Almost one year ago, West Brom became the third Midlands club to have Chinese investment after Championship sides Aston Villa and Wolves were sold.
In his very first words as the club’s new owner, Guochuan Lai insisted that he had no intentions of changing things yet, but that his wishes were to maintain the club’s stable structure and well-run nature. Tony Pulis was the man for the job, renewing his contract for a further year. The Welshman intended to move the club forward, yet warned against the scourge he has devoted his career to trying to eradicate: wishful thinking.
Pulis is not a manager who spends time gazing at the stars but that is not to say he eschews higher goals. Achieving a top-half finish was a step forward, but his ability to capitalise on that is coming under question.
West Brom’s 2016/2017 season was very much in three parts: a poor beginning and end bookmarked by a four-month spell from November to February which ultimately resulted in a successful season. This auspicious four-month spell brought many encouraging signs to the surface. Not only did results improve, but Pulis’ team started doing something very odd indeed: they scored much more goals.
West Brom’s end to the season, however, put a real downer on what should have been a campaign to remember. Having hit 40 points by February, the club had a concrete opportunity to push on and achieve a record-breaking Premier League season, and possibly even dream for Europe. In the end, they picked up only five more points and largely returned to the dull, ineffective, defensive style of football that was prevalent at the start of the season.
A brief respite came in a victory over a lifeless Arsenal side, but the growing sense is that all ambition was lost as soon as safety was assured; triggering more doubts on if the club can break-out of the cycle Pulis intend to create all of his teams around—staying safe. Despite this, the team have made a promising start to the season and, most importantly, there was some excellent business carried out in the transfer window. Just one glance at the players arriving at the Hawthorns this season shows how much work has been done off the field to atone for the pretty disappointing business in recent years.
The arrival of Ahmed Hegazy-on loan from Al Ahly is one example. The Egyptian has already stepped up in a defence which has conceded only one goal in three games, largely thanks to his physicality and brilliance in the air which helped him integrate rapidly into the team.
Furthermore, the club has pulled off one of the steals of the transfer window by securing Grzegorz Krychowiak on loan from Paris Saint-Germain. The giant pole is a supreme defensive midfielder who could have joined any club in the world only a year ago. The 27-year-old will join a collection of veteran internationals in Claudio Yacob, Jack Livermore and Gareth Barry, newly signed from Everton, to reinforce one of the most powerful and obstinate midfields in the Premier League.
Up front, they still look a touch light in comparison. Jay Rodriguez is a talented attacker but his injury record is a worry. He scored 15 goals in 33 league games for Southampton in 2013-14, so if he can stay fit, his goal-scoring sense could be a major bonus for the Baggies.
Oliver Burke, the most expensive footballer in the history of Scottish football only at the age of 20, is not the typical Pulis signing. However, his power and directness fit the profile and would add to the surprisingly big depth the club has on the flanks; with Nacer Chadli, Matt Philips, James McClean and James Morrison on the books too.
The all-round spending spree continued when the club signed Kieran Gibbs from Arsenal, another player with international experience who will certainly prove to be an upgrade to what the side currently has. On the selling front, keeping hold of the experienced Jonny Evans when the big clubs came knocking was as important as any signing.
All of this paints a picture of a club full of hope to push on beyond mere survival. Pulis is known as a good organiser, a smart tactician and someone who is able to bend the laws of the game to his advantage. Equipped with the right players, he needs to step up and provide the plot twists to flourish at the expense of his more celebrated rivals. Making the top six may be too much to ask for, but the Baggies should be ready to exploit the opportunity to make the European places should any of the usual challengers slide.