Slaven Bilic’s Baggies share out goals in Championship promotion race

West Brom traditionally thrived in their recruitment of relatively obscure bargains and, re-energised under Slaven Billic, they appear to be superbly set up for the title run-in

As Tammy Abraham tucked away his penalty to send Aston Villa to Wembley, West Brom hearts broke. Amid a raucous atmosphere at The Hawthorns last May, it had been the kick that confirmed a play-off defeat for the Baggies.

Fast forward nine months, though, and maybe that failure was a blessing for Albion. It facilitated a reset and, under a special manager in Slaven Bilic, they’re six points clear at the highest of the Championship, and therefore the division’s leading scorers.

Not that they’re going to be taking anything without any consideration in another captivating Championship promotion race. On 20 December, West Brom and Leeds were 12 and 10 points beyond third place respectively, yet such is that the league’s unpredictability that Bilic’s team then did not win in seven matches and Leeds have picked up only nine points in 10 games since. Leeds are level with Fulham in third place, with a niche of only three points to Bristol City, in seventh.

“The Championship is extremely interesting,” said Bilic before Saturday’s game with Nottingham Forest. “Good quality matters in fact but I don’t see that big a difference between teams, which suggests you’ve got to be double focused.”

West Brom, despite their fourth-place finish last season, relied heavily on Dwight Gayle, Jay Rodriguez and Harvey Barnes, who was on loan during the primary half the season. Those three players scored 61.8% of West Brom’s goals and their moments of brilliance habitually bailed out poor team showings. Take a 4-0 victory over Rotherham for instance . Rotherham missed a penalty, had an attempt cleared off the road and stuck the woodwork twice but Dwight Gayle’s sumptuous hat-trick masked the deficiencies.

This season there’s a stark improvement throughout the team. Their leading scorer, Charlie Austin, has only eight league goals, but there are 17 different scorers. In 2018-19 West Brom kept eight clean sheets from 46 league games, yet under Bilic they need seven from 32. From conceding 1.33 goals per game last season, it’s been reduced to 1.06 goals per game this term.

“Yes we’ve improved over the season. The mood is sweet and that we have an honest spell behind us,” said Bilic. “But we suffered before and were hurt. We never stopped believing and dealing hard. It’s much easier to be third, fourth or fifth than first or second – they’re dreaming to be within the top two. But you’ve got to deal with that if you would like to achieve success . It’s easy to be average but if you would like to be the simplest actor or surgeon it costs a sacrifice.”

Last season’s side was predominantly drawn from the squad relegated in 2018 and an ageing squad was in need of rejuvenation after the play-offs. quite £25m was raised from the summer sales of Craig Dawson, Salomón Rondón and Jay Rodriguez.

West Brom traditionally thrived in their recruitment of relatively obscure bargains. for instance , Peter Odemwingie, their record Premier League scorer, was plucked from Lokomotiv Moscow, and Gareth McAuley made 227 appearances after joining on a free from Ipswich.

Towards the top of their most up-to-date eight-season stay within the top flight West Brom compromised this model. George Graham once said: “Never buy a player who’s taking a step right down to join you. He will act as if he’s doing you a favour.” The signings of Grzegorz Krychowiak, Daniel Sturridge and Oliver Burke, whose preceding clubs were Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and RB Leipzig respectively, perhaps demonstrates this.

The reset allowed the club to return to their successful recruitment tactic, with Semi Ajayi, Darnell Furlong and Romaine Sawyers coming back from Rotherham, Queens Park Rangers and Brentford respectively for a touch over £5m in total. All have impressed. Matheus Pereira, signed on loan from Sporting Lisbon but never a daily there and sent away by his parent club for a 3rd consecutive season, has dazzled, with six goals and 11 assists. In January the strategy was reaffirmed with the acquisition of Kamil Grosicki for £800,000 from Hull. The Pole has 18 assists and 15 goals over the past two Championship seasons. “With WBA my dreams can come true,” he said.

Comparisons are made to Tony Mowbray’s West Brom who, after losing the 2007 play-off final, sold players like Jason Koumas and Curtis Davies for multimillion-pound fees and brought in up-and-coming talents including Chris Brunt, the club captain almost 13 years on. The team won the Championship the subsequent season.

Bilic, who guided West Ham to their record Premier League points total and humbled Steve McClaren’s England while responsible of Croatia, has reenergised the club, and therefore the connection between players and fans is flourishing.

They have played some scintillating football, managing 54 goal attempts over their past two games, and appear to be superbly found out for the run-in with Bilic focused on the challenge ahead. “There is not any time for the plaudits,” he said. “It is time to be confident but not time to rest and say yes we are great. We still have games to travel . Forest are an entire team so we’ve a really difficult game.”

RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg: ‘We’re not here to buy Mbappé and Messi. We’re here to develop players’

Emil Forsberg, in action here against Hoffenheim, says: ‘I was a good left winger but an even better No 10.’

Forsberg, moved centrally from out wide to unleash his creative potential, was in sensational form that year. “I was an honest left winger but a good better No 10, it turned me into the proper player,” he says, a press release borne out by the 22 assists that outdid anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues.

“No one can say anything now,” he says of these in Sweden who chided him. “My career and therefore the things I’ve done here represent themselves.” Like Leipzig, he flattened out slightly then exhilarating 2016-17 season, a series of groin problems not helping his form. it’s become common practice to write down off Forsberg, because he’s now a 28-year-old during a club that valorise youth like few others. But he was instrumental to a primary half this campaign that took Leipzig to the highest of both the Bundesliga and their Champions League group, scoring eight times and thriving under the leadership of Nagelsmann.

“I think he made me better and made the team better: the proper coach for the proper club at the proper time,” he says of the manager, who is merely four years his senior. Nagelsmann has, by common consent, added a more technical element to the pressing game developed under Rangnick and Hasenhüttl. His training drills have a reputation for being complex but Forsberg has found his eyes opened anew at a comparatively late stage.

“We have a couple of more combinations now, a couple of more solutions,” he says. “[Nagelsmann] features a considered everything. There’s always an idea around it, then you only need to roll in the hay . You’ll get a sort of lightbulb in your head like: ‘Ah, OK, so if I do this , that which , this may open up and that i can play that pass or that pass.’ It’s fun, even at this age, that you simply can learn something new.”

Forsberg’s father Leif – himself a storied former footballer with the hometown club they both represented, GIF Sundsvall – once said his son is “without a doubt the foremost boring player to interview”. It seems that’s not true; he converses readily and doesn’t dodge a subject , albeit a palpable guardedness tends to underpin his responses. there’s just one question that prompts an interruption of several seconds. The snowballs in Aue were faraway from the sole occurrences of hostility from opposing crowds in his half-decade with Leipzig: a severed bull’s head was thrown near the dig in a match at Dinamo Dresden in 2016 and, to offer only one newer example, Union Berlin’s fans began their meeting on this season’s opening day with a 15-minute silence.

Even if attitudes have softened in some quarters, there’ll always be those that never accept a Red Bull-owned club during a country where the stake held by supporters remains sacrosanct. it’s perfectly reasonable for Forsberg to not accept as true with the opprobrium his club has faced but does he, at least, understand it?

“Everyone’s getting to have an opinion on every little thing,” comes the reply, at length.