Exactly half the goals that West Brom scored in the Premier League last season came from set plays. Their tally of 19, which was the second highest in the division, is an impressive mark of organisation, invention and pin-point delivery, but also does plenty to highlight where the Baggies can improve for the coming campaign.
There can be little doubt that, if their set-play brilliance had deserted them, the Midlands outfit would have been at far greater risk of relegation during a season in which they actually finished a respectable 13th.
Much of their survival can be laid at Tony Pulis’ door, the manager who took over on New Year’s Day and lost just six of the 19 top-flight games he oversaw to instantaneously drag his new club away from the dreaded drop zone.
It is no coincidence that set-play nous and Pulis’ presence form the core basis for West Brom’s survival. The former Stoke manager has built a career on making his sides well organised and intelligent from dead ball scenarios.
However, for all their excellence in that area, the Welshman will be acutely aware that drastic improvements from open play are required.
While the Baggies sat at the sharp end of the set-piece table, they were cut adrift when it came to scoring with the game in motion, managing a league-worst 13 goals from open play.
Perhaps a root cause for such inferiority was their lack of pace. Bar Saido Berahino and perhaps Stephane Sessegnon there isn’t any player in the squad that Pulis inherited that would immediately spring to mind as quick.
The January purchase of Callum McManaman from Wigan was perhaps a nod to such a problem, while the summer deal for James McClean is yet further proof that Pulis is trying to install some speed to his wings.
Without any pace, it’s difficult to get beyond defences and as such West Brom rated as the worst side in the division for both total and successful dribbles.
If you can’t beat an opposition down the sides, then you better be able to thread a pass through the eye of a needle, but the Baggies pass completion mark of 75.8 percent placed them in the bottom third of the top-flight in that department.
In order to improve, then, Pulis needs to supplement the acquisitions of McManaman and McClean with more pacey wide men that can run with the ball at their feet. Should he manage it, then odds of 7/2 about a top 10-finish will look too long.
Two Premier League players with a point to prove immediately stand out as being able to help West Brom in that department.
The first is Victor Moses who, it’s easy to forget, remains a Chelsea player despite being loaned out to Liverpool and Stoke City over the past two campaigns.
With the Blues able to pick from Eden Hazard, Willian and Juan Cuadrado on the wings, the chances of Moses staying at Stamford Bridge this summer are remote. Recent news that the Nigerian isn’t keen on a permanent switch to Stoke suggests the Baggies could be in with a shout of landing the 24-year-old.
They need him too. Moses made 30 more successful dribbles in just 19 appearances last term than the most prolific run weaver at the Hawthorns (Sessegnon, who made 33).
Although his goal and assist numbers aren’t what they should be (just three and three respectively last season) his ability to frighten opposition full-backs with his powerful running is exactly the kind of asset West Brom require.
If Moses isn’t attainable, Jonas Gutierrez is. Released by Newcastle and somewhat bitter about it, the Argentine would surely jump at the chance to stay in the Premier League and show the Magpies what they are missing.
Only able to play in 10 games as he battled his cancer diagnosis, the 31-year-old still managed to complete 30 successful runs, which would have put him joint second on West Brom’s list.
His 4.3 successful dribbles per 90 minutes put him 17th in a combined list of the statistic from Europe’s top five leagues and the chance to add his experience as back up to McManaman and McClean should not be missed.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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