Defeating Second Season Syndrome
West Bromwich Albion will enter their second successive season in the top flight facing what will more than likely be a tougher challenge than the one that was presented to Roberto Di Matteo at this time last year. This is because looming over their heads is the ever present phrase coined for such a challenge, 'second season syndrome`. It provides a different type of test, because the first season Albion were able to prove, as a squad of footballers, that they are good enough to stay in the top flight. Ability wise it is safe to say there is the strength that, if realised, will see Roy Hodgson`s team will avoid a drop to The Championship. However, second season syndrome is often a mental challenge, a physiological mindset willing you to want to prove that the pervious season was not luck but merit, and a desire to achieve your goals more emphatically. So it is in The Baggies` hands, if they are stuck in the midst of a relegation scrap come May we will know that this mindset has got the better of them and the pressure has not let them realise their potential. It is a possibility of course, it is up to the players and staff to prove they are too good to go down, but what is often swept under the carpet is that this is not West Brom`s second season in the top flight, it is their sixth. With the Baggies most important, and promising, Premier League season right around the corner, , let`s assess the strengths and weakness, assets and attributes that will define the coming season.
Right man for the job?
Roy Hodgson is an unequivocal favourite amongst Baggies fans and has merited this position. The incredible turn around of a side looking more and more like relegation candidates, to a team who lost only two games in their final twelve whilst going some way to shaping up a very porous defence. The talk is strengthening about Hodgson taking over from Fabio Capello as England manager when both their respective contracts run out at the end of the season. It is no secret that Hodgson would jump at the chance to gloss a 30-year coaching career with managing his country, and even the most fickle Albion fan could not begrudge him the opportunity. Although it looks like this would be a blow, the good news for the fans is that Hodgson would only be considered for the vacancy should he off the back of a good season of consolidation at least at The Hawthorns. The FA have already stated it will be an Englishman who will be the next manager, and they are likely to plump for the most in form. Wherever Hodgson is come June, the Baggies can be sure that a defensive tightening, a strict organisation and still a willingness to play attractive football will be the plan, which very possibly will come into fruition. It did wonders at Fulham, so why not at West Brom?
Albion will always possess a goal threat, not necessarily because of 15-goal asset Peter Odemwingie, but for the sheer creativity the team and especially the midfield possesses. The passing abilities of Chris Brunt, Youssouf Mulumbu, Graham Dorrans, James Morrison and even winger Jerome Thomas can not be understated. The stats back this up, as The Throstles` pass success fell behind only to Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. An impressive 78% was underlined by the efforts of high percentage players Thomas, also at 78%, and Mulumbu with a whopping 84%. This bettered Fabregas, Adam, Barton while matching the likes of Jack Wilshere and Luka Modric. This contributed to another impressive statistic with West Brom`s success of passes in the final third only bettered by the top 4 placed teams that season. Also captain Chris Brunt came in at third in the league in regards to 'Total Key Passes`, which resulted in chances, falling behind only Kevin Davies and Florent Malouda. With Odemwingie there is a striker who can put these chances away with regular occurrence, and the acquisition of sought after former Reading striker Shane Long should provide further cutting edge in the forward line. Not forgetting Simon Cox who although often deployed in midfield has a fantastic scoring rate as a striker, which seems to have been overlooked by coaching staff and fans alike for the last season.
Defensively under Hodgson there was greater organisation and resilience, but there is still a lot of work to be done before it is the finished product. Conceding the second highest amount of goals last year and the Premier league record of 34 games without a clean sheet are the obvious statistics that tell you that a massive improvement will have to be made over the course of pre season. The additions of Gareth McAuley and Billy Jones from Ipswich and Preston respectively will provide competition but it would not surprise anyone should Hodgson be on the look out for a centre half with more top flight experience to bolster the squad. Mulumbu and especially Paul Scharner provide good cover in front of the defence, and if The Baggies were to land Owen Hargreaves then that area of the pitch would only be strengthened.
With the midfield being packed with creativity and strength in depth, the key player for this season will not surprisingly have to be 15-goal top scorer Peter Odemwingie. With the midfield having the ability to create chances, the burden of putting those chances into the net will fall again to the Nigerian. Last term he notched over a quarter of the baggies` goals, also adding 9 assists in the process. This burden however should be lessened now with the arrival of Long who coming off the back of a high goal-scoring season at Reading, will carry the weight of expectation to chip in with a few of his own for The Throstles.
Made good use of the Transfer Window?
Jones and McAuley were free transfers that Ashworth and co made no delay in signing as soon as the window was opened. These were hardly signings that got the juices flowing for fans sitting at home in front of Sky Sports News furiously checking forums and websites for rumours to get drawn into, but they were obviously players that Hodgson wanted and that wanted to be in the Premier League. Unknown quantities for the Baggies, but Jones especially comes with a good reputation having played over 300 career league games aged only 24.
The spot left by Scott Carson`s departure to Bursaspor this summer has been filled by Ben Foster on loan from Birmingham for a season, with Boaz Myhill being loaned in the other direction. It is fair to say this is a popular signing as most fans realise the quality that Foster possesses, and he is seen as an improvement on Carson. Marton Fulop has been drafted in as back up, and he comes with a decent reputation and should provide a solid back up to Foster.
The return of former baggie Zoltan Gera was described as a 'major coup` by Hodgson, and indeed he has quality that both Albion and Fulham fans know well. After playing an instrumental part in Fulham`s Europa League progress to the final under Hodgson, he went on to win Player of the Season at Craven Cottage before disappointing lack of chances under Mark Hughes the following year. Gera will add depth and ability to the midfield, and his aerial presence was always a threat, especially when linking up with Chris Brunt which hopefully can be a weapon that is used again on his return to The Hawthorns.
Arguably the biggest signing of the summer however has been of Reading striker Shane Long. With a fee reported to be £4.5 million rising to around £6million he will become the club`s record signing. Long is a player high on confidence after grabbing 25 goals last season for The Royals. His acquisition signals Hodgson`s intent to progress to a 4-4-2 this season where Long and Odemwingie can start a partnership that will hopefully provide a greater cutting edge in front of goal. Long is a confidence player, so it will be important for him to get off to a good start this season. He might even get his chance in the season`s opener against Manchester United.
Where will West Brom finish?
The aim will be to progress into the top half this season, but a season of consolidation will be slightly more realistic. While Albion have the potential to improve on their 11th placed finish, first and foremost the objective should be to reach 40 points as soon as possible so that a relegation scrap can be avoided, and then push on. With second season syndrome a weight on their shoulders, another similar season seeing Albion finish from 13th upwards would be a solid season, anything lower wouldn`t represent progress but as long as Premier League status is maintained, it would be hard for the Baggies to complain and it would go someway to removing the 'yo-yo` tag which Is proving very hard to shake off.
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