Opposition Report: West Bromwich Albion
Middlesbrough returns to the Riverside following their defeat to Bristol City to host an out of form West Bromwich Albion side at the Riverside Stadium.
Middlesbrough fans vented their frustrations following last weekend's defeat to Bristol City. However, the performance was far from drastic. The side looked particularly promising in midfield areas, McGree impressed in the left central midfield role, and the side could create opportunities for the club's forwards. However, unfortunately, Middlesbrough's goalscoring issues resurfaced, with the side only finding the back of the net once in 21 attempts on goal. Nonetheless, Chris Wilder will want to see his side bounce back against a talented West Bromwich Albion side.
West Brom's current predicament will greatly contrast the hyperbolic reaction of some Middlesbrough fans following the latest defeat.
Steve Bruce has the reigns to an undoubtedly talented side. Under the early stages of Valérian Ismaël's tenure, the Baggies were putting in performances to validate their standing as automatic promotion contenders. However, the club has since been stuck in a rut that has seen them win only one of their last ten fixtures. This terrible run of form has had dire consequences for West Brom. They have fallen from potential automatic promotion candidates to treading water outside the top 6. The gap between 11th place and the last playoff spot may be too big of a mountain to climb. If they do not see a drastic change in form, it could be a disappointing mid-table end to the season.
Recognising the club's current predicament, the higher-ups at West Brom executed a plan to replace Ismaël with Steve Bruce. The British manager follows a similar philosophy to Ismaël, meaning a shorter adaptation period. Still, he has experience when it comes to getting clubs out of this notoriously difficult league. However, this change has yet to bear fruit, as the former Newcastle United manager is still searching for his first win as Albion manager.
Owner: Lai Gouchuan
To say that West Brom's owner is disappointed by the club's current predicament would be an understatement. Lai Gouchuan is a massively successful Chinese businessman. He turned a plant nursery into a massively valuable construction and landscape development company trading under Palm Eco-Town Development. He has an estimated net worth of $2.8bln, making him the 5th most prosperous owner in the Championship.
The weight of such an impressive investor mirrors his expectation that the side should be in the Premier League. The English top division has been a feature of the club's recent history. The club spent 2010-2017 mixing it with Manchester United and Chelsea. However, their current stance as a Championship club will be considered unacceptable by Gouchuan. The target was an instant return to the Premier League this season to amend their current predicament.
However, any Baggies fans concerned that he will cut his losses and release the club from his tenure (for the right amount) should find contentment by his emotional ties to the club. His initial interest in the club came from their 2015 Asian Tour. He would continue to follow them until the purchase of a controlling share was complete. Gouchuan had reflected on his pre-Albion ownership period when he developed an emotional connection to the club. Furthermore, he has shown a near-constant desire to support the club with on-field talent. That has been mirrored again with the £7.7m purchase of Valerian Ismael's former loanee favourite Daryl Dike.
This financial support was more apparent during the early years of his tenure. Across the two seasons following his takeover, West Brom recorded a transfer fee deficit of £56m. However, despite this investment, the club would get relegated in 2018.
His offerings may have been more conservative since, but he has still looked to reinvest in the side when funds are available. The club would record a net profit of £15m from transfer dealings between 2018 and January 2022. With the majority of this profit coming during their various seasons in the Championship. However, the primary aim was to sustain the club's extensive wage bill; trimming the squad with a subsequent profit was needed during their time in the second division. Meanwhile, the club has been unafraid to flash the cash when they have returned to the promised land, reflected in the £30m transfers bill last season. All the same, Gouchuan has shown a desire to see the club succeed.
Other areas of the club's hierarchy have also seen a change. Xu Ke has stepped down from Chief Executive Officer. But, he will remain a feature around the club as a non-executive director. Meanwhile, Ron Gourlay, who has executive experience at Reading, Chelsea and Manchester United, has stepped into this role. Gourlay cited the need for a cultural shift to establish themselves as a Premier League club. To put his plan simply, he aims to bring in a wealth of business and footballing experience at the board level at West Bromwich Albion. He has also outlined the importance of fixing the chasm between the owner and the supporters.
This disconnect appears to have primarily come about through the ownership and the fans viewing the club in contrastingly different lights. This rift is most apparent when Gouchaun pursued the club's survival in the Premier League. He scrapped the philosophies of Darren Moore and Slaven Bilic for a more conservative stance. This perception has been made worse by the club's struggles to make, and then stick to, a coherent plan (see manager section below).
Despite the club's off the pitch predicament, West Brom remains a powerful and dangerous side and could ordinarily be argued as the favourite coming into any game in the Championship.
Manager: Steve Bruce
At the start of the season, I noted that Ismaël might represent a good fit for West Brom. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way for one reason or another. The board deemed his return of just 12 wins in 31 unsatisfactory, and they removed Ismaël from his post. Steve Bruce came in to replace Ismaël 24 hours later.
However, the nature of this decision will have baffled the West Brom faithful. Ismaël remained at the helm of the Baggies for the duration of the January transfer window, with the club recruiting players in his image. The largest digression here comes in the £7.7m transfer of Daryl Dike. The American forward may have been the target for several English clubs following his successful stint at Barnsley last season. Still, it was for his previous success under Ismaël that Albion brought him into the club. There is a good chance that he will still kick on and succeed at West Brom, but Steve Bruce may well have preferred to spend such a substantial sum on a different target. Instead, the signing appeased and pleased a manager that would no longer be at the club three days after the window closed. Andy Carroll may be adaptable after spending some time under Bruce at Newcastle United. But he failed to live up to expectations at his boyhood club, which will have painted a less than a favourable impression for the incoming manager. This transfer business shows that they support their manager in the transfer window. Still, it offers a lack of foresight on the hierarchy's behalf to enact these changes despite the looming sacking.
Nonetheless, by signing on the dotted line, Steve Bruce took over one of the best sides in the Championship. Now the question remains whether he can turn around the baggies' poor form and turn them into a playoff contender.
Steve Bruce followed a traditional rise up the footballing pyramid during his playing career. He was born and raised as a Newcastle United fan, but he would be Kent-based side Gillingham to give him his start. Steve Bruce would make 205 appearances at the Gills. Then, a move to Norwich City would follow, where he played in 141 fixtures. Bruce would continue to rise up the pyramid when he joined English giants Manchester United. A large proportion of the 61-year-old's playing career would be spent at the red devils, making over three hundred appearances. During his time at Manchester United, Bruce would lift seven significant trophies, including three Premier Leagues. He would eventually leave the Northwest to join Birmingham City before finishing his career as a player-manager for Sheffield United. Steve Bruce made 737 appearances across his impressive career, managing a return of 81 goals despite specialising as a centre back.
Unlike some managers, Steve Bruce did not give himself a grace period before donning a tracksuit. However, it would be a turbulent introduction to management as he would helm three clubs in three years. Of these jobs, his time at Crystal Palace, where he averaged a 61%-win ratio, is often perceived as the highlight. Following this period of relative employment instability, Steve Bruce found his footing at former club Birmingham City. While at Birmingham, he would manage the club through 270 fixtures, winning a round 100 games and taking them to the Premier League on two occasions. This success set him up for stints at the following clubs: Sunderland, Hull City, Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday. While he also won a tertiary promotion with Hull City during this period.
He would then take over at Newcastle United in 2019. While his conservative style of play and questionable decisions brought about heavy criticism from the Newcastle faithful, he succeeded in keeping the club in the Premier League. However, it came as little surprise that his job was in jeopardy once the takeover went through. As a result, Steve Bruce was removed from his position to be replaced by Eddie Howe.
Steve Bruce would remain unattached until 4th February 2022, when he agreed to an 18-month deal with the baggies. The former Newcastle manager has since led his side into three fixtures, but he is still searching for his first win.
Steve Bruce is an experienced manager in the mould of a traditional English coach. He could represent a safe pair of hands for the Baggies. The former Manchester United centre back would have preferred a transfer window to fix any issues within the squad. Still, he is used to working with what he has as such changes were a rare thing during his time at Newcastle United.
The physicality in the side will please the head coach, as will their defensive record to date, having only conceded 28 goals so far this season, on par with Fulham and joint second only to Bournemouth. However, there will be questions on whether he is the right man to fix their current attacking deficiencies. West Bromwich Albion is going through a prominent dry spell. In the lead up to Ismaël's sacking, the baggies were only able to net against Peterborough United, equating to 8.8% of their goalscoring return despite standing for 27.5% of their season to that point. The Albion need a drastic turnaround on this front, and many question whether Steve Bruce is the right man to bring about this change. His conservative managerial style hasn't blended well with getting the best out of a team's attacking options in the past.
This was most apparent during his time at Newcastle. A promising false 9 in Joelinton was left isolated as a target man. As a result, Joelinton would come in for criticism for his performances. However, under Eddie Howe, Joelinto was revitalised in a central midfield role that maximises the best of his false 9 abilities. Meanwhile, Miguel Almirón, a £21m investment from MLS side Atlanta, went from 21 goals and 21 assists in 62 matches to eight goals and three assists in 98 games. When evaluating this gap, we must calculate a drastic change in playing style and a hike in difficulty, but it remains less than impressive. To put this into starker numbers, Almirón went from a goal contribution every 122 minutes to one every 656.
However, an undeniable possibility is that Steve Bruce will return West Brom to the incredible defensive displays that had previously brought them in contention for automatic promotion. The solid and stubborn defence was vital to the team's early success. The club's best runs often came when the side didn't concede—frequently holding onto acceptable margins to put points on the board. Unsurprisingly, this was not the case during the poor run of form that resulted in Ismaël's sacking. In this period of 8 games, a 27.5% fraction of their season, they conceded nine goals. Ordinarily, this would be a brilliant run of defensive form. Still, in the fine margins that West Brom was operating at, it worsened their situation. In this stretch of games, they returned a 10% increase in goals conceded (they played 27.5% of the seasons' games to that point but conceded 37.5% of their goals during this same period). Which only worsened their situation during the dry scoring spell.
However, he has failed to fix either of these issues since his arrival, and it could arguably be getting worse. In the three games following his arrival, Steve Bruce's side has conceded four goals. To put this into a comparative figure, under Steve Bruce, West Brom have conceded 14% of their goals to date despite only being in charge for 9% of their games. Meanwhile, their barren goalscoring run persists, with the side failing to net in any of these fixtures. This presents two equally concerning possibilities. Firstly, it could be that the issues that have caused this downfall are more deep-set than initially envisioned. This may result in a longer period before improvements on the pitch, the scoreline, and the table. Secondly, that Steve Bruce is not the man to turn this situation around.
Everyone associated with West Brom will hope it is former and not the latter. They will not want this season to collapse into obscurity following a promising start to the season.
One To Watch: Alex Mowatt
Anyone who watched Barnsley last season understands the talent that Alex Mowatt possesses. The English central midfielder followed Valerian Ismaël to West Brom. It may not have worked out for his former manager, but Mowatt has continued to sparkle on this new platform.
Alex Mowatt started his career at Leeds United. During his time with the whites, he would make 125 appearances scoring 13 goals. However, he would initially find it difficult to settle at Barnsley following his £500,000 move. So, after just three months, he was moved on loan to Oxford United. He would impress during this season-long loan. After his second arrival at Oakwell, Alex Mowatt kicked on. He quickly became a vital first-team, making 149 appearances in four seasons and finding the net 19 times. Despite a desire to tie him down on a more permanent deal, Mowatt would move in the summer of 2021 for West Brom.
From a precursory view of Mowatt's career to date, it appears as though his goalscoring return is lacking. Conversely, this is due to how he plays and his role in the side. However, he is partial to an impressive finish which makes his goalscoring compilations a joy to watch. All the same, despite his limited goal return, Mowatt is third in West Brom's top goalscoring charts. His standing both highlights his unerring importance and the baggies' goalscoring concerns.
Despite his low goalscoring numbers, he is still someone that Boro should closely guard in and around the box as he averages 1.2 shots per game. Unfortunately, it would only take a momentary lapse in judgement of him to convert one of these attempts.
To understand his importance is first to understand his role. At Barnsley, Mowatt played a dictatorial role at the heart of the midfield. Still, fellow deep-sitting midfielder Jayson Molumby the more capable in this role, Mowatt, has been released from these shackles to return to a box-to-box role.
His limitations as a dictator of possession reflect in his average pass success rate of just 73%. Although this ratio is not the worst in the position in the league, it does present a considerable markdown from Jayson Molumby's 82% pass accuracy. Conversely, returning the most successful passes per game may allude to playing such a role. Still, it is far more reflective of his actual position on the side.
At West Brom, Alex Mowatt represents the energetic heart of West Brom's midfield. He is good with the ball. He draws opposition players towards him, disrupting the opposition's defensive structure and opening up space elsewhere. This is particularly impressive when paired with his press resistance, allowing him to occupy these defenders with comfortable confidence rarely seen in the Championship. However, in drawing players towards him, he frequently inadvertently closes his passing angles resulting in a lower pass success rate.
However, as a box-to-box midfielder starting in a deeper role, Mowatt ends up getting involved with play across the spectrum, as reflected in his heat map, this season. In addition, as an ever-present figure, Mowatt can put up more prolific passing numbers.
Furthermore, as a box-to-box midfielder who must occupy a deeper role, he must be competent defensively. That is no issue for Mowatt. He is an inspired presser of the ball and an individual who will risk the fine margins with slide tackles. He has won 4.6 duels per game with his 1.6 tackles and 1.4 interceptions, making up half of this return. Unsurprisingly, though, Mowatt has also seen red this season, and it would not come as a surprise if he did so again before the curtains close on the season.
Mowatt is almost a complete midfielder, and Middlesbrough will need to be wary of him.
Hot Prospect: Jayson Molumby
West Brom's experienced squad leaves few options for this category. Still, Molumby has managed to step into this highly competitive arena and thrive. While he is currently at the club temporarily, there is the opportunity to turn it into something more permanent at the end of the season.
A notable difference between his heat map and Alex Mowatt's shows that he is a deep player by trade. As a result, he has been instructed to play a more conservative role to cover for Mowatt and others while playing a pivotal role in rotating possession when needed.
His most substantial ability is his passing, as he has returned an 82% pass success rate so far this season. He balances these passes between the two halves, implying that he plays a deeper stationary role.
His defensive return has been solid. Molumby wins four duels per game despite his role isolating him from the sides press.
While he has been a respectable performer this season, it remains to be seen whether he has done enough to secure a long-term future at the baggies.
The extent of his abilities has also been called into question by the nature of this potential move. Brighton & Hove Albion pride themselves on seeding young talented players into the Premier League. At 22, Molumby was at the age where this progression should have occurred. Instead, they shifted him out on loan to yet another Championship club. This move asks whether Brighton sees him having a future beyond the second division at all. If this is the case, he does not pose a good option for a West Brom side that sees itself as a displaced Premier League team. Alternatively, with Yves Bissouma, Pascal Gross, Adam Lallana, Alexis Mac Allister, and Steven Alzate stacking up in a talented midfield, it could be that he wasn't going to be able to displace any of these players despite having the potential to be a Premier League talent. In this situation, a move was the best option for both parties.
However, only time will tell which of these possibilities represent the truth of the matter
This one is for those disappointed that I didn't nominate a defender considering their impressive defensive return. With this big combative physical unit, you know what you will get, but he remains an incredibly formidable opponent. Under his instruction, it is more than possible that West Brom will return to defensive solidity in the not-too-distant future.
One for the Boro fans. Adam Reach is a Middlesbrough academy graduate who established himself in the side before moving on to other things. He fits the physical perimeters of West Brom's side. Still, he has a technical ability that seems out of place for his measurements. So could the Boro fanboy return to the Riverside with a bang?
Prediction: Middlesbrough 2-0 West Brom Albion
West Brom will be desperate to turn around their torrid form, but we expect it to continue in the same vein as Boro bounce back from their defeat at the weekend.