When Steve Bruce was appointed as Valérien Ismaël’s successor in February, Albion were in fifth place, still in contention for the play-offs, but on a firm downward spiral. I felt that it was a sensible appointment given Bruce’s experience of winning promotion in the second tier, albeit uninspiring. Unfortunately, he was unable to arrest the Baggies’ slide and soon realised that the job was much bigger than he realised.
As we sit here at the season’s end, Bruce could not have complained were he to be shown the door by Ron Gourlay. He has failed in his initial target to get Albion into the play-offs, winning just six of his seventeen games in charge, and he knows very well that football management is a results business. He has undoubtedly made mistakes, not least his decision to switch to a back four immediately which proved to be a step too far for a team drilled to operate with a back three, a mistake he has acknowledged in recent days.
A not insignificant proportion of fans would like to have seen Bruce sacked but, as I have said in my opinion piece last month, I see the logic in keeping him in place. In short, he knows the squad, knows what needs to be done to change it and has a wealth of experience in building squads to win promotion from this division. Furthermore, he knows that he has a limited shelf life and he can work with Gourlay on identifying his successor – the young, talented coach we all crave to take the club forward.
Perhaps more importantly, any new coach would want to assess the squad for himself before making wholesale changes, something that would inevitably take time meaning the overhaul would be highly unlikely to be started in any meaningful way in the coming window.
Ron Gourlay’s statement last week reiterated the fact that this season’s performance was unacceptable and also acknowledged that the squad overhaul would most likely take more than one window. Meanwhile, Steve Bruce has given one or two indications as to what changes he might look to make.
However, it’s worth looking at the entire squad to see what changes might be made.
The decision not to offer a contract to Andy Carroll has come in for criticism from some fans given he has been one of the team’s best performers since he joined in January. Personally, I think it is an understandable decision given Bruce’s desire to play a more possession based game next season – Carroll would be a useful option from the bench, and a positive influence in the dressing room, but I don’t think that the manager sees him as a regular starter in a new look side next season. With the former England striker looking for a much improved contract having proved his fitness, Bruce obviously feels those wages can be better used elsewhere.
There are obviously high hopes for Darryl Dike, and both Karlan Grant (four years), Callum Robinson (three years) are on long term contracts and unlikely to be moved on. Most Baggies fans would like to see Kenneth Zohore moved on and there would have been much head-shaking from Albion fans to Bruce’s comment this week that he will try to “get a tune out of” the Dane. He only has one more year on his contract and the comment may suggest that Bruce feels it unlikely that the club will be able to cost-effectively offload him. However, I would expect them to try.
There is the hope that some of Albion’s young strikers out on loan would be able to offer some competition next season, but none of Owen Windsor, Jamie Soule or Callum Morton have had particularly successful loan spells this year. Windsor scored on his debut for League Two, Carlisle United, but played just three times and hasn’t been in the squad since the end of February. Meanwhile, Jamie Soule has not made a single appearance for League One, Cheltenham Town, and was last in a matchday squad in early March. Morton has played the most league football of the three having enjoyed a very successful spell with Northampton Town in 2019/20 scoring three goals in the League Two play-offs as the Cobblers were promoted and, after an injury-impacted spell at Lincoln City last season, much was expected of him this season. He spent the first half of the season at Fleetwood Town, scoring seven goals in 22 appearances, but on stepping up to Championship level at Peterborough United, he has found his opportunities limited and hasn’t been involved since early March. It’s difficult to see any of them close to the first team next season.
Rayhaan Tulloch has had a few minor opportunities this season and there have been reports of interest in him from the likes of Rangers, but I’m not sure if that is any more than the work of an over-enthusiastic agent. With two years left on his contract, I’d expect him to be sent out on loan next season and hope that he has better luck than some of his teammates.
I’m guessing that the likes of Reyes Cleary, Jovan Malcolm and Mo Faal are still some way off the first team given their lack of involvement to date but maybe one or two will be made available for loan spells next season.
Given that goals have been Albion’s primary problem this season, it would seem sensible that the striking department does need an overhaul. However, Dike will effectively be a new signing and Bruce will obviously be hoping that with more creativity in the side, goals will be easier to come by for the strikers we have. The worry is that the Baggies haven’t been short of chances for much of the season, but the team have failed to take them.
While everyone would like to strengthen the forward line, there is no doubt that other areas of the squad are in more dire need of attention, not least central midfield. One “signing” that was formally confirmed last week was that of Jayson Molumby, whose loan move was made permanent as a result of an appearance-related trigger. I see the young Irishman as a potential long term replacement for Jake Livermore if he progresses – he has the physical attributes to make a successful combative midfielder and further experience will hopefully improve his decision making, something that can only be helped by working with an old head like Livermore.
As for Livermore himself, he is one of the few leaders in the squad and, if he is put in the right role, as a defensive midfielder, he can still do a very good job at Championship level. Many would like to see him moved on, but I would be surprised if that happens with only one year left on his contract.
Assuming Bruce does opt for a 4-4-2 next season, it is the other spot in central midfield that needs strengthening. Alex Mowatt was one of the most sought-after out-of-contract players in the Championship last summer but he has only impressed on occasion this season, with the injury he picked up in the autumn possibly impacting him more than we knew. He has evidently been playing with pain-killing injections for a groin issue and has now had surgery to correct. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly for his disappointing displays in the second half of the season, but his potential is yet to be realised and he may well be one of the players that Bruce will look to offload. With two years left on his contract, he should have some value, but the question is whether another club is willing to pay for him.
Romaine Sawyers will return from a successful loan spell with Stoke City and, while he is out of contract this summer, I understand the club have the option to extend by a further year. He is the sort of intelligent playmaker that Bruce will like but, at 30, his age profile might count against him. I’m sure the conversation will be had and the player’s own feelings should have an influence – is he still in love with the club that sent him out on loan last summer?
Of the youth squad, Quevin Castro would seem to be the closest to the first team having made two substitute appearances in the Championship this season along with one start in the EFL Cup. I’m guessing a decision will be made over the summer as to whether to keep him at the Hawthorns or look to get him some experience on loan.
Overall, the squad is woefully short of creative midfielders. The free agent market is larger than usual this summer with many clubs opting not to renew contracts due to the financial uncertainty generated during the pandemic. Reading’s John Swift has emerged as a target, but there are plenty of other suitors in the Championship and Premier League, and Blackburn’s Joe Rothwell is another name to be linked although Premier League-bound Bournemouth would seem a more likely destination. Sean Longstaff at Newcastle United is another free agent but his wage demands may be a little high and another that may be worthy of consideration is Nick Powell from Stoke City who has six goals from midfield this season despite missing much of it through injury.
On the wing, Bruce has a few options in the current squad, despite the fact that Val-ball did not use wingers. I have been saying all along that Grady Diangana needs to play as a chalk-on-boots winger, so it was ironic that Bruce’s first 4-4-2 team saw him playing up front! I maintain that the left wing is his best position but, with having failed to impress since he joined the club permanently two years ago, I wonder whether he will be made available for transfer.
Matt Phillips and Adam Reach played on the wings in the final two games of the season, but both could be at risk of being moved out. Phillips is Albion’s longest serving player having signed for the club in the summer of 2016 and, at his best, he can be a very useful player. Tony Pulis cited his confidence issues that can make him a very frustrating player and, this season, his age may have started to catch up with him having missed much of the campaign through injury. At 31, he’s not past it, but if Bruce is looking to build a younger and hungrier squad, Phillips would be an obvious candidate for the chop.
Adam Reach’s future may depend on what other acquisitions Albion can make. He did his chances of staying no harm with a lovely goal against Barnsley and his versatility makes him a useful squad player. He has plenty of experience but, if I’m honest, I struggle to see him as a first choice in any position. He’s 29 with two years left on his contract so he should have some value, but whether any other club would be willing to match the wages he is on at the Hawthorns is unclear.
Tom Fellows and Rico Richards are the most obvious wide players from the U23 squad to bring into the discussion. Fellows impressed in a couple of appearances earlier this year and Richards has been highly-rated for a while but has been impacted by injury this campaign. Both are under contract and I would think they are more likely to get a loan move next season that be challenging for a first team spot.
As for potential incomings, one wide player that is out of contract and has been linked is Millwall’s Jed Wallace – his record this season of six goals and twelve assists is impressive and he has been a key member of the Lions’ squad that has challenged for the play-offs. Another free agent this summer is Derby County’s Tom Lawrence who will undoubtedly be looking for a new club after the Rams’ relegation to League One.
The back line has been Albion’s strength this season barring the period when Bruce tried to switch back to a back four too quickly. The manager reminded us last week that Albion were promoted two years ago with a back four of Furlong, Townsend, Bartley and Ajayi with Dara O’Shea as backup, a comment that may suggest that he may be looking to keep them all. However, they have, in varying degrees, endured difficult seasons.
Kyle Bartley is probably the most difficult decision to make at centre back. He has been excellent on occasion but, as a senior player in this undoubtedly unsuccessful period, Bruce may look to move him on particularly given the number of central defenders on the books. However, he has a year left on his contract, so that may not be that straightforward. Personally, I think I would move him on if possible as, for some reason, his inconsistency epitomises that of the team this season.
That decision would be reinforced if his exit would leave room to sign Matt Clarke. Bruce confirmed that talks are underway with the Brighton player whose contract expires with the south coast club this summer. He has been one of Albion’s most consistent performers this season and won the Supporters’ Player of the Season Award so it would be a no brainer to do the deal.
Semi Ajayi had also played well since Bruce came to the club and I feel his position at the club is safe, although the same can’t be said for Cédric Kipré. The Ivorian international has had a difficult time at the Hawthorns spending last season on loan in Belgium. Ismaël seemed to like him but Bruce has not used him once, his last appearance being in the Frenchman’s last game in charge. He does, however, have two years left on his contract which may make it a more difficult job to move him on.
Dara O’Shea has returned from injury in good form and, although he has only one more year on his contract, the club have already opened talks with him about an extension. Kean Bryan is difficult to assess as we have seen so little of him. Bought as cover for Matt Clarke when he was injured early in the season, Bryan suffered an ACL injury 40 minutes into his first start for the club and ruled out for the remainder of the season. At 25, the Manchester City academy graduate has played less than 80 senior appearances over his career, the majority of those being in League One although 13 were in the Premier League for Sheffield United. He has another year on his contract but it’s difficult to make a call on his future at this stage.
With the highly-rated, Caleb Taylor, emerging from the U23s, I can’t see Bruce looking to bring anyone else in, and I’m guessing the target would be to move on two of the current senior centre backs it Clarke is signed.
I agree with Bruce when he says that Darnell Furlong and Conor Townsend are more suited to the traditional full back position than the wing back berth they have been asked to fill for most of the current campaign. Both were proven to be limited at Premier League level last season, but I’m sure they will have learned from the experience albeit they haven’t been able to show it too much during this campaign playing in wing back roles.
At right-back, Taylor Gardner-Hickman has emerged as an able deputy for Furlong, although many fans would like to see him in midfield. The coaching staff all seem to agree that full back is his best position, but his experience in the middle of the park will have done him no harm. Ethan Ingram is another option in the U23s and, with Dara O’Shea also comfortable in that role, I wonder whether Bruce will feel he is ably covered in that position.
It is less clear on the other side. Reach has deputised as a left wing back but I’m not sure that he would do as well as a proper full back. Clarke is another back up but he isn’t a permanent Albion player yet while Zac Ashworth has emerged in recent weeks as a good prospect in that position.
It does leave the squad short of proper cover at left back and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an acquisition made in that area. Harry Toffolo at Huddersfield Town is a free agent this summer and finished the regular season with a remarkable run of five goals in seven matches, but with the Terriers in the play-offs, he may be setting his target destination higher. A more realistic target might be Lee Buchanan from Derby County, a 21-year-old who is likely to be in demand following the Rams’ relegation.
Finally, we get to the man between the sticks. We know Sam Johnstone is leaving and Steve Bruce seems to have made his mind up that David Button will be his number one next season. The Stevenage-born stopper signed a new contract this week and will presumably be getting a home closer to the training ground.
At 25, Alex Palmer has been an Albion player for his entire career but has made just one senior appearance for the club, in the 6-0 home defeat by Arsenal in this season’s EFL Cup. He does have 89 league appearances from the various loan spells he has had, most recently two for Luton Town as an emergency loan earlier this year. I thought that he may look for a move, but he signed a new long term contract on Monday.
In Josh Griffiths, the Baggies have another young ‘keeper who is arguably the better prospect. He has impressed in two loan spells, last season at League Two Cheltenham Town and this campaign with League One Lincoln City, and I feel he would have no problem as Albion’s second choice next season. But with Palmer having committed himself to a new contract, will he get the chance?
Bruce has previously said that the three will be competing for the number one spot next season but, in that case, one of those will not even be on the bench each week. That has been Palmer this season, alternating with Ted Cann for the U23 side – will Griffiths be happy to do that for the next campaign?
To summarise, the player movements I have suggested would lead to the following potential changes to the first team squad:
Out: Carroll, Zohore, Phillips, Kipré, Johnstone
Possibly out: Diangana, Reach, Mowatt, Bartley, Bryan
In: Sawyers (loan return), 2 or 3 creative/wide midfielders, left back, Clarke
Bruce has suggested that he is looking for five or six additions, but it is not clear whether Clarke and Button are in that number.
He may, of course, have completely different ideas – only time will tell.
What this piece does not cover is, perhaps, the most crucial element. Any new additions must have the right mentality, desire and enthusiasm – the squad has been shown to be mentally weak in the past couple of years. That, above all, is what needs to change.
It’s a massive summer for the future of the club we love. Let’s hope Bruce and Gourlay can get it right.