Premier League 2020-21 preview No 18: West Bromwich Albion

Premier League 2020-21 preview No 18: West Bromwich Albion

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 20th (NB: this is not necessarily Ben Fisher’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 2nd in the Championship

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,000-1

West Brom wilted under the pressure of the final nine games of last season, failing to win their last four matches before limping over the line. They had the tools to compete in the Championship but adjusting to the top flight is an unenviable task for a team immediately dwarfed by the resources of Premier League rivals.

They have had to slog it out in search of reinforcements and should take encouragement from prising Grady Diangana from West Ham but aside from him and Matheus Pereira – both are capable of getting supporters off their seats or, indeed, sofas – they grew a little predictable last season as sides stifled them at one end and exposed them at the other.

Slavan Bilic has been here before and knows West Brom need to improve in both boxes to have any chance of staying up. They became too easy to hurt and goals were suddenly at a premium when promotion hung in the balance. When it came to the crunch on the final day his decision to shake things up in attack paid off, with the loanee Callum Robinson preferred to Hal Robson-Kanu and Charlie Austin as the lone striker in the preferred 4-2-3-1 system.

Robinson hassled and harried and got on the scoresheet after giving chase to anything and everything but his inclusion at the expense of the club’s joint-leading goalscorers in the biggest game of the season was hardly the most glowing indictment of Albion’s attacking options. Austin, who struggled with fitness and form, hit double figures despite starting 18 matches, Robson-Kanu failed to score after the restart and Kenneth Zohore, signed last year, managed three goals in 659 underwhelming minutes.

Interest in the strikers Troy Deeney, Ollie Watkins and Karlan Grant, who played in the top flight for Huddersfield, is understandable but none will come cheap and Watkins has joined Aston Villa for £28m. Given West Brom are willing to spend about £20m in this window, they are keen to ensure a modest budget by Premier League standards stretches to address several areas.

How they finished

They have signed familiar faces in Pereira, who excelled on loan from Sporting Lisbon last season, and Robinson, who was on loan from Sheffield United and has joined in a swap deal involving Oliver Burke, who has not settled since a £15m move three years ago. West Brom are keen for Filip Krovinovic to follow suit in making his temporary stay from Benfica permanent.

West Brom know they cannot have it all. Beefing up a defence that failed to cover itself in glory towards the end of last season was a priority and the arrival of Cédric Kipré, a commanding centre-back from Wigan, supplements Bilic’s options. He chopped and changed without much joy. Ahmed Hegazi – one of three players, with Kieran Gibbs and the captain, Jake Livermore, who remain from the team that started their last Premier League game – is uncompromising and erratic but finding an upgrade proved easier said than done.

The Brighton defender Shane Duffy opted for a move to Celtic and Semi Ajayi, who impressed after joining from Rotherham, is yet to be tested in the top flight. The departures of Chris Brunt, who has joined Bristol City, and Gareth Barry have lowered the average age but they are now light on experience and left-back is a problem area because of Gibbs’s injury troubles.

West Brom still need additions but perhaps the most exciting players are on their doorstep. A first-team place may not be on the horizon this season but after watching the teenagers Louie Barry and Morgan Rogers turn out for Aston Villa (via Barcelona) and Manchester City respectively, a new wave of youngsters such as Rico Richards and Rayhaan Tulloch, who may well spend the season on loan, have committed their futures to the club.

It is estimated promotion cost West Brom £40m by the time bonuses, transfer fees, the absence of matchday revenue and the ongoing bite of the coronavirus crisis were accounted for. For a club that is a small fish in a big pond once more, closing the gap between the Championship and the top tier looks set to prove an even bigger squeeze.

Quick guide

West Brom’s history in 100 words

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One of 12 founding members of the Football League, they are five-times FA Cup winners and blazed a trail for black players but are now best recognised as the ultimate yo-yo club. They have always had a volatile relationship with the Premier League, flitting between the top flight and the Championship since the turn of the millennium, bouncing up and down seven times in nine years. Relegated to the second tier two years ago despite Darren Moore almost keeping them afloat, they bounced back this year under Slaven Bilic, in his first season at the club.

Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

The manager

On the touchline If Bilic isn’t suffering on his haunches or slapping his thighs in anger, then something probably isn’t right. The Croat lives and breathes the game and kicks every ball, keeping fourth officials on their toes.

On Zoom Sometimes croaky, occasionally muffled, always charismatic. Bilic is bright, philosophical and a deep thinker. He dabbled in mind games at the end of last season, conceding West Brom were resigned to the play-offs before clinching automatic promotion.

Slaven Bilic strays on to the pitch during West Brom’s final game of last season.

The key

If Pereira can translate his Championship form – eight goals and a league-high 16 assists – into the Premier League then the Brazilian will be sweeping defenders off their feet. Pereira is not the most durable talent but can conjure something out of nothing.

The owners

Guochuan Lai, a Chinese billionaire based in Guangzhou who bought the club for £200m, has financed West Brom without splashing the cash. The construction entrepreneur recently appointed Xu Ke – a longstanding business associate who goes by the name of Ken – as chief executive after Mark Jenkins’s departure. Luke Dowling, the sporting director, oversees player recruitment.

Young blood

The Baggies have high hopes for midfielder ichards. The 16-year-old – whose performances for the Under-23s last season led to him training with the first team – joined aged seven. Tulloch, a 19-year-old winger set for a loan to League One, is also highly regarded.

New blood

Mark Noble’s ire at Diangana’s departure from West Ham explains why West Brom should feel smug about landing the graceful winger on a five-year contract after completing an £18m deal. West Brom made three signings in 24 hours last week, but they still want more.

Cédric Kipré in action for Wigan last season against West Brom, who have signed him.

Kit story

In the early years, after forming as West Bromwich Strollers in 1878, they experimented with a variety of designs and colours before settling on the now-familiar navy-and-white stripes. Their green and yellow away kit is a nod to the 70s and early 80s.

Notes from an empty stadium

A pre-match montage of motivational messages from fans from California to Kings Heath gets the pulse racing but July’s striking matchday programme paying tribute to NHS and key workers, with artwork courtesy of illustrator Liam Harris, was a beautiful touch.

Euros vision

If Zohore can find his goalscoring boots, the forward could force his way into the Denmark squad but given he recorded three goals in 17 appearances last season, it seems unlikely. He could depart – Middlesbrough are keen – after struggling to impress following an £8m move from Cardiff.