Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Global Search

Gardner the first of many?
This is going to be a busy summer at West Bromwich Albion. While the World Cup is unfolding in Brazil the club's recruitment team will be burning the midnight oil to find anything up to 10 players to supplement a squad much depleted by players contracts expiring or in the case of those on loan not taking up the option of permanent moves.
One could argue the merits of some of those decisions but on the back of a poor run of form stretching to the back end of 2012/13 few fans could argue that the squad needed to be overhauled. The question is can the club get the right players in and can the new Head coach get them to gel into an effective unit?

I wrote a this last summer (Full entry) in part because I thought that the club were pretty smart operators in the market but they abandoned what was a winning strategy under the wholly malevolent influence of Clarke and McDonough. The winning strategy had been built on seven principles six out of seven were broken last summer

1. Build a team - The club had a bloated squad of 25 Senior Pro's trumpeted as the biggest and best squad in the Premier League era but no effective first 11.
2. Research Research Research We had scouted Lugano we had concluded he was not right for the Premier League and McDonough ignored the scouting reports
3. The Wisdom of Crowds Clarke and McDonough drove the agenda and marginalised the opinions of the scouts
4. Multiple Targets We got mired in the protracted pursuit of Kalou and when it fell through it was very evident there was no plan B.
5. Target Players on the Up Escalator Only Vydra from last summer's recruits could have been described as up and coming the rest were recruited from backgrounds which suggested plying their trade at the Hawthorns was a bit of a come down.
6. Plan for Failure Possibly the only thing we got right given the structure of the contracts we were able to get rid of Anelka Sinclair and Lugano who were possibly three of the worst signings in the club's history
7. Never Shop at Harrods Last summer we did try to shop at Harrods but with an Aldi budget it didn't work.

Back to Basics

The dismissal of McDonough and Clarke and the hiring of Terry Burton to oversee recruitment marks a return to the principles that underpinned the club's success in the market. From Burton's comments in the a recent interview in the B'ham Mail it is apparent the squad will be slimmed down and there will be a greater emphasis on developing our younger players. This window there will be focus on quality rather than quantity which should be music to every Albion fan's ears.

Back to his Midland root Lescott signs

To date we have picked up two players on "free transfers" from other Premier League clubs in Lescott and Gardner. Both add something to the squad Lescott is a hugely experienced defender and Gardner is a midfield all rounder that we have needed for a couple of seasons. My only concern is about their motivation as a move to the Hawthorns does not represent a step up for either player and I hope both are consummate professionals in the Scharner mould rather than egotistical has been that was Anelka.

As ever we have been linked with a myriad of players Cresswell, Snodgrass, Robertson Hibbert, Rodwell and Riviere amongst others. How real the club's interest in any or all of these players is hard to tell. Given the absence of any full backs in the squad obviously we are in the market for full backs and probably another striker but after that a lot depends on how Alan Irvine wants to set up his team (see point 1 above).

Letting players go that don't fit or are on the fringes of the squad is very much part and parcel of managing the club's playing resources and moving on senior pro's who are not part of the first XI is vital to clearing a pathway for younger players. Two of Albion's most promising younger players have handed in transfer requests both Dawson and Thorne have grown frustrated at the lack of first team opportunities. Whether either merit starting places is debatable but their frustration is understandable and not helped by the fact that the squad got bloated last year. During the first half of the season there was always at least 5 senior players not getting into the match day squad, in that environment it is difficult for youngsters to see a way into the first team.

If any of our existing senior pro's do not fit into Irvine's plans they need to be moved on there is no point in retaining players as third choice in their favoured position nor trying to fit square pegs into round holes or keeping a player because he might be useful on the off chance the coach might want to depart from their stock formation.

On this basis I would be surprised if all the existing squad make it through the window.

Harrods is Closed

There is no value in the Premier League transfers that involve a fee. I think the £8m deals for Snodgrass and Livermore prove that beyond reasonable doubt, there might be an exception but I am hard pressed to remember it across the last few windows. Equally the World Cup is an awful shop window I absolutely guarantee that a player will be snapped up by a European Club on the basis of a few good games in Brazil and completely flop. Gonzalo Jara is having a good World Cup he was released by West Brom and Nottingham Forest for a reason,I rest my case.

If not Harrods where? The answer is the continent unless a team is in the Champions League Albion can pay better wages than most of the continental clubs with the exception of some of the Russian and Turkish teams. There is talent in abundance at reasonable prices in Holland Germany, Belgium, Spain, France and Italy not to mention the lesser leagues. The smaller clubs in these markets along with the Championship have to sell to balance their books and as such they are more likely to accept a reasonable offer i.e. they cannot get through a window without selling. The key is to avoid a multi-way bidding war for high profile talent like Bony under these circumstances the price is much more likely to be akin to a Premier League transaction, that is to say devoid of value and loaded with downside risk.

I don't think the club will be repeating the mistakes of last summer, however as ever I think the fans who crave high profile signings with the big fees will be disappointed. Unless they are a very dedicated follower of every European league many of Albion's potential signings will need to be Googled by fans to get a some idea of who we have been linked with. Equally until the window closes at the end of August will we have the full picture of what the squad will look like. I will venture it will be better balanced and smaller than last year's but aside from that I would not try to second guess it's composition. 

I think we might sign a full back or two

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Have a Little Faith

The appointment of Alan Irvine as the Albion's new Coach has not been greeted with universal approval. I have to admit to having my reservations but I could pretty much say that of any candidate.

Personally I am a coaching agnostic I don't believe the hype surrounding coaches good or bad. There is no coach on this Earth who could transform Albion's prospects either way the club's position in football's hierarchy is determined by it's resources and in the short term those are fixed irrespective of who the coach is.Of course the Head Coach has influence on the outcomes he has to organise the players and get the most out of individually and collectively.

However any competent Coach could do that and past reputation is no indication that any new appointee will be able to achieve this in the particular circumstances that present themselves at the Hawthorns. In that context I cannot hand on heart say Irvine "terrible" Sherwood "wonderful" at best I might say I think Sherwood is better than Irvine but I  have no first hand knowledge on which to base that judgement so I am as likely to be wrong as right. It's a coin flip.

I don't know if  Irvine will be a success, nobody does and forecasting imminent disaster on the basis of his appointment is almost as silly as attributing flooding to God's reaction to gay marriage. Obviously his previous forays into management have not ended well. All coaches fail at some point in their career and that failure is almost inevitable given that most clubs do not have the resources to meet their fans and some owners aspirations. Only a handful of coaches are fortunate enough to work for clubs where that is the case and even there longevity is the exception rather than the rule. The reality at Preston and Sheffield Wednesday was that both clubs were in situations where relegation to Division One was always a possibility, but in neither case would fans nor owners accept that and the Head Coach was duly sacrificed to the Gods to make things better, which in Preston's case has not worked and it has only been a partial success at Wednesday where relegation to League One is still more likely than promotion.

Obviously from the preceding paragraph I do not share the sense of moral outrage that many Baggies seem to have concerning Irvine's appointment I know I am in the minority and will not be rushing to join any demonstration (views on the ownership here)  nor try to get my season ticket refunded. However the danger is that the fan reaction to the appointment is so toxic that the doom and gloom envelopes the club and the negativity alone scuppers the season before it has even started. It is arguable that the McLeish appointment had a such an impact on Villa and they have struggled ever since. I doubt it is an outcome that most fans want but some seem hell bent on it because the club has had temerity to appoint a Head Coach they don't approve of.

The challenge ahead of the new Head Coach is difficult enough without the chorus of fan hostility, Irvine has three priorities before a ball is kicked in anger in August

1. Tactics 
It might seem a statement of the bleeding obvious but the coach needs to settle on a tactical format that fits the players at the club and drill them Hodgson style until they know their jobs inside out. According to players who have played under him he is going to be meticulous in his approach and his sides will be very well organised. Judging by his previous clubs he favours a 4-4-1-1 and given his long association with Moyes I think it is safe to say whilst not being an exponent of the long ball game in the way Allardyce is he will be a pragmatist rather than a coach who values beauty over results.

2. Discipline 
The new Coach needs to get a grip on the dressing room from day one. There has been a gradual decline in our discipline both on and off the pitch. Irvine  needs to demand a minimum level of professionalism from his new charges and if that is not forthcoming the club need to back him by shipping out the bad apples regardless of their reputations or past performances.

3. Players
Albion let 10 players go at the end of the season and there is no guarantee that even the players remaining will be retained. George Thorne has put in a transfer request and others have been linked with moves away and equally not all of the current squad might have a role in Irvine's team. All of which points to a busy summer at the club and while Irvine does not have sole responsibility for player recruitment but he does set the tactical blueprint which underpins the club's transfer activity. I think it was Clarke's lack of tactical clarity which sowed the seeds for last season's debacle. Ultimately Irvine will need to bed in at least 8 new recruits and no one should under estimate this challenge.

Aside from Moyes perhaps no candidate would have been greeted with universal acclaim and I don't know who is the more deluded, the Albion fans who thought he was a realistic target or Moyes himself thinking he is going to get another a shot at Champions League football in the short term. However whatever other candidates were spoken to or considered Albion have appointed Alan Irvine. Fans may grumble or harp on about what might have been that is irrelevant.

I suspect many of our Monday morning quarterbacks will be sitting on their sofas waiting for him to fail so they have the dubious pleasure of saying "I told you so" to my mind that is a pointless and self defeating mind set. Alan Irvine is our new Head Coach embrace the fact hope for the best and see what happens.