West Brom begin the 2011/12 season with a genuine sense of optimism not seen in years. The Midlands club have repeatedly reached the promised land of the Premier League in the 2000s, but they have only survived the threat of relegation twice.
Fans will fondly remember their miraculous escape in 2005/05, when West Brom became the first team to fend off relegation despite being last at Christmas. The Baggies were not able to repeat the feat two years in a row, however. This season, the Baggies could be primed to make it two successful survival campaigns in a row.
Last season saw a certain degree of turmoil engulf the club, with Roberto Di Matteo making way for Roy Hodgson halfway through the season. Di Matteo can rightly feel aggrieved to have been dismissed given West Brom’s strong start to the season, which saw the Italian receive plaudits from many quarters and claim September’s Manager of the Month award. Ultimately, however, a poor run of form, including a league joint-worst five successive losses, cost the Di Matteo his job.
Hodgson, much like he did with Fulham in 2007/08, steadied the ship and steered West Brom to a comfortable 11th place finish, eight points above the relegation zone.
The standout performers for West Brom were Peter Odemwingie and Chris Brunt. Odemwingie was undoubtedly one of the purchases of the season, with the £1m signing from Lokomotiv Moscow providing 15 goals, fifth best in the Premier League, and seven assists. The Nigerian was also the only player to claim two Player of the Month awards. Worryingly for Baggies fans, Odemwingie is entering the final year of his contract and is yet to agree to a new deal.
Chris Brunt, meanwhile, was a constant threat and accumulated four goals and 11 assists in the league, with only Nani, Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas creating more goals.
Where West Brom will have to improve is defensively. The Baggies sieve-like defence recorded a league worst two clean sheets and conceded 71 goals. Blackpool were the only team to concede more than the Baggies. The club also had a worrying disciplinary record, with seven West Brom players receiving red cards over the course of the season.
The defence remains largely the same as last year’s outfit, but the signing of Ben Foster is a significant upgrade over Scott Carson, who surprisingly moved to Turkish club Bursaspor for an undisclosed fee.
Foster joins West Brom on loan after Birmingham succumbed to relegation. Despite Birmingham’s struggles, Foster enjoyed an impressive campaign last season and showed why he was once viewed as a future Manchester United and England number one. The keeper saved Birmingham on numerous occasions, including a sensational man-of-the-match performance in Birmingham’s surprising 1-0 victory over Chelsea in November. Foster can still be susceptible to occasional mental lapses, but the 28 year old promises to be a rock behind West Brom’s shaky back four and the keeper should be one of their key performers this season.
West Brom have also been linked with a £6m move for Shane Long, who was in devastating form in the Championship last season. The 24 year old enjoyed a breakout year and scored 23 league goals for Reading. Scoring goals in the Premier League will naturally be a tougher task, but Long could potentially form a potent partnership alongside Odemwingie.
West Brom have also seen Zoltan Gera rejoin the club. The attacking midfielder played for the Baggies between 2004 and 2008 and was one of their most influential players. Gera rejoins West Brom after leaving Fulham, where he was named the club’s Player of the Season in 2009/10. The Hungarian could be one of West Brom’s main attacking forces.
Meanwhile, Abdoulaye Meite was released, while Gianni Zuiverloon joined Real Mallorca and Boaz Myhill left for Birmingham on a loan deal.
With three weeks remaining until the transfer deadline, West Brom could still make badly needed additions to their defensive line.
A crucial factor for West Brom this season is Roy Hodgson. The 64 year old endured a miserable six months with Liverpool last season, which echoed his poor performance at Blackburn a decade earlier. Hodgson did, however, perform miracles with Fulham and has started to produce good results at West Brom.
Although his time at Liverpool did not work out, Hodgson is arguably one of the league’s best managers of bottom-half teams. He rescued Fulham from relegation in 2007/08 after the club remarkably garnered 12 points from their final five matches. Hodgson then led Fulham to a Europa League final, accounting for experienced European performers in Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg.
While a repeat at West Brom is merely the stuff of fantasy, Hodgson should have enough know-how to guide West Brom to a comfortable mid-table position.
A worry for West Brom is their difficult opening schedule, which sees the Baggies immediately play champions Manchester United at home before travelling to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea. Under Roy Hodgson’s tutelage, however, West Brom should recover from the difficult start.
The Baggies could yet become embroiled in a relegation battle, but with Odemwingie’s goals and Hodgson’s knowledge of the lower echelons of the Premier League, West Brom should have enough to stay up.
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