West Bromwich Albion 2019-20 Season Review with Liam Crowe

Gabriel Sutton caught up with West Brom fan Liam Crowe @LCroweAccounts, discussing Albion’s positive 2019-20 campaign under Slaven Bilic.

Gab: Obviously West Brom are one of the bigger clubs at Championship level, but when I spoke to fans 11 months ago, there was a lot of discontent over certain issues, you lost a lot of key players from then on and business was not exactly fast… are you surprised at how well 2019-20 has gone?

Liam: I was one of the more optimistic fans at the start of the season but I have to admit I was surprised at how well we’ve done this season. Bilic was a superb appointment and of course the signings have been good, Ajayi and Pereira in particularly excelling.

Despite that, I wasn’t too upset at the players we sold (other than probably Rodriguez). I’ve always been surprised we haven’t targeted younger players with something to prove in past season, we had too many players who saw us as a club with no connection, however that seems to have changed this season – There appears to be a stronger bond with players really enjoying playing for the club.

Fans were singing Slaven Bilic’s name from August. You must be delighted to have a manager of his pedigree in charge of your club?

Yes as above. I was annoyed last season when we sacked Darren Moore and didn’t appoint anybody else (even if Shan did a decent enough job), however being patient and taking our time certainly benefited after being able to appoint Bilic. There were of course a few concerns but he seems really happy and passionate which I’m sure every fan wants their manager to be like!

How do fans feel about the ownership regime? Are any concerned that Lai Guochuan and Li Piyue do not have footballing backgrounds? Is there confidence that there are people at the club who can act as an effective link between Bilic and the owner and chairman?

I think the fans are slightly concerned about the ownership, however this season the board have been really impressive. Despite taking a while to make the signings, they focused on bringing the average age of the squad down and have made some really positive signings.

Despite that, one major issue with the ownership is there is currently a loan owed from the owner to the club of around £4.1m, however due to Chinese rules Lai cannot repay this loan.

Although the club are benefiting from this as there is interest being received on the loan, many fans think the fact he owes this money shows he isn’t interested in the club which is having a detrimental effect.

Additionally, I don’t think turning up for the “big games only” (i.e. Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal) has helped – I don’t think he’s been to a game since we returned to the championship. Overall, although the fans aren’t happy with the ownership, I think after this season they are growing confidence in the board which should hopefully enable Bilic to work his magic.

As an outsider, I’m not wholly convinced by Sam Johnstone being Premier League standard… but Alex Palmer has had a fabulous season at Plymouth Argyle and is probably better in terms of distribution. Where do you stand on Johnstone and could a young, talented but unproven goalkeeper break-in?

I agree SJ isn’t a premier league standard GK however at 27 he still has age on his side to improve. The fans are slightly critical of SJ but I think this is mainly due to us having Ben Foster for years who many fans vote as the best GK to play for Albion! I have heard great things of Palmer, but I unfortunately can’t see him breaking in unless SJ has a poor run of form however Bilic has shown he is more than happy to throw youngsters in when possible so I wouldn’t completely rule it out!

Semi Ajayi was a defensive midfielder at Rotherham last season and he was one of their stand-out players but, I must admit, I was slightly unsure of how he would adjust to being a centre-back for your lot with more discipline required. He’s certainly proved me wrong – have you been equally surprised by his success?

​Semi Ajayi has been a revelation for us this season, but I still think he will move into a CDM role in the future, mainly because of his athleticism but he can occasionally lose his concentration which is a huge negative at CB – I think he may be found out in the prem.

I hope I’m proved wrong as he has been superb this season, and has knocked in a few goals for us too. I’m not one for being able to spot talent however I was really impressed with him when I watched us play Rotherham away last season (despite us winning 4-0!) and he’s carried that on for us this season.

I don’t think I would fancy Kyle Bartley as a Premier League centre-back and unfortunately, Ahmed Hegazi has missed parts of the season through injury. Will a partner for Ajayi be among Bilic’s targets once the club can start recruiting? Alternatively, could somebody like Jack Fitzwater come into contention?

I’m not a huge Hegazi fan if I’m honest, he is strong, powerful but his positioning is very poor. Kyle Bartley has been hugely important this season but I agree he’s certainly not premier league quality. The defence certainly needs improvement which has been shown as we still concede too many goals, so I would expect a CB to be one of the first positions needing improvement in the summer, even if we don’t get promoted.

It seems like Darnell Furlong and Kieran Gibbs when fit are your best attacking full-backs, whereas Dara O’Shea and Conor Townsend represent more disciplined but limited alternatives – and of course Nathan Ferguson can cover either side. Which combination from those do you think works best?

Darnell Furlong and Kieran Gibbs are probably our best full backs however because Bilic likes to play with Sawyers and Livermore in the middle, both do not possess fantastic defensive qualities, which means we’re often exploited at the back. If we were to buy a new CB and push Ajayi into CDM then I would be comfortable playing Gibbs and Furlong, however it’s too dangerous as they’re both great offensively and pretty poor defensively.

Ferguson was a revelation and it’s really unfortunate he will be leaving this summer after deciding not to renew his contract. O’Shea is a good player with potential but against Newcastle in the cup he was severely caught out at CB which shows he’s probably not quite ready. Therefore, I’d probably suggest Furlong/Gibbs should be starting IF we decide to play with a CDM, if not, then probably Gibbs and O’Shea. I’m not sold on Townsend, he’s too inconsistent despite some superb performances this season.

Jake Livermore bore the brunt of a lot of criticism last season but he seems to have stepped up in 2019-20. Would you look for a rotation option in the summer in order to keep him fresh next season, or would you be happy for him to play a whole term again?

Jake Livermore, despite some limitations in his ability, has been a real force this season through determination and leadership. Having Sawyers alongside him seems to have done him wonders as he’s now able to play his own game while allowing Sawyers to create. The criticism of Livermore last season was harsh though, as having Brunt alongside him (Despite my love for Brunty) was pretty horrifying.

JL had to do the job of two players which he clearly wasn’t capable of doing, it isn’t any surprise that his performances improved when Johansen came in in January, even if Johansen was poor for us. I’ve always been a fan of Livermore and he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves, but I still want to see a proper CDM in the squad which allows Sawyers and JL to concentrate on their game while also providing the defence with more cover.

Romaine Sawyers started his career with the Baggies but didn’t make any appearances, before going to Walsall and re-building his career from there. You must be delighted to see him make up for lost time at the Hawthorns?

​It’s always nice having a fan play for your club and I’ve always been a real fan of Sawyers, especially when I watched more of him last season at Brentford. Unfortunately he has come one year too late as I really believe we may have been promoted had we had him last season, especially with the firepower of Gayle, Barnes and Rodriguez! Despite this, he has been superb and it’s a really pleasure to see him succeed.

Filip Krovinovic and Matheus Pereira are clearly both accomplished technicians… but obviously the Brazilian gets into your best XI. Are you in favour of sticking Pereira wide right to incorporate Krovinovic as the attacking midfielder, or putting Pereira in arguably his best position and either dropping the Croatian deeper or leaving him on the bench?

Pereira has been fantastic, one of the most technical players I’ve seen at Albion since Koumas. Despite this, I’m a little concerned about where he will fit if we get promoted.

As I mentioned above, we are too fragile with Livermore/Sawyers in the middle and Pereira in CAM, so we need a proper CDM to ensure we get the best out of Pereira, however this will mean dropping Livermore/Sawyers which will be difficult.

Krov improved massively once he was given a chance following Diangana’s injury, but I don’t like how we have to move Pereira wide to accommodate him – It makes us too narrow and easy to defend against. Unfortunately I’d prefer Krov on the bench but still, I’m a big fan so it’s difficult, I wish we could pick a starting twelve!

One of the key factors in the above debate is the availability of Matt Phillips. Do you consider him to be among the best players in the Championship when fit, or have his levels dropped slightly from 2018-19?

Matty Phillips gets a lot of criticism from fans for his inconsistency and “lack of fight”, both of which are occasionally undeserved. Albion fans always seem to be critical of arguably our best players (Rodriguez last season) which has always puzzled me. Phillips has the pace, power and ability to be a world beater in the championship but I understand fan’s frustrations at times with his inconsistency.

Despite this, he has created the 2nd most chances in the team for us this season (2nd to Pereira) and has had his highest scoring season for a since 2015. I don’t think injuries have helped his career but at (recently turned) 29, he is now in his peak so I hope we keep him for at least a couple more seasons as with a run of games he will be superb again.

You added Callum Robinson in late January, at a time when you’d had a bit of a dip in form – perhaps Grady Diangana’s injury was a factor – and he’s probably more established at this level than Kyle Edwards. Do you think his pace and direct running from wide areas into goalscoring positions was key to bringing out the best in your more technical performers?

Callum was something we lacked – Edwards often went missing in games despite his clear ability, but Callum is more mature and appears to understand Bilic’s instructions clearly.

Bilic likes to play a narrow game, where wingers drift inside and whoever is CAM can drift out wide and have plenty of space due to the full back tucking in to monitor the winger, this is where Callum appears to be a natural.

This was similar to Phillips at the start of the season when he often drifted in from the right and became the 2nd forward which is where he scored many goals. This is what CR seems to do on the other side, he drifts in causing problems for the defence becoming the 2nd forward.

It seems a shame that Kenneth Zahore’s season has been curtailed by injury as I liked the look of him in the early weeks. Do you think this interlude could benefit him?

​Zohore is an extremely weird player, as he often seems lumbered and lackadaisical but then once he gets moving has so much pace and power. Unfortunately due to HRK’s successful season I can’t see him becoming the main striker, he also seems much better coming on as sub rather than as a starter. I hope it works out for him at Albion, but unfortunately as a confidence player he needs games, which I can’t see him getting any time soon.

Charlie Austin is arguably one of English football’s best finishers outside the elite in the previous decade, and yet it’s Hal Robson-Kanu who normally gets the nod to start up top. Does this show that Bilic places great importance on what a striker does outside the penalty area?

​Agreed – Austin is superb when we’re chasing the game like he did against Blues (Sorry Gab!) when we won 3-2. But as mentioned above with Callum Robinson, Bilic seems to like players who are interchangeable and not frightened to drift out wide dragging defenders about, something which HRK is superb at.

There has never been a doubt that HRK’s hold up play is good, and it’s something Bilic has noticed and is able to use this to our advantage. In the past we’ve been overly reliant on our goalscorers as we have never had any creativity, however that’s now changed with Pereira, Krov, Robinson etc so we can now let HRK do his job without relying on his goals.

Veterans Gareth Barry and Chris Brunt started just one league game between them last season. Reckon they could retire from playing soon?

Hopefully there’ll be a testimonial for Brunt after his service to the club… ​Barry is a cracking player but age just isn’t on his side, similarly to Brunt. There were talks in the summer of a joint testimonial with Brunt and Morrison but that got delayed as I think Morrison was still injured (shock!).

I would expect this to be organised, maybe next year as I think this summer is out of business for football unfortunately. I still think Brunt may look to play for 1/2 more seasons but I hope we keep both Brunt/Barry in some kind of coaching role as they both would make a positive impact.

O’Shea, Ferguson, Edwards, Rekeem Harper and Rayhaan Tulloch have all broken into the first team squad in the last couple of seasons, even while you’ve been working to a short-term brief. Has the club got a few things right at academy level in recent years?

The academy has started producing superb talent in recent years (Berahino too!) but it’s the club which lets their own academy down. Last season was a fine example as we had Edwards/Leko fighting for a chance in the team after losing Harvey Barnes, but instead we decide to loan Jacob Murphy who was a peripheral figure for Newcastle that season, and he was absolutely woeful.

This season has improved, but with Ferguson deciding not to renew his contract, the Berahino saga a few years ago, we have also lost Louie Barry and Morgan Rogers in the summer, it’s starting to make you think whether spending multiple millions of pounds to keep the academy is actually worth it, especially when you’re selling you’re most prized assets for £250k (Barry to Barcelona).

But I also think this is the fault of the club in past seasons as there has never been a clear path to the first team, however you could also argue that’s due to the premier league being so competitive there is too much of a risk to try youth. There’s no better sight in football than seeing a youth player play first team for your club, so I hope we continue with the academy.

Regardless of the eventual outcome decided, how do you reflect on this season? ​

Overall this season has been great, unfortunately due to my daughter being born I haven’t been able to go to as many games as I would have liked but parenthood comes first! Despite this I’ve been a real fan of the quality of the football, the enjoyment watching us play and the obvious togetherness of the squad for the first time in many years.

Whatever happens it’s been a successful season and I just really hope the EFL make the right decision to focus on the health of the fans, players and everyone associated with football. With the resumption of the league looking more unlikely, I hope I’m able to enjoy next season as much as I have this season.

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