As Baggies fans breathe a sigh of relief that the season is finally over, many are perplexed that the majority of pundits are declaring that Albion have had a good season. After picking up just one point from the final eight games, and registering a club record five consecutive matches without scoring a goal in April, it certainly doesn’t feel like a good season.
I listened to Gabriel Marcotti on The Game Podcast this week as the panel gave a report card to each Premier League team – the Baggies were awarded a B+ that would’ve been an A- had they not finished so poorly. So are we fans being a little churlish to be disappointed with a 10th place finish?
At the end of February, Albion sat in eighth place. After a surprise 2-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace, a match that had been preceded by seven home wins in eight games, they travelled to seventh-placed Everton and were comprehensively beaten 3-0. From that point on, Albion were unlikely to finish any higher than eighth, but from being four points behind the Toffees before that match, they finished the season some 16 points adrift of a team that themselves finished 8 points behind sixth-placed Manchester United.
The reason that the Baggies held on to eighth place for so long was that the top six were incredibly dominant this season, and few clubs in the bottom half have been able to get any sort of run together. It is perhaps no surprise that since 1st March, all top six sides have picked up more points than any side below them. Even with Mourinho giving up on the league with a month to go, United managed to pick up 21 points in their last 12 games while Leicester and Bournemouth were the best of the rest with 20. Albion’s record was the joint worst in the league – Sunderland also picked up a mere five points in that period, although the Baggies’ goal record was slightly better.
So would most Baggies fans have taken a top ten finish at the start of the season, undoubtedly yes. The frustration and disappointment stems from what could’ve been. Safe in the league early, much could’ve been gambled on a cup run but Championship, Derby County, won at the Hawthorns in Round 3. After the defeat to Everton, a club record 50 points seemed to be the only target in reach, but even that has never looked likely.
The fact remains that only once before have Albion picked up one point from eight Premier League games, and that was in their first Premier League season when a draw against Bolton was followed by seven consecutive defeats in February and March, before the irony of a win at the Stadium of Light on the day that relegation was confirmed. And it was Albion’s worst run of a dozen Premier League games since the Great Escape season when Bryan Robson’s men picked up just four points in twelve games from October 2004 to January 2005. Those were two poor Albion sides – Pulis may complain about a small squad, but the squad at his disposal is far superior to either Megson’s or Robson’s, and that run of results is simply unacceptable.
Yes, Albion were unlucky in some games and certainly deserved more points than they got, but that was true for Megson and Robson as well – the difference was always the quality in both boxes.
At the beginning of March, I wrote an article for Baggies Shorts, the London Supporters’ Club fanzine (published somewhat later), saying how part of Albion’s success to that point had been that their shots-to-goal ratio had improved. To that point, the Baggies had converted 13.3% of their shots on goal (36 goals from 271 shots), a ratio bettered only by Arsenal and Liverpool at that point of the season, and up from 8.7% for Albion in 2015/16. Since then Albion have scored just 7 goals from 128 shots – a mere 5.4% – and therein lies one of the most significant factors behind the slump.
Of course, these statistics only confirm what every Baggies fan who has been to more than a few games in the last couple of months has known all along. That the squad has been lacking in attacking talent all season. In the first half of the season, two players helped to mask the squad’s deficiencies. Firstly, Nacer Chadli started his Albion career superbly scoring four goals in his first five games before he succumbed to injury at the end of October – he hasn’t been the same player since. But as Chadli got injured, Matt Phillips hit form scoring four goals in eight games and setting up numerous chances for his teammates. He too suffered and injury and has struggled to return to form and fitness.
Elsewhere, Morrison and Brunt are great on their day, but great servants to the club that they both have been, they cannot be relied on to produce week in week out at this stage of their careers. Meanwhile, James McClean is one of the hardest working players out there, but it’s a sad indictment of the squad that he has been our best impact player this season.
Up front, Salomón Rondón has pretty much had to do all the striking work himself – a little help from Hal Robson-Kanu on occasion, perhaps, but the Venezuelan has suffered under the pressure enduring an 18 match run without a goal in the Premier League and now on the end of criticism from many Baggies supporters.
The big question is why this obvious shortage of strikers was not address either last summer or in January. Berahino may have been considered an option in August, but the deadline day signing of Robson-Kanu still only left us with three strikers, which is not enough. And after Saido left in January, it was criminal not to bring someone in. It may be a good principle to only bring in players better than what we have, but we had a striking crisis and, let’s face it, with Rondón and HRK, the bar wasn’t set that high anyway. For me, Pulis has to take some, if not all, of the responsibility for the decision not to bring someone in – surely a loan signing would’ve been possible at least. I could make the point that had either of the two strikers suffered a long term injury, it could have been disastrous, but I’m not sure the end to the season could’ve been much worse.
I’ve been one of Pulis’s biggest critics, particularly last season, but I was encouraged at the results and the style of football that started to emerge during the autumn, but this last dozen games has raised serious doubts once again. In some ways, Pulis has done a remarkable job to secure a top ten finish with this squad, but that was partly due to the inadequacies of the teams around us, and he must take some of the blame for the state of the squad in the first place.
In 2013, Steve Clarke guided Albion to 8th place in the table in what was also a season of two halves. At the halfway point of the season, Albion had 33 points and picked up just 16 more in the second 19 games of the season. After picking up just 15 points in the first 16 games of the following season, the former Chelsea coach was shown the door by Jeremy Peace on the basis that his record in 2013 was relegation form.
This year, Albion have picked up 19 points from 19 games although, as we know, 12 of those came in the first seven games of the year. Jeremy Peace may no longer be in charge of the club, but this summer and the start of next season will be hugely important for Tony Pulis. In 2013, Steve Clarke’s biggest signings were Stéphane Sessègnon, Victor Anichebe and Nicolas Anelka – Anelka was yet to score when Clarke was sacked (Anelka himself being sacked after scoring his first goals for the club a couple of weeks later) while Anichebe had managed just one goal. Sessègnon and Amalfitano were perhaps the only successes of that summer window while Popov, Vydra, Lugano, Sinclair and Camp all failed to make any sort of impact. That is the sort of window that Tony Pulis can ill afford.
Tony Pulis may feel proud at achieving the first top ten Premier League finish of his management career, but he and the club have some serious work to do this summer if Albion are not to be battling against relegation next season.