can be in the know.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
If you had asked any Championship fan about their favourites for promotion this season then West Bromwich Albion wouldn’t have been far down the pecking order. The Baggies current predicament, which has been established over the last four seasons, places them on the precipice of being considered a yo-yo football club; that is a football club that constantly fluctuates between two different leagues one season after another. In Albion’s case, it is between the Championship and the Premier League as the side is considered one of the best in the Championship but not strong enough to sustain itself in the Premier League. This manifested itself once more last season with a disappointing 19th placed finish that returned them to the Championship once more. Guochuan Lai will be hoping to bring an end to this relative uncertainty and re-establish Albion as a stable Premier League side and he has turned to Valerien Ismael in order to lead the charge. We will discuss Valerien Ismael later but his track record of getting more out of a side than the sum of its parts could be a real advantage in the first season following a promotion to the Premier League. However, such long term planning is dependant on the club winning promotion; sitting in 3rd place they have put themselves in a great position to turn that into a reality.
Albion were once a well established Premier League side and they appeared to be as safe a financial bet as any side can be in the tumultuous nature of football and so Guochuan Lai agreed terms to buy a 88% stake in the club; paying between £175m and £200m for the honour. Guochuan Lai would state that he had been a fan of West Bromwich Albion since the Far East tours in the 1970s staking an emotional claim to the club that is often lacking with unruly ownerships. A campaign to provide fans with a free scarf on the first home game and a free drink on the first away game further helped the Chinese businessman to establish a good rapport with the clubs fanbase. These early actions have helped to birth a relatively peaceful and content reign at Albion which greatly contrasts some of Middlesbrough’s most recent opposition.
However, an undercurrent of potential change arouse during the latter stages of last season with Lai opening up the possibility of selling the club even though he would be unable to recoup the majority of his initial investment. Three parties were interested but Lai wanted to narrow down the options with reports coming out that he was offered £130m if the club remained in the Premier League and £105m following their unfortunate relegation. However, the club never changed hands and Lai continued his reign into the 2021-2022 season.
One of Albion’s bigger issues during Lai’s reign has been the lack of tactical identity and, arguably more concerning, a failure to recognise the style of football that the fanbase felt an association to as a representation of what the club stands for. This grew into the primary complaint about the clubs hierarchy during Tony Pulis’ time as Albion manager with fans growing fed up with the more attritional style of football. In hiring Darren Moore, Lai targeted a more attacking style of football that would satiate the fans desires about how they wished to see their side play. The Albion legend would succeed in establishing an attacking mentality that only furthered his already legendary status among the Baggies faithful. However, a change in management following the end of the season saw Slaven Bilić take the top role. While not as defensive as Tony Pulis, Bilić steadied the playing philosophy with a move to a slightly more conservative style of football. This change would prove to be a successful one in the short term as Bilić led the club back to the promised land. However, West Brom struggled for form within the first half of their return to the Premier League forcing the clubs hand to sack Bilić in December. In an attempt to save their season, and their place in the Premier League, they hired Sam Allardyce. A dramatic change in tactics came with the relegation saviour as Allardyce simplifies his sides tactics and predominantly focuses on being defensively resolute. This is a very good way of dealing with such a predicament as the singular points gained from draws in this more pragmatic style can be the difference between survival and relegation in the Premier League. Despite hiring the relegation survival expert, West Brom returned to the Championship the following season. Upon their return to the second division of English football, West Brom agreed a deal with Valerien Ismael. A physical but high-pressing style manager. Through these recent managerial changes West Brom have played conservative, attacking, possession-based and high-press football. While being so liberal with the style of play is usually a hindrance it has yet to have too great a catastrophic effect on Albion who has only suffered Premier League relegations during this period that, ultimately, were predicted by most football fans and experts anyway.
Arguably West Bromwich Albion’s best signing of the summer, albeit not actually part of the playing staff, Valerien Ismael could be the key, the missing component, that helps the Baggies overcome their current yo-yoing predicament. Most English fans discovered the manager upon his arrival at Barnsley but his time at the South Yorkshire side only represented a continuation of the work that French coach had undergone during his previous job. While his most notable managerial job came with German side VfL Wolfsburg, where he coached from 2016 to 2017, it was at LASK that his ability to create teams that are stronger than the sum of its parts came to the fore. Barnsley, in need of a new manager but with limited finances, discovered Ismael and recognised that the manager was potentially very talented and he would be available at a fraction of the wage that would have been demanded by likewise alternatives.
Ismael’s work at Barnsley made them a team that no one looked forward to playing against. They were in the oppositions face. They were physical. They were combative. They had the ability to drag the opposition into a game that suited them regardless of the opposition managers original intentions. Barnsley were one of those sides that clubs just didn’t want to face.
Barnsley would finish that season in 5th place. The meteoric rise from 21st the previous season understandably had fans and football specialists alike sitting up and paying attention to English football’s managerial newcomer. The rumours started to circle about the managers departure. Ismael did little to quash the reports admitting the limitations of a career in football management and recognising the importance of seizing personal opportunities when they came knocking; and indeed opportunity did come knocking in the shape of the recently relegated West Bromwich Albion.
This was a move that suited both parties. Ismael had shown himself to be a capable manager in the Championship and a possible answer to their yo-yo issue while West Brom represented an opportunity to manage a serious step up in finances and player quality (no disrespect to Barnsley) while still dealing with a squad that had a similar profile to the Barnsley side that had been key to last seasons success.
Valerien Ismael will play a high press system. He likes to set up his side with a high line of engagement and, likewise, a high defensive line pushing the opposition either into mistakes or into a middle third that is heavily populated by West Brom shirts. However, Ismael’s sides are vulnerable to a ball over the defence particularly as most of his preferred players sit on the physical end of the physical to pace scale.
Once in possession, Ismael likes to have one deep-lying midfielder to dictate possession, usually Alex Mowatt (who followed the manager from Barnsley) who will try and find players in the final third. When Ismael’s sides get into the oppositions danger zone his sides go direct with a focus on dribbling from the flanks and a physical presence at striker to occupy the centre backs in order to fashion an opportunity.
Ismael’s move from Barnsley to West Brom may have been a step up in quality but he has had to deal with a considerable shift in the playing squad. The club’s 2020-21 top goalscorer, Matheus Pereira, has signed for Hilal in the Saudi Professional league for £16.2m while the clubs 2019-20 joint top goalscorer, Charlie Austin, has also departed the club on a free transfer to QPR. West Brom has attempted to replace these goals by bringing in Adam Reach (free) and Jordan Hugill (loan). Both of these former Middlesbrough players have proven that they can perform and thrive at this level on a frequent basis allowing the club to augment the squad without spending a single penny on outgoing transfers. Comparatively, Albion were able to rake back £18.97m of the money lost following their relegation.
Can Middlesbrough win?
Let’s not kid ourselves, Middlesbrough are the blatant underdogs coming into this fixture. While Middlesbrough’s recent form may have been more promising, West Brom have consistently remained at the top of the table breathing down the necks of the top two waiting for them to make a mistake. However, the unpredictability of Championship football means that a Middlesbrough win cannot be ruled out. However there are a number of key things that the side must get right if they want to be within a chance of winning the match.
Dominate the midfield
West Bromwich Albion confirmed that Alex Mowatt will not be available due to a foot injury. While we don’t want to see a player become unavailable due to injury it is an unfortunate side effect of sport and it is a situation that Middlesbrough need to exploit. While his absence doesn’t put Boro’s midfield ahead of Albion’s on paper as Ismael has some serious midfield quality to call from in his place (Jake Livermore and Robert Snodgrass are experienced central midfielders who have done it in the Premier League before) it does put the midfield within reach and, if Middlesbrough’s midfield (and bromance) of Matt Crooks and Martin Payero are at their best, then Neil Warnock’s side could win the crucial midfield battle.
This will be particularly important against an Ismael side as the midfield obstacle course is the lynchpin to the sides system.
STOP Karlan Grant
The Baggies do not lack talent going forward with the likes of Callum Robinson, Jordan Hugill, Adam Reach and Kenneth Zohore all available for selection but West Brom’s current danger man is Karlan Grant.
The 24 year old winger has been in the form of his life as he has managed to find the net 7 times in the last 8 games. This very impressive prolific form means that he will be constant buzz of goalscoring potential against Middlesbrough and so containing the Englishman will be key if they want to leave The Hawthorns with all three points. Further still, Grant has become the litmus test for Albion’s goalscoring in recent weeks: If Albion do to score then Grant is among the goalscorer’s. This has gone so far as the player being the only goalscorer on the odd occasion that the side struggles to enter a plurality of goals (Swansea City 2-1 West Bromwich Albion and West Bromwich Albion 1-0 Birmingham City). So keeping Grant, and the rest of the attack quiet, will be key to any chance Middlesbrough have of taking anything away from the Hawthorns.
A small faucet of Albion’s game that has been lacking is in the conversion of shots into goals. Albion’s well respected goalkeeper Sam Johnstone has made just 1.6 saves per game, the worst in the league. The most likely reason for this is that West Brom smother chances before they even arise. This idea fits into the other general statistics as the Baggies have conceded 0.9 goals per game, joint-second fewest in the league, while their 90 turnovers in the final third is the highest in the division, and so the side is managing to suffocate the opposition long before they reach any areas of danger. However, the sides that do manage to break through the press find themselves facing an over exposed goalkeeper and, expectantly, Johnstone struggles to save such shots. If Middlesbrough manage to break through the press and open up an opportunity for themselves then they must not hesitate.
Play your own game
Aside from these pointers it is key that Middlesbrough don’t fall into the trap of playing to Ismael’s tune. Neil Warnock’s side has been one of the best on the counterattack and if it is used well then it could prove to be a real problem for the Baggies.
Prediction: West Bromwich Albion 0-1 Middlesbrough