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Baggies eyeing big finish in bounce-back year – Interview
Monday, 18th Feb 2019 18:10 by Clive Whittingham

West Brom fan Matt Graham says the loss of Harvey Barnes in January and a defence that hasn’t matched up to the team’s attack means the Baggies will probably need to rely on the play-offs if they’re to get back to the Premier League.

How would you assess West Brom’s season so far?

It has certainly been an enjoyable and action packed one, and I think the current league position reflects the successes, and also the failings of the campaign at this stage.

I predicted play-offs at the start of the season and that is where we are. It must be remembered that after relegation the club was forced into a period of introspection, with an urgent need to unite the fan-base, plan accordingly for the challenges and rigours of the Championship, and to move away from the pragmatic Pulis-ball that had come to characterise our play. Against these factors, I think the Albion have done remarkably well to be challenging for promotion, because Stoke City and Swansea City offer a useful counterpoint to the struggles that relegation can bring to so-called ‘big cubs’. There have been some spectacular results and performances with the QPR (sorry to remind you all) and Leeds United wins springing immediately to mind. The forward line of Rodriguez, Gayle, Phillips and the now departed Barnes when on song have been formidable.

However, there have been so many missed opportunities too, and the inability to put some teams to the sword, consistently keep clean sheets, and ineffectual game management has certainly cost us dearly, epitomised by the draws against Brentford, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday. But, this has been the price for implementing a new expansive, possession based and attack minded style which the fans so badly wanted. The hope is that we’ll win more than we lose over the course of the season. If the defence in particular can cut out some of the crazy individual errors, as witnessed in the recent defeat to Middlesbrough then we’ll certainly maintain the momentum; in that regard the signs are looking positive as the team have now kept four consecutive away clean sheets. It was a disappointment to get knocked out of the FA Cup as it is an open competition this season offering a decent chance for progression, but again errors cost us late on against Brighton.

Overall, I think the best things about the season is that we’re seeing plenty of goals and excitement! Don’t underestimate the power of actually winning games after years of prolonged misery of simply surviving in the Premiership.

And the job Darren Moore is doing? Looks good but big resources for a Championship club...

All credit must go to Darren Moore who is learning quickly on the job in his first stint as a manager, ably backed by his friend and experienced assistant Graeme Jones, who joined the club fresh from Belgium’s World Cup adventures in the summer. After almost performing miracles at the end of last season, Moore definitely deserved the job, and I think he was the perfect person to heel a fractured club and disenchanted support base.
Moore has been willing to experiment and to evolve the side, which has seen more positives than negatives so far. For example, we started the season using 3-5-2 which resulted in varied outcomes, especially as most of our defenders aren’t ball players, but recognising the issues this created, he surprisingly reverted to 4-3-3 against Leeds United where we blitzed Bielsa’s side 4-1. Therefore against the underlying problems and expectations at West Brom, as well as his own inexperience, Moore has performed admirably.

Yet, there are some issues with Moore’s style and in game management. For a legendary no nonsense defender, Moore’s team has been weak defensively all season with some extremely odd tactical decisions. Moore is unwilling to make substitutions, not proactively anyway, which has meant that games we should really have won slipped away – the draw to Norwich was a perfect example of this. Furthermore, his love of Hal Robson-Kanu who admittedly works extremely hard for the team, is often baffling as he is an incredibly ordinary player despite his highlights reel of screamers.

Although the club’s resources are much bigger than most in the division, I think this masks the reality somewhat. Yes, on paper the first XI is one of the best in the division, with some massive wage earners on the books, but the squad itself isn’t brilliant. The hierarchy have decided that loans rather than permanent signings are the way forward depending on where we’re at next season, which I agree is prudent, but these weakness were apparent in the results when squad rotation was need over Christmas. There have been some critics arguing that given the resources available to him (for example three former England internationals in the squad) that we should be steam-rollering the league. Yes, we could be doing better, but such naïve and over-optimistic perspectives of where the club should be at diminish just how well Moore has done in his first managerial position. You only have to look at the recent examples of Sunderland, Stoke, and Swansea to appreciate how delusion and ideas of grandeur can go very badly wrong in the Championship.

Harvey Barnes was unbelievable for you before Christmas, how keenly will his departure be felt? Potentially fatal to the promotion bid?

Harvey Barnes was phenomenal. The Albion it appears were quite lucky to get him after hijacking his move to Leeds at the last minute, but what a signing he turned out to be. Barnes, despite only being at the club for a matter of months is the sort of player that fans will be talking about in years to come. He is a young winger who as soon as he received the ball was always looking to make something happen, with an excellent turn of pace and the skills to match his burgeoning reputation. After his first few games there were nagging doubts about whether we’d actually keep him for the season. Check out his goal against Sheffield Wednesday to get a sense of how good he can be. Unfortunately his recall is a massive blow. Barnes contributed nine goals and six assists which is testament to his importance, and also the counter-attacking style we’d adopted. He has been replaced by Jacob Murphy from Newcastle who is a good player, but nowhere near what Barnes had to offer. So yes, I do think it is a huge loss, and you can see the results and the score-lines have been affected somewhat since his departure. However, one player doesn’t make a team, so I’m hoping it’ll not impact the rest of the season too much…

What do you make of Dwight Gayle‘ two match ban and how will you cover it?

It was an obvious dive, wasn’t it? I guess for Forest fans it is even worse as Gayle won the penalty and we salvaged a valuable point from cheating. In that regards it is probably fair to get suspended. My only concern is the consistency taken by the FA. Players up and down the country are simulating injuries, trying to get opponents cautioned, or making heinous challenges and nothing gets done. If retrospective action is now going to become more common, then more suspensions for high-profile acts will have to be taken. However, this opens up a potentially contentious debate on what constitutes diving or foul play… Gayle will in all likelihood be replaced by Robson-Kanu who has made quite a few appearances this season when either Gayle or Rodriguez are missing. Plus he is fresh from a goal at Villa Park, so I’m sure his confidence will up.

Stand out players and weak links in the side?

With Gayle and Phillips out, and Barnes now departed, the key players for the QPR game, in my opinion will be Rodriguez, Barry, Hegazi, and Harper. I’m sure many people will be surprised to hear that Gareth Barry, who is almost 38 and was nearly banished from the club after taxigate last year, is an integral cog to our team’s play. However, he is assured on the ball, connects defence and attack neatly, and offers a calming influence on the midfield. Alongside academy graduate Rakeem Harper, who has burst on to the scene this season and been superb as a box-to-box midfielder, the combination of experience and youth has worked well. Upfront Rodriguez has been brilliant not only in terms of work ethic and commitment, but also his goals. He has 17 so far, and has the ability and quality to score different types which is a useful compliment to Gayle’s approach. I think a special mention must go to Ahmed Hegazi who is a rock in our defence, and is a notable absence when unavailable. Other good players have been the full backs Gibbs and Holgate who are quick and decent crossers.
The weakest link is our goalkeeper Sam Johnstone. He arrived in the summer with a fantastic reputation and to be fair has made some incredible saves this season. I know you shouldn’t compare him to other players, but our previous keeper Ben Foster was superb, and Johnstone hasn’t quite stepped up to fill the position, often looking jittery. For example he very rarely comes for crosses which puts the defence under unnecessary pressure (although it helps when you have Hegazi and Dawson heading everything) and his distribution, particularly with the ball at his feet isn’t great.

How do you see the rest of the season going? Will you do it and what are the consequences if you don’t?

I am still hoping for promotion, but I’m more or less resigned to the fact that it’ll be through the playoffs as I’d first predicted. The form of Norwich, Sheffield United and Leeds is good, and it’ll mean we need to start converting draws into wins if we are going to sneak into the automatic places. The great thing is that the Albion aren’t far behind and are still in the running. However, from previous bitter experiences the playoffs are a lottery, and I’m not sure I want to go through the agony of losing at Wembley again.

Whatever happens this season, the summer will see an enormous amount of change at the club. The current squad is nowhere near good enough for the Premier League, and the current gaps plugged by loan and short-term signings, would consequently require a quite dramatic upgrade and overhaul at some considerable expense if we do go up, which isn’t traditionally the Albion way though.

If West Brom don’t get promoted, then several things will happen. First, the reduced parachute payments and the lack of a rich benefactor will mean the team will almost certainly be broken up. I can’t see players such as Rodriguez, Livermore, Gibbs, Dawson or Hegazi sticking around for another season in the Championship; in reality we were lucky to keep them in the first place. Other older stalwarts and great servants such as Brunt, Barry and Morrison will almost certainly be seen as surplus to requirements too. Secondly, the wage-bill will need to be reduced which will make it harder to retain or attract players to the club. Thirdly, the question will be how to replace a huge number of players and integrate them into an effective squad, which will be a test of Moore’s managerial abilities. One potential bonus is that the crop of excellent young academy players will almost certainly get much more game time. Sam Field and Rakeem Harper have begun to play more as this season progresses, and in the FA Cup we saw glimpses of the quality we have in the likes of Kyle Edwards, Rayhaan Tulloch and Morgan Rogers.

Therefore the end of the season will be one of flux and enormous decisions to be taken by the club hierarchy, influenced keenly by the division we end up in, which will have major ramifications for the future of West Brom.

The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @SAhistoryMatt

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Myke added 10:44 - Feb 19
Completely superficial to a very articulate and thoughtful piece by Matt, but do the four guys wearing Moore masks all have identical real hair?
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Northernr added 13:43 - Feb 19
One would assume/hope they've gone for a wig/mask combo.
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TacticalR added 15:56 - Feb 19
Thanks to Matt.

West Brom might not be in the automatic promotion spots, but given the trials and tribulations of the other demoted sides, their form looks all the more impressive.
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