After two years in the Coca-Cola Championship, West Brom returns to the top flight of English soccer as the team best primed to make a run at survival amongst their fellow promotees. Tony Mowbray’s club made a surprising appearance in the FA Cup semi-finals last year before being knocked out by Portsmouth, the eventual winner of the competition.
The Baggies have shown that they’re going all-in towards staying in the Premiership, spending a combined $27.6 million on players so far this summer already. That sum has been offset considerably by the $18-20 million sale of Curtis Davies to bitter rival Aston Villa, but the fact that Mowbray and club chairman Jeremy Peace, who had been willing to sell his shares in the club to potential new investors not long ago, are aggresively pursuing extra reinforcements for the ’08-’09 campaign is a very good sign.
WBA has won one, count ’em, one, Premiership/First Division title in their long history, and that was way back in 1919-1920. While this team clearly isn’t in a position to make a title challenge any time soon, the fans are hungry for success at the highest level. To try and bring about that success, Mowbray has added some nice pieces to the squad that finished atop the Championship with 81 points last year.
After a terrific season in between the sticks at UEFA Cup participants Aston Villa on loan from Liverpool, Scott Carson has moved permanently to The Hawthorns and will take the starting job from Dean Kiely. Marek Cech played in the Champions League for FC Porto last year and can play as an attack-minded left back or at left midfield; either way, the Slovakian international is a sure starter for the Baggies. The club hopes right back Gianni Zuiverloon’s impressive U-21 record for Holland — he was named to the UEFA Team of the Tournament in the 2007 Under-21 European Championship and has made 17 appearances at that level — will carry over to the Premiership. Luke Moore also came over from Aston Villa, and the striker has plenty of pace to burn.
West Brom did, however, lose two important players from last year’s roster and a valuable extra piece. Despite missing six weeks with a knee injury, the well-traveled Kevin Phillips scored 22 goals in 35 league games (29 starts), good for a tie for second-most in the Championship, and was the club’s Player of the Year as well as a part of the PFA Championship Team of the Year. He turned down a 1-year contract offer from WBA with an added year kicked in automatically if he appeared in 19 league fixtures to join Birmingham City for two years guaranteed.
Zoltán Gera played in 43 league games (33 starts) and contributed 8 goals and 7 assists from his attacking midfield position, but the Hungarian international also turned down a contract offer and instead joined Fulham on a free transfer.
Martin Albrechtsen can play anywhere in the back four; he probably isn’t good enough to be a regular starter but his versatility allowed him to start 28 games last season. He left for Derby on a free transfer as he, too, couldn’t agree to a new deal with West Brom.
Tony Mowbray’s team played the “best soccer” in the Championship; his attacking, free-flowing, passing style was a change from the usual “hoof and chase” kickball mentality that has become famous in England’s lower levels and with the national team, at least to a certain extent. It seems unlikely that West Brom will be able to continue playing that way against the big boys and be successful — West Brom overmatched Championship teams, but they don’t have the talent and quality to go toe-to-toe with many Premiership sides.
With the losses of Gera and Phillips, Tony Mowbray’s strongest asset now becomes his defense with than his front line. Zuiverloon (right) and Cech (left) have the inside tracks to occupy the full-back positions, although Paul Robinson, who joined Phillips and club captain Jonathan Greening on that PFA Team of the Year, will give Cech some competition and Carl Hoefkins will do the same for Zuiverloon after the two incumbents both started over 40 games a season ago. Leon Barnett is a good young center back at 22 years of age, and Neil Clement could partner him in the heart of the back line. Robinson can also play center back if necessary, so look for him to get his share of games there alongside Barnett as well.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
RMF: James Morrison
CMF: Jonathan Greening (captain)
AMF: Robert Koren
LMF: Kim Do-Heon
ST: Ishmael Miller
ST: Roman Bednár
*Zuiverloon will miss the start of the season as he’s part of Holland’s Olympic squad, but should start when he comes back unless Hoefkins fills in brilliantly.
After opening up at Arsenal, WBA doesn’t see another “Big Four” team until October 18, when they visit Old Trafford and the two-time defending league champions. Also in October, though, they have three winnable games — Fulham, Hull City, and @ Newcastle. Back-to-back games against Liverpool (away) and Chelsea (home) come in the middle of November, followed by consecutive road games at Stoke City and Wigan.
The Baggies could either be doomed for relegation or saved from the drop in their final five-match stretch, which sees them hosting Sunderland, Wigan, and Liverpool, and making trips to Tottenham and Blackburn. That run-in isn’t terribly difficult, but unless they take points from four of those games, winning at least two in the process, Tony Mowbray’s club may be destined for a return to the Championship.
Bottom Line: West Brom can be exposed on the wings, particularly their left side, and their starting center backs aren’t tall enough to win aerial challenges with or hold off big, strong center forwards like John Carew, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kenwyne Jones, Didier Drogba, Dimitar Berbatov, Roque Santa Cruz, Dean Ashton, and others. Their attacking style leaves them susceptible to being caught-out, and in the Premier League, one defensive lapse and the ball is in the back of the net. They’re better than Hull City and Stoke City, but I don’t think they’re better over the long haul than teams like Fulham, Bolton, and Sunderland. It’ll be close, but the Baggies are going down.