West Bromwich Albion’s players return to Premier League action this weekend with very few of them with anything to look back on with satisfaction from the international break.
Of those that were in action for their countries over the last week, the four representatives from the two Irish teams all suffered defeat in the World Cup play-offs and, while Jake Livermore started both of England’s friendlies against Germany and Brazil, he can hardly be said to have cemented a place in the squad. Meanwhile, Sam Field was an unused substitute in the England U21’s 2-0 win in Ukraine on Friday evening.
Rondón played in Venezuela’s home defeat to Iran, while Grzegorz Krychowiak played the full 90 minutes in Poland’s 0-0 draw with Uruguay on his return to international football, but did not feature in the 1-0 defeat to Mexico. Matt Phillips played as a lone striker for Scotland in their match at home to the Netherlands, but also suffered defeat as Memphis Depay scored the only goal of the game for the visitors.
The only player with a victory to celebrate was Nacer Chadli. He played the full 90 minutes in Belgium’s 3-3 draw with Mexico on Friday before providing the assist for Romelu Lukaku’s winner in the match against Japan on Tuesday.
The focus now returns to domestic football with the spotlight in the Black Country shining brightly on the baseball capped-head of Baggies boss, Tony Pulis. The vitriol that was directed in his direction from the away fans at the John Smith’s Stadium two weeks ago was stronger than anything I have seen before and, if the article in the Daily Star is to be believed, the Welshman has two games to save his job. Those two games are incredibly tough with champions, Chelsea, visiting the Hawthorns on Saturday followed, a week later, by a trip to Wembley to face in-form Spurs.
Most pundits have, so far, been sticking to their long-held belief that any club in the Premier League would be crazy to sack Tony Pulis, the man who has never been relegated. However, I’ve not heard one convincing argument that addresses the current situation.
If Jeremy Peace had still been in charge at the Hawthorns, I feel sure that Pulis would’ve gone by now, but current chairman, John Williams, appears to be a little more patient. Steve Clarke’s final 20 games in charge produced 3 wins and 16 points, while Alan Irvine managed to accumulate 17 points in his 19 games in charge. Both were sacked based on those results, while Pulis’s last 20 matches have produced just 2 wins and a meagre 12 points.
The other argument I’ve heard is that a club in Albion’s position would be best served to appoint Pulis to get them out of trouble, so we already have the right man. That, of course, fails to consider the effect that a new voice and a new set of ideas can invigorate a group of players that have become stale and uninspired by a coach that has singularly failed to address a downturn in form.
My thoughts on Pulis have been expressed regularly on these pages – I’ve never been a fan, never wanted him in the first place and thought he should have been shown the door in the summer, but disruption mid-season should always be a last resort. I was not convinced of the need for change until I saw the second-half performance at Huddersfield. A team that was only one goal down and with a man advantage never looked like scoring until the final few minutes of stoppage time. It looked to me that there was a group of players that have lost confidence, not only in themselves, but also in their manager.
An international break can often provide some light relief for payers of troubled clubs, but the indifferent results for the nine players involved, while Pulis was sunning himself in Barbados, will have done little to improve their mood.
The current situation represents Pulis’s toughest test as a manager, in my opinion. When he took over at the Hawthorns, the Baggies had more points per game, and he knew how to get the right reaction from a new group of players. Only once in his time at Stoke City did he have this bad a start to a Premier League season; in 2010, the Potters also had 10 points from 11 games and sat in 17th place – a home win over Birmingham City kick-started that season and they finished 13th and made the FA Cup final. Of course, Pulis was still revered at the Britannia in those days having brought the club up from the Championship and he had a staunch supporter in Peter Coates, but that was the only time that he has been really tested mid-season.
While he may claim that West Bromwich Albion are in a better place than when Pulis took over, the results aren’t exactly indicative of an improvement this season, particularly when you consider that the squad is arguably the strongest the Hawthorns has seen for more than 30 years. The style of football, and the resulting drop in entertainment, saw the Baggies’ average attendance for last season dip below 24,000 for the first time in the Premier League. It is marginally higher this season, but it’s still a thousand lower than the last full season before the Welshman joined, a season in which Albion finished only 17th.
The man who will need to take this all on board, of course, is Guochuan Lai. The Chinese owner of the club is in the UK to see the games against Chelsea and Tottenham and, if reports are to be believed, he will be assessing not only the performance of the team, but also the feelings of the supporters towards Tony Pulis. Those who want Pulis gone have certainly been the loudest of late, but Saturday may shine a light on whether they are more than a very vocal minority. How the team start against Chelsea is likely to have a significant bearing on the mood in the stands, and a heavy defeat could lead to a very hostile atmosphere.
Chelsea’s problems may be ones that Baggies fans might yearn for, but all is not rosy at Stamford Bridge. While they may be in fourth place in the table, they are already some nine points behind Manchester City and there are signs of unrest with manager Antonio Conte. Questions were raised about their transfer business in the summer, and the low point of the season so far came with a dreadful Champions League display in Italy last month as they went down 3-0 in the Stadio Olimpico to Roma. However, they followed that up with a 1-0 win over Manchester Utd and they have, in fact, won all three Premier League games since they went down 2-1 at Crystal Palace in mid-October.
The Hawthorns has not always been a happy Premier League hunting ground for Chelsea although, of course, Conte’s team secured the title in West Bromwich with a 1-0 win on their last visit in May. In 2012, the West Londoners lost on successive visits to the Shrine (the last Premier League games in charge for two Chelsea managers, AVB and di Matteo), but they have won five of their nine visits since and lost just one, the 3-0 win in Pulis’s first season after the visitors had already been crowned champions, back when Berahino knew how to score.
It would be a massive surprise if this match finished in anything other than an away win, despite Chelsea’s supposed problems, but the more difficult prediction is the future of the Albion manager. I’ve thought for a while that the two home games against Newcastle and Palace would be decisive for Pulis, but perhaps the end could come earlier should the Baggies go down without a fight on Saturday.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
12 May 2017 – Premier League
West Brom 0
Chelsea 1 (Batshuayi)
18 May 2015 – Premier League
West Brom 3 (Berahino (2, 1 pen), Brunt)
Albion’s Record against Chelsea
|Premier League Record|