Sunday, 11 May 2014

It Could have been Worse

Albion Fans rallying behind Pepe Mel 
The problem with this season was that it was almost "normal" for West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League. On the basis that the club has around the 15th largest wage bill in the Division and over time there is a very strong correlation between wage bill and league position then 15th is roughly the outcome one can expect. To achieve that a team will need to accrue around 42 points. The final outcome was below par by roughly 6 points or 2 wins across 38 games. If the players do not perform to their collective potential Albion will face a tough season and that is what has happened.  

We underperformed and that was always a possible outcome but the sense of crisis that has gathered around the club seems to be far greater than one poor season. Why? I think there are a number of reasons

Recent History

Albion over achieved by finishing 8th,10th and 11th in the preceding seasons and aside from the odd flirtation with the bottom half of the Division had not been under serious threat of relegation since Di-Mateo left the club in 2011. To be part of that battle for most of the season was a shock to all attached to the club.

The Season Before

The team's form over the second half of the season was pretty dire and from January to the close we picked up less than a point a game which is relegation form our 8th place finish put a better gloss on the situation than many of the performances merited.Whatever the distraction of the Odemwingie saga too many players form dropped off a cliff and the coach got into the habit if providing under performing players with excuses and grumbling about not having enough players in his squad.

The Summer of the Chelsea reject

Aside from the Chairman's PR gaff which I wrote about at the time (here) it was the summer where two new appointees  Director of Football Richard Garlick and Head of Recruitment Dave McDonough were responsible for the club's recruitment activity. It also seemed that the Head Coach also had an agenda which did not fit with the club's stated aim of having a squad of 22 Senior players supplemented by under 21's. The fact we ended the window with 25 Senior Pros suggests that Clarke won that battle.

For whatever reason the focus seemed to be on players with Premier League experience Anelka, Sessegnon Sinclair and Anichebe were bought in as were the experienced Amalfitno and Luganno. The only up and coming recruit was Vydra. The fact that Anelka and Sinclair were players that Clarke had worked with at Chelsea and we also pursued Kalou and Lukaku would suggest that the club was being pushed in a certain direction by their Head Coach. We also retained the veterans Reid and Gera and the journeyman left back Popov on loan.

In short we got it horribly wrong. The team had been built by careful scouting and research looking for gems who would regard joining the club as a step up or an opportunity. We had assiduously avoided buying players recycled from other Premier League outfits whose careers had plateaued and whose motivation was questionable. It latter transpired that some of the signings had been made despite negative scouting reports and Anelka was signed pretty much on his past glories and his training stats gleaned from Juve.

McDonough and Clarke steered us away from what had made us successful and Garlick either lacked the gumption or authority to challenge them. The squad had plenty of experience Morrison, Mulumbu, Brunt Foster, Reid, Gera, Olsson and Ridgewell all had more than a hundred games in the Premier League. The last thing the squad needed was more experience. It needed younger hungry players to add energy and push those players who had slacked off the previous season, in fact some of those players needed to be moved on.

What was required was a small tight knit group (22 plus under 21's) working to a clear tactical blueprint. What we got was a bloated squad with no clear tactical blueprint and a half a dozen new recruits who either had no clear role or replicated what we already had and increased the average age of the squad.

Ultimately the new arrivals failed to impress and some will go down as among the worst signings in the club's history and others were just a little bit too inconsistent or injury prone.

Clarke's Tactical cul-de-sac 

By the end of the window Clarke had assembled a lot of players but still had no clear idea how to deploy them. During pre season Clarke had played Rosenberg and Anelka as a front two in a 442 with some promise That combination never saw active service in a competitive game however we started with a 442 in the opening games and it was largely ineffectual not just because our marque signing Anelka came up short but because our midfield was ill equipped to deal with the demands of that system.

Clarke got it right one time, it all came together for ninety minutes at Old Trafford, deprived of Anelka Clarke reverted to 4-2-3-1. When the generally ineffectual Sinclair limped off and was replaced by the  live wire Berahino the team clicked Sessegnon playing just off the excellent Anichebe had one of his better games and Amalfitno looked nothing short of breath taking. The 2-1 win was a highlight that Albion fans needed to savour because it was all too fleeting. From that point on we seldom put together a whole 90 minutes of football that came close to that performance.

Sessegnon proved why he was labelled inconsistent by his former club's supporters.  Anichebe had more muscle strains than the human body has muscles. Amalfitno answered the the question "How could Marsaille let such a quality player out on loan?" by disappearing for large parts of games. Anelka returned which I think led to Long playing on the right wing at some point. By the time we got to Cardiff we were a tactical mess playing poorly and sliding down the table.

Clarke was sacked some might say harshly but there was very little backlash from the fans who had witnessed the rapid unravelling of a team that finished 8th the previous season. (see here)

The Men In Black

I think it is probably fair to say refereeing decisions did not even themselves out and there were games which to some degree turned on those decisions. The Ramires dive at Stamford Bridge was outrageous and deprived the team of a crucial 2 points. However too often Clarke would talk about a refereeing decision when had the players done their jobs the decision would never come into play or not had the impact that it did. Virtually in every game where we were on the wrong end of poor penalty decision we had spurned opportunities to score or made basic defensive errors in the lead up to the decision. In short too often a poor refereeing decision was used as an excuse and once coaches start blaming things beyond the players control it is a short step to players not taking responsibility for the things they can control.

The message is clear referees make mistakes, deal with it and don't use them as an excuse. One of the things I never want to see again is an Albion coach moaning about refereeing decisions Di-Matteo did it frequently prior to his demise and Clarke had got into the habit both of their teams were in a tailspin by the time they left.

Anelka he came, he saw, he saluted. 

I had more than a few reservations about Anelka's arrival but given his pre-season form I was warming to the idea by the time the season started against Southampton. However almost from the start it was very apparent that Anelka was not up to the high intensity football of the Premier League.The following week he suddenly retired prompted by the death of his friend Eric Manasse only to be talked round after a week of compassionate leave.  At the time I only felt sympathy for the grief stricken player but as events unfolded those who talked him into to staying did the club a terrible disservice.

In the run up to Christmas his form was indifferent and he was frequently sidelined with relatively minor injuries. He then popped up with 2 goals against West Ham but plunged the club into the maelstrom of the
'quenelle' goal celebration. Initially I was taken aback by the controversy that it generated as the gesture had no meaning on this side of the English Channel. However things took on an altogether darker tone when Anelka himself gave his actions the context of support for his friend  Dieudonn√© who is a rabid anti-Semite.

Following a lengthy FA investigation Anelka was found guilty of making an offensive gesture and one which plainly had anti-Semitic overtones. He was somewhat fortunate to be banned for five games given the independent commission's findings (here) and could have returned to the fold had he apologised and accepted a club fine. However Anelka chose to quit via twitter only to be sacked the day after for Gross Misconduct. It was a fitting end to an inglorious Albion career.

In summary Anelka played 12 times,scored twice walked out as often, was injured or suspended as frequently as he was available and poisoned the relationship between the club and it's major sponsor. All this for this at a cost of over £1 million. Thanks for absolutely nothing.

Mel to the Rescue

The standard football narrative is a struggling team sack the Head Coach who has lost the plot, appoint a new one who quickly galvanises the team and they live happily ever after or at least to the next sustained down swing in the team's form. This seemed to be the idea behind Albion's appointment of  Pepe Mel. However things did not run smoothly.

Firstly Mel is not a quick fix coach. He is has a style of play and a philosophy which did not necessarily fit the squad that he inherited. Secondly his takeover was delayed because of a difference of opinion about the number of coaches he could bring with him and the compromise took time to be thrashed out. Thirdly the players did not buy into what he was trying to do and finally he lost players to injury, suspension, sale and dismissal.

In terms of unwanted distractions Mel had to contend with the Dave McDonough sacking a post match bust up between Berahino and Morrison which has heavily reported in the press, not to mention the Anelka affair which rumbled on through the first two months of his tenure. It took time for the first win to arrive against Swansea and in the run up to it Mel was facing questions about his future. However throughout he remained positive and endeared himself to the fans with his dignity and charm.

The turning point was reached when we beat Norwich at the beginning of April which was followed up with a draw against Spurs and a precious win against West Ham which was enough to see Albion across the line.
No matter what happened on the pitch the questions over Mel's future wouldn't go away and at the time of writing his future seems to be hanging in the balance pending a meeting with the club's hierarchy.

I have no idea what has gone behind the scenes but the mood music emanating out the Hawthorns suggests that despite keeping the team in the Premier League Mel will be leaving. I find this turn of events perplexing but I suspect the fall out from the player mutiny and the McDonough dismissal might have lead  the board to question the wisdom of Mel's appointment. Personally I think that if the club embraces his style of high pressing football he will succeed and his impact could transform our prospects next season. However it is a risk and it does require the biggest overhaul of the playing squad since the summer of 2007 when we backed Mowbray and allowed him to break up a squad which like this one had grown complacent and barely cooperated with a newly appointed Head Coach.


The season from hell is over and after everything that could go wrong went wrong we still find ourselves in the Premier League . However be in no doubt we were lucky, we survived with a points total that would have often seen us relegated and we will have to improve if we are to extend our time in the top flight.

There are many big decisions to be made. Hopefully the club will chose to back Mel but regardless of the Head Coach the club must overhaul the squad too many players have under performed for too long and they cannot be allowed to get yet another Head Coach the sack.

Ultimately the only good thing that happened is that Albion weren't relegated that aside nobody walks away with any credit.

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