QPR connection fuelling Bilic's bright Baggies' start - Interview
Wednesday, 25th Sep 2019 21:07 by Clive Whittingham
Yet to lose a game, or keep a clean sheet, it's been a raucous start to Slaven Bilic's reign at West Bromwich Albion, with three former QPR favourites to the fore in the early games. Our regular Baggies man Matt Graham gives us the latest.
How would you assess your start to the season?
The Baggies have started the season very effectively and, as the only unbeaten team in the Championship at this moment, it can definitely be categorised as a strong start to the new campaign. To begin any season undefeated is a fantastic achievement, and for the Albion a great way to build momentum and positivity after the disappointment of the previous year.
Going forward the team has, at times, looked formidable, replicating some of the attacking characteristics and flair we demonstrated at times under former head coach Darren Moore last season. In Diangana, Phillips, Pereira, and Edwards, the team has four superb wingers, who are bundles of energy, creativity and goals. There are many encouraging signs around the club about our current direction following the summer clear-out and subsequent rebuild, as well as the exciting attacking style of play that Slaven Bilic has instilled.
Yet, despite the fantastic start and the fact West Brom are sitting fourth in the league, the headline results perhaps obscure some very real concerns in the long-term. In all but one game this season, the team has conceded the first goal, and subsequently had to fight back to get a result. While this demonstrates a great determination and spirit from the squad to recover in each game, this is not sustainable over the duration of a Championship season. West Brom have failed to keep a clean sheet yet which means we have had to rely on outscoring the opposition. However, at the moment, our goals are mainly coming from midfield, as our forward line of Austin and Zahore haven’t really started firing.
In my preview for LoftForWords before last season’s second meeting with QPR, I mentioned that under Darren Moore the team were making needless and crazy individual errors at the back that led to them conceding lots of goals - the exact same thing has happened again this season. The defence are obviously being instructed to play it out from the back to build possession-based attacks, but Kyle Bartley in particular, is not a ball playing defender. Any remnants of Pulis-ball have also long gone because the team have been very poor against set pieces. Some of the goals conceded so far, particularly against Huddersfield Town, Luton Town, and Blackburn Rovers have been laughable, with defenders essentially passing to opposition players, and simply inviting them to score.
The start therefore has been good, the performances have shown resilience and there is an attractive style of play, albeit with some major caveats about the quality of our defending. After eight games I am definitely not getting carried away because there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Slaven Bilic, left field choice but looking good so far? What’s he changed from last season?
I think a lot of West Brom supporters were excited about appointing Bilic based upon his high-profile successes with Croatia and West Ham, the style of football he demands with quick transitions and fast attacking options, and that he seems like a no nonsense manager who regularly and honestly speaks his mind. On the touch line he is clearly very passionate – this does sometimes go too far, as he has already been sent off this season... I commented when he was announced as head coach that it would either be amazing or a car crash appointment, but it definitely not be boring. Bilic quickly endeared himself to the fan base with the right statements about where he sees Albion’s quality and the ambitions for the club, but it was neatly encapsulated when in an interview he said “I’m the manager of WBA and, hey, it’s bloody great! It’s a fucking privilege!”
The main change this season is the injection of youth and pace into the team. Last season our team was filled with very good footballers, most of Premier League quality, but also many in their 30s who were pretty slow. The rebuild has seen an emphasis on youth products such as Nathan Ferguson and Kyle Edwards, and the acquisition of players who are fast and in their young-to-mid 20s, which has provided us with plenty of energy that we sorely lacked last season. Importantly, Bilic’s in-game management has been excellent so far. Moore was a very cautious coach, and often didn’t make changes until it was too late, whereas Bilic is very pro-active in his tactics and substitutions, unafraid to make big choices early on. For example, last Sunday against Huddersfield he took off Croatian playmaker Filip Krovinović at halftime, and replaced him with speed merchant and assist maker Diangana which totally changed the tactical setup, and ultimately the course of the game.
Big QPR connection running through your side now, how’s Darnell Furlong done so far? Looked good on Sunday!
I know that QPR fans were furious about losing Darnell Furlong, and from the early performances so far I can see why. He has been a great addition to the squad, and it is nice to finally have a specialist right back in place, rather than an immobile centre back filling in there. Furlong has been good going forward, offering another creative outlet – his cheeky nutmeg in the build up to the first Albion goal against Huddersfield was a great example of his quality on the ball. And it was brilliant to see him get a well-deserved goal too. In defence, he has been assured, although he hasn’t helped shore things up at the back quite yet.
Ins: Kenneth Zohore, 25, CF, Cardiff, £8m >>> Charlie Austin, 30, CF, Southampton, £3.8m >>> Romaine Sawyers, 27, AM, £2.8m >>> Darnell Furlong, 23 CB/RB, QPR, £2m >>> Semi Ajayi, 25, CB, Rotherham, £1.5m >>> Filip Krovinovic, 23, AM, Benfica, Loan >>> Grady Diangana, 21, RW, West Ham, Loan >>> Matheus Pereira, 23, RW, Sporting, Loan >>> Chris Willock, 21, LW, Benfica, Loan
Outs: Salomon Rondon, 29, CF, Yifang (China), £16.8m >>> Craig Dawson, 29, CB, Watford, £5.4m >>> Jay Rodriguez, 29, CF, Burnley, £5m >>> Allan Nyom, 31, RB, Getafe, £2.8m >>> Kyle Howkins, 23, CB, Newport, Free >>> Alex Palmer, 22, GK, Plymouth, Loan >>> Sam Field, 21, CM, Charlton, Loan >>> Oli Burke, 22, RW, Alaves, Loan >>> Jonathan Leko, 20, RW, Charlton, Loan >>> Gareth Barry, 38, CM, Released >>> Tyrone Mears, 37, RB, Released >>> Bo Myhill, 36, GK, Retired >>> Wes Hoolahan, 37, AM, Newcastle (Australia), Free >>> James Morrison, 33, CM, Released
Everyone was so excited on deadline day when the Albion signed Charlie Austin. Looking at his past goal scoring record, especially at Championship level, it pointed to a great signing that would help in part replace the goals lost from the departures of Rodriguez and Gayle. However, it was common knowledge when he signed that he’d hardly played over the last year, and his fitness levels are some way behind the required standard; Austin is though slowly getting fitter and sharper in each game. That said he hasn’t been the goal machine we’d all expected and certainly require – he has only had a few genuine goal scoring chances, although Austin has neatly brought others into play instead (see the assist for Phillips first on Sunday). Yet, in our current 451 formation Austin has looked a bit isolated at times. This Albion side is awash with creativity from the wings and midfield, we just need Austin to really start taking his chances and we’ll be flying.
Stand out players and weak links in the side?
The attacking midfielders / wingers in this team are really good, but the most exciting are Pereira and Diangana who are both able to take on and beat a defender, provide plenty of crosses and through balls, as well as chip in with goals. When these two click, the Albion forward line has looked irresistible. Behind them Sawyers has been a canny and massively undervalued signing from Brentford, who helps knit together the defence and attack, by operating in a ‘quarterback’ role and dictating the play in the centre of the field. An honourable mention to our fullbacks, of whom Ferguson, the young academy product has been outstanding, cementing his role in the team with some assured and extremely strong performances – on his debut at Forest he was also man of the match. He hasn’t looked back since.
The defence is clearly a weak link given our propensity to concede cheap and unavoidable goals. Our keeper Johnstone is a fine shot stopper, but his distribution and decision making has at times been awful over the last two seasons. A segment of the support base started giving him a lot of abuse, which prompted him to call them out publicly on Twitter, which wasn’t a great look for all concerned…
Bartley blows hot and cold. Some days he is imperious, but when asked to be a ball playing defender, he frequently can’t fulfil the role over 90 minutes. Huddersfield Town and Blackburn Rovers closed down our centre backs very well, putting a high press on the backline, who crumbled and made stupid mistakes. The return of Hegazi (I know supporters of other clubs don’t see why he is adored at the Hawthorns) cannot come fast enough. Also, the strikers Zahore, Austin, and Robson-Kanu really haven’t done enough yet this season.
League Results So Far…
Nottm Forest 1-2 West Brom (Cash 8 – Edwards 15, Phillips 26)
West Brom 1-1 Millwall (Bartley 57 – Smith 75)
Luton 1-2 West Brom (Cornick 15 – Diangana 48, 51)
West Brom 1-1 Reading (Zohore 88 – Ejaria 71)
Derby 1-1 West Brom (Waghorn 6 – Zohore 84)
West Brom 3-2 Blackburn (Phillips 22, Livermore 31, Diangana 41 – Dack 1, Johnson 45)
Fulham 1-1 West Brom (Knockaert 44 – Ajayi 80)
West Brom 4-2 Huddersfield (Phillips 19, 74, Furlong 70, Ajayi 89 – O’Brien 16, Grant 35)
There wasn’t a lot of optimism around in the summer but have your hopes and expectations changed given the positive start? Albeit you do keep going behind in games…
Looking back at my preview for the season, which was before the transfer window closed, the hopes for the Albion were not looking good. However, immediately after writing the review the club signed a load of exciting, young players which totally changed the ethos and feel among the support. The gaps were filled, and solutions provided to some of the challenges that marred last season. The start to the season has been encouraging in many respects, and there is a feel good atmosphere at the Hawthorns. I still don’t think we are good enough for automatic promotion, and our habit of conceding first has got to change otherwise it will come to haunt us across the season. If the defence can be tightened up, and the strikers start contributing more than they have done so far, then I think realistically we are contenders for a playoff spot once again.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @SAhistoryMatt
Pictures – Action Images
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