After the seventh defeat in his thirteen games in charge, Albion manager, Steve Bruce, is coming in for increasing criticism from fans and pundits alike.
It was a case of déjà vu on Monday evening. Once again, as faint hopes of a play-off spot re-surfaced, the Albion players produced another dismal performance at the City Ground in a match that was already over midway through the first half. It is true that the Baggies fell on the wrong side of some poor officiating, but there was some horrendous defending in the lead up to the opening two goals and the 4-0 defeat was entirely justified.
Some of the players were woeful, but Bruce must surely take some of the blame for that defeat. The victory over Blackpool, while not exactly a sparkling performance, was achieved with a much changed line-up that many saw as something of a fresh start. However, the return of Townsend, Bartley and Mowatt to the line-up for Monday evening completely reversed that step with the omission of Semi Ajayi, one of the most consistent performers under Bruce, particularly baffling – the choice of Adam Reach as a right-sided midfielder was another head-scratcher. There may have been some very logical sport science reasons for the changes, but given the subsequent performance, they look very foolish.
Furthermore, while I understand that the standard reaction to a defender being sent off is to sacrifice a forward, given that Albion were already 2-0 down, I do wonder whether there was a way of retaining more of an attacking presence. Andy Carroll was blameless, as was Karlan Grant until his petulant outburst at his substitution, but it was clear in those 15 minutes before half time that the plan wasn’t working. The out balls to Carroll were all either wayward or aerial and, with no one able to get close to him, there was no chance of him retaining possession. And yet, the Albion manager was unable to effect a change.
While there were mitigating circumstances, Bruce’s choices before and during the game did not help and there is an increasing feeling that he has improved very little at the club since he arrived. The job he inherited was very difficult, and the fact that Albion are seven places lower in the table than when he took over is not entirely his fault, but some of his decision making in recent weeks does leave a lot to be desired.
Three wins in thirteen is hardly impressive for a team that had ambitions of automatic promotion at the start of the season, and is even less impressive when you consider that Valérien Ismaël also managed three wins in his last thirteen league games but earned more points than his successor having earned five draws in that period compared to Bruce’s three.
Both statistically and visually, Bruce has made little difference and if he isn’t under pressure, he probably should be. But does that necessarily preclude him from being the right man to be in charge next season?
For many it does, but such was the downward trend at the club when he arrived, I’m not sure any coach would have been able to have too much impact. I have suggested that his team selection for the Forest game was flawed, but when you have a group of players who produce wildly different performances within a few days of one another, how can you blame the coach? Perhaps the displays of those selected in training warranted their inclusion.
Ultimately, is it fair to judge Steve Bruce on this 13-game period with this group of players?
His managerial record is better than most, particularly in the second tier. Two promotions with Birmingham City and two with Hull City were both achieved with modest budgets and clubs certainly no bigger than Albion. He had spells with Wigan Athletic and Sunderland in the Premier League achieving solid mid-table finishes in each of the full seasons he had in charge. Even his spell at Aston Villa saw them make the play-offs in his first full campaign before the fans hounded him out the following season. His time at St James’s Park was overshadowed by ownership issues but, while he didn’t manage to win the fans over, two mid-table finishes was hardly a disaster given the circumstances.
One thing that Bruce has on his side is experience. His best work may have been a few years ago (his last promotion was in 2016), but he understands the sort of players he needs, he has a broad set of contacts in the game and, despite what some fans might think, he is well respected in the game as a whole. That counts for a lot when you are trying to do business, and Albion will need to do a lot of business this summer.
If he were to be replaced, the new man would need time to understand the existing squad and what he needs to change. Assuming Bruce makes it to the end of the season, any newcomer would not have any experience of the existing squad in match preparation and execution, so he would always be reliant on others to assist in judging that side of a player’s performance. Bruce knows this squad, knows that it needs a major overhaul, and doesn’t seem to be daunted by the prospect.
Steve Bruce may not be successful next season, but the job that needs to be done is so huge that I think he has got as good a chance as anyone else, if not a better one given that he has a head start. This season is a write-off and the squad is collectively a write-off. Sure, there are some players who will thrive in the future for Albion but, as a group, the squad is failing and I think it is harsh to judge Bruce based on their performances.
Another reason I don’t want a change of manager this summer is that would be another sign of short-termism at the club. Ron Gourlay has said a lot of the right things since his appointment, and he was the man who appointed Bruce. You can argue that he got that decision wrong, but I think it was a sensible appointment at the time given the circumstances. I don’t think anyone quite grasped how flaky the squad turned out to be.
Sacking Bruce now or in the summer would show a lack of confidence in that decision. Obviously, the converse viewpoint is that it would be an acceptance of a bad decision and the desire to correct it. Time will tell as to which way Gourlay will go.
Personally, I would ultimately like to see a young manager given a long term project at the Hawthorns, similar to the idea behind the Ismaël appointment albeit it became clear that the Frenchman’s philosophy was too radical a change for the squad he inherited. I’m not sure who that person is, and it is probably somebody I’ve never heard of. The club need to be looking several years ahead and identifying who the right man is to progress the project and when they should be appointed.
My feeling is that this summer is too soon. That may seem a strange thing to say, but this squad will take time to break up, and it will inevitably generate bad feeling that is likely to persist into the season. There will be players that will be surplus to requirements but may not be able to be moved on, there will others whose mates have been ousted and will retain animosity towards the man responsible. Furthermore, it is a process that will take time and, in the meantime, there is no guarantee that the changes will produce success on the pitch anywhere near as quickly as fans will want.
I feel that supporters need to realise that the chances of promotion next season aren’t that high irrespective of who is in charge. If Gourlay and Bruce work this summer on kicking off that process, with a clear idea of the type of football Albion want to play, and the type of players they want to bring in, the club can also look at the type of manager or head coach that should succeed Bruce. Then, if they decide that the end of next season is the right time to pull the trigger, they can scout the coaching market over the campaign to find the right fit. The new man will then hopefully have a much more balanced squad, will not be tainted by the overhaul and will, therefore, have a much better chance of success.
That is how a club should be run, rather than lurching from one manager to the next. In some ways, recent failures have put the club in a position to be able to set that process in action. The Premier League and parachute monies are no longer there to be lost – the club needs to live in a different financial reality and plan accordingly.
Steve Bruce is not a particularly inspiring figurehead and he has not been able to turn the squad around this season, but the fact that he is the incumbent and that he has a wealth of experience and contacts in the game make him the best choice to kick off the much-needed squad overhaul in my opinion.
It is probably not a popular opinion, but I feel that any new man will have a next to impossible job to meet fans’ expectations next season. Bruce will have the same difficulty, but he will also have the experience to deal with it. Furthermore, he will know that Gourlay has backed him and will be more than likely to continue to back him.
Perhaps the one consideration that may sway opinion in the board is season ticket sales. A sexy summer appointment may spark a surge in enthusiasm while an announcement that Bruce is to continue may have the opposite effect. It is difficult to know what the impact might be – many will not renew anyway given the issue with games being moved for TV this season and a general disenchantment with football. Many of us, however, are die-harders and will be there next season whatever happens.
If ticket sales are important enough to drive the decision, we may well see a new man. If we do, I fear we will be looking for another one before the start of the next season. Next season will be a next-to-impossible job – why not give it to a man we don’t mind saying goodbye to at the end of it?