West Brom's survival instincts made Slaven Bilic's position untenable

That his replacement is Sam Allardyce shows Albion are looking for a pragmatist

epa08887266 (FILE) - West Bromwich manager Slaven Bilic reacts during the English Premier League soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur in West Bromwich, Britain, 08 November 2020 (re-issued on 16 December 2020). Slaven Bilic has been sacked as West Bromwich manager, the English Premier League side confirmed on 16 December 2020.  EPA/Peter Powell EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
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There is a problem in deciding to sack managers and then giving them a final game to seal their fate. West Bromwich Albion presumably spotted Manchester City on the fixture list, assumed they would get hammered at the Etihad Stadium and that Slaven Bilic’s position would appear untenable.

Instead, they got an unexpected, creditable 1-1 draw and dismissed the Croatian anyway.

Bilic departs with an outpouring of sympathy from neutrals, West Brom fans and players alike. “The boys love him,” said goalkeeper Sam Johnstone on Tuesday.

Relations elsewhere in the club had been fractured, yet Bilic had lost games but not the dressing room. A charismatic figure can count a promotion as a success, even if West Brom stumbled over the line and he goes with a solitary win in his last 17 league games. He had looked increasingly downtrodden of late.

That he is the first Premier League manager axed this season shows that, while others may have been afforded more patience in straitened times, he has not been. The prize of another season in the top flight, plus the reality his contract was expiring next summer, created a situation where a decision was more likely.

That his replacement is Sam Allardyce shows West Brom have opted for a pragmatic approach.

Allardyce took over Blackburn and Sunderland in 19th and Crystal Palace in 17th and kept all three up. His record of never being relegated from the Premier League – his sole demotion in management came with Notts County in the 1990s – has never been under greater threat.

Albion’s return of seven points from 13 games under Bilic feels less like underachievement than a reflection of where and what they are.

The nature of Championship sides now means promotions are often propelled by loans, but it also ensured that much of West Brom's summer budget – which in itself was reduced by the implications of Covid-19 – was committed to keeping players they had last season, in Grady Diangana, Mateus Pereira, Filip Krovinovic and Callum Robinson.

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That Karlan Grant, Bilic’s preferred striking signing, has a sole goal is damning while Branislav Ivanovic, the veteran free transfer at the back, erred badly for Newcastle’s opener after 20 seconds on Saturday. West Brom have not been good enough in either penalty box.

The capitulation to Crystal Palace, in a 5-1 defeat, was embarrassing. Indiscipline has been costly: West Brom have twice conceded five after having a player sent off, whether Pereira against Palace or Kieran Gibbs at Everton.

They only let in one goal on each of their trips to Manchester, but have the division’s worst defensive record, even though the excellent Johnstone has made the most saves.

Allardyce can feel the ultimate organiser but his previous rescue acts have come with stronger foundations.

Arguably this West Brom squad is weaker than the group that came fourth in the Championship in 2018-19, which had the firepower of Jay Rodriguez, Dwight Gayle and Harvey Barnes, plus the services of Craig Dawson, Gareth Barry, Mason Holgate and Ahmed Hegazi, whose sale to Al-Ittihad this season upset Bilic.

And whereas Tony Pulis bequeathed Alan Pardew plenty of Allardyce-style players in 2017, many have gone in the subsequent three years. Bilic’s team had more aesthetic appeal. Some of his technical midfielders should brace themselves for a spell on the bench even though Conor Gallagher, borrowed from Chelsea, has been their brightest player recently.

Direct and dull towards the end of their last stint in the Premier League, West Brom were recast as attackers and entertainers in the second tier. Now they seem intent on shifting identity again in a bid for survival. After the departure of the Croatian Bilic, the Hawthorns will again look the spiritual home of the old British manager.

It is not a failsafe policy: West Brom were relegated in the season they replaced one, in Pulis, with another, in Pardew. They may sense a happier precedent in Roy Hodgson, who took over a team in 17th and steered them to safety.

But now they feel more imperilled, after only beating Sheffield United, with only the Blades beneath them and a fifth Premier League relegation on the cards. Allardyce’s record may offer optimism, even if a boyhood Wolves fan is unlikely to be rapturously received by West Brom supporters, but this could be a job too far, even for him.

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