No one should rule out an immediate return to the Premier League for West Bromwich Albion this season. The Baggies are well embedded in the play-off positions, and their victory over QPR at Loftus Road last time out saw them emerge as genuine title contenders.
Darren Moore’s side are now well and truly in the thick of the fight for automatic promotion, alongside Leeds United, Norwich City and Sheffield United. The manager deserves great credit for the way he has revived the club’s fortunes since taking charge.
With a return to the top flight now on the agenda, some thoughts at the Hawthorns should already be turning to how to properly prepare the club for life back in the top tier. First of all, the Midlands outfit must identify all the areas in which they are not currently operating at a Premier League standard and seek to find solutions to these deficiencies.
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Moore has used the loan market to great effect in his time as West Brom boss. 16-goal striker Dwight Gayle, 21-year-old centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo and exciting wide man Harvey Barnes all arrived at the club on temporary agreements. Barnes was so impressive that he was recently recalled by parent club Leicester City. Therein lies the issue: if West Brom’s loan stars are too impressive then they’ll lose them, and not receive a penny in return.
Eventually, this becomes unsustainable. The Baggies have to start collecting genuine talent of their own. Too many of their most important players currently belong to other clubs. If, following promotion, West Brom were to find themselves unable to renew these loan agreements or sign the players on permanent transfers, then Moore would suddenly find himself without the services of a good number of individuals who helped his side achieve a return to the Premier League in the first place.
As well as a loan issue, Moore’s squad is also facing something of an age problem. Boaz Myhill is 36, Tyrone Mears is 37, Gareth Barry is 37, James Morrison is 32, Chris Brunt is 34 and Wesley Hoolahan is 36.
Many of these names may not be regular starters for the Baggies, but they all take up valuable squad space, and almost all of them will need replacing in the summer – especially if West Brom are promoted this time around. An ageing squad was part of the reason West Brom were relegated last time out, returning with so many old players, with yet more miles on the clock, would hardly be wise.
Even without this issue, the Baggies would have plenty of strengthening to do this summer in order to prepare for the top flight. So, by adding this problem to the mix, the club are making an already big job a massive one.
Of the top ten Championship teams, only 10th placed Aston Villa have conceded more than the 42 goals let in by West Brom so far (Norwich have conceded the same amount). Moore’s side are top-heavy and front-loaded – which they have the quality to get away with in the second tier. Their prolific attack is the only reason they’re in the hunt for promotion at all.
However, that goal-getting frontline will immediately become much less effective against Premier League defences. To evidence this point, compare Gayle and Jay Rodriguez’s recent records in each division. Gayle has 16 league goals to his name in 26 outings this term, but he managed just six goals in 35 Premier League appearances for Newcastle United in the previous campaign. Likewise, Rodriguez has 17 in 33 so far this season, but could muster only 7 in 37 last time out in the top division.
To this end, West Brom must realise that whilst they have an average Premier League-level attack already in place, that will not be enough to save them in the top flight if they do not dramatically improve the quality of their rearguard.