Saturday 20th February 2016 is a day that may remain in the memory of many West Bromwich Albion supporters for some time, and for all the wrong reasons. An FA Cup Fifth Round match against Reading resulted in defeat and further shaming of the club from its own supporters as a very small minority resorted to violence against each other and one threw a coin at long-serving player Chris Brunt.
For much of the season there has been a feeling of disappointment and frustration at the Hawthorns, and the Reading match demonstrated why. The reality is that Albion could, and should, have done better in the FA Cup this season given the teams they had to play. However, as with so many games this season, they looked unable to overcome the challenge and, worse, looked unable to pose a real threat during the game. They left the Madejski Stadium defeated having had less possession and fewer shots on target.
Having less possession doesn’t necessarily mean that a team will not win games. Leicester City, currently top of the Premier League, have the third lowest possession in the league so far, but play an exciting brand of counter attacking football using the pace and skill of players like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Albion’s next opponents, Crystal Palace, also average under 47% possession, but use the likes of Zaha and Bolasie to orchestrate exciting counter attacking play. West Brom, however, see less of the ball than any other team in the league, create the fewest shots per game, and rely too heavily on maintaining a solid back line and playing long balls.
It is that style of play that has seen Albion fans turn against Tony Pulis. The game against Swansea at the beginning of February saw Albion’s lowest Premier League attendance ever (22,062 spectators) and the sound of fans booing the team has become more common as weeks go by.
Since the defeat at Reading, it has become common knowledge that Tony Pulis plans to discuss his future at the club with Jeremy Peace, the club’s chairman, at the end of the season. It’s not unusual for meetings like this to take place at football clubs, but what makes this meeting more interesting is the general feel at the football club amongst fans, and also, if some reports are to be believed, amongst fringe players.
Peace is not one to shy away from what some may call tough decisions, and generally his managerial decisions have matched the tide of emotion amongst the support. Steve Clarke, Roberto Di Matteo and Alan Irvine all had pockets of support turning against them and Peace, regardless of what the national media may have thought, took the action to sack them all. At no point did the atmosphere feel quite as sour at the Hawthorns under any of those three as it does currently under Pulis.
The news that West Brom are looking for a new technical director to help aid an improvement in player recruitment will be the other point of issue at the meeting. What makes this stand out is the fact that it demonstrates a want to return to the more continental style of management and recruitment which Albion utilised so well under the likes of Roy Hodgson with Dan Ashworth in the director role. On arrival at West Brom, Pulis made it very clear that he wanted complete control at the club; could this move alter his position?
When Tony Pulis left Crystal Palace, he did so due to the fact that he had disagreements over transfer policy, with players he wanted not being chased enough and players the sporting director wanted, such as Wilfried Zaha, pursued with more ferocity. The arrival of a technical director, overseeing transfers, could result in him facing a very similar situation to the one he faced there.
What the appointment also does is raise the question of how much the club actually trust Tony Pulis to spend money in the Summer if the team do stay up. He may see this as undermining his role, taking away the biggest factor that led him to come to the club.
Hiring a new technical director certainly suggests that the club are not completely happy with transfers so far. Pulis has had some hits with Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher and James McClean. But Peace will be more focused on the expensive disappointments such as Callum McManaman, James Chester and even Salomon Rondon. West Brom are not a club to throw money away and Peace will want to ensure that doesn’t happen, and will not be worried about upsetting Pulis.
Whilst the atmosphere at the Albion remains bleak for the time being, the end to the season and the Summer may bring about big change. Whatever happens, and however dull the actual football may be, it’s always a guarantee that outside of those 90 minutes it’s never boring at West Brom.