Friday, 12 August 2011

West Bromwich Albion season preview - 2011/12

For the first time in many years, there appears to be a genuine mood of optimism among Albion fans as we are about to embark on a second successive campaign in the Premier League for only the second time in our history. There are undoubtedly a number of factors contributing to this cautious optimism, but I would say the main one is that, for the first time in the Premier League, we are starting the season with an experienced manager in charge.

Roy Hodgson turned our season around last time out after his arrival midway through February, and his tactical nous could be crucial to us building on what we achieved last season and consolidating in the Premier League. If we are to believe what he said in an interview a couple of days ago, the club have secured the three players who Hodgson wanted to bring to the club above all others in Ben Foster, Zoltan Gera and Shane Long.

Having Roy Hodgson in charge is one of the main reasons for the level of optimism at The Hawthorns this season

The two signings which have created the most excitement among Albion fans are probably that of Foster on a season-long loan deal from Birmingham City and the return of Gera after his contract expired at Fulham, with the Hungarian international captain being a favourite among The Hawthorns faithful following his previous four-year spell at the club. The main attribute which these two players have in common and which our four other signings don't really have is a wealth of Premier League experience, something which Hodgson seems to value very highly.

Here is a round-up of our transfer activity:
Ben Foster (season-long loan, Birmingham City)
Marton Fulop (free transfer, Ipswich Town)
Billy Jones (free transfer, Preston North End)
Gareth McAuley (free transfer, Ipswich Town)
Zoltan Gera (free transfer, Fulham)
Shane Long (undisclosed fee, Reading)

Scott Carson (undisclosed fee, Bursaspor)
Boaz Myhill (season-long loan, Birmingham City)
Gianni Zuiverloon (released, now with Real Mallorca)
Abdoulaye Meite (released, now with Dijon)
Giles Barnes (released, now with Doncaster Rovers)
Marcus Haber (released, now with St Johnstone)
Chris Wood (28-day youth loan, Birmingham City)

Key player
I think our key player this season will, once again, be Youssouf Mulumbu in midfield. Peter Odemwingie's goals effectively kept us up towards the end of last season, but Mulumbu was consistent throughout the season and played with the kind of passion and commitment which has made him a real favourite with the fans. Mulumbu is the kind of player who you might not always notice when he is producing one of his typically solid performances, but you definitely notice if he is slightly below-par or is absent from the team due to injury or suspension. Most of the time, if Mulumbu plays well, the rest of the team plays well.

Youssouf Mulumbu's form is crucial if Albion are to repeat their success of last season

One to watch
I think there are two players to look our for this season from an Albion perspective - Graham Dorrans and George Thorne. Dorrans spent most of last season out of the team, due to personal problems at the start of the season and a number of injuries. However, during the few games where he was given an opportunity to impress, he showed glimpses of the ability which saw him perform so well in The Championship during the previous season. If he is given more of a chance this season, I can see him being a big player for us.

Graham Dorrans could be a big player for Albion this season if given the chance

Thorne has emerged from the youth team and Reserves over the last 12 months or so as a player who can genuinely challenge for a first-team place this season. Despite only making two competitive appearances for the senior side, his performances in these matches and in training have led to suggestions that he could well force his way into the first team at some point this season. Thorne is unfortunate that the strongest area of our squad is arguably central midfield, which is where he plays, but time is on his side and if he impresses when he undoubtedly gets an opportunity in the Carling Cup, he may well leave Hodgson with a tough decision to make.

George Thorne has emerged as a player who can challenge for a first-team place this season

Expectations for this season
Premier League - 14th
I have seen a number of people suggest that we should look to at least match our 11th-placed finish last season, and maybe even push towards the top half of the table. However, I think remaining realistic is incredibly important and so I would be happy if we finished lower mid-table and were able to go into the last three or four games of the season with our Premier League status secured. Although there is still the best part of three weeks left until the transfer window closes, I think there are at least four or five squads who, on paper, are not as good as ours. With this in mind, if our key players have good seasons and avoid injuries, I don't see any reason why we cannot avoid relegation again.

FA Cup - Quarter-finals
Everyone likes a good cup run and one of the main disappointments of last season was that we were knocked out in the third round of the FA Cup after a lacklustre performance at Reading. We now have a greater number of options throughout the side than we did last season, so I think we should be looking at trying to reach the latter stages of the FA Cup if the draw is kind to us.

Carling Cup - Quarter-finals
This is the competition where, in the early rounds at least, some of the young players from our newly-established Development Squad will probably be given the opportunity to impress Hodgson and the rest of the first team coaches. When you add to these young players some of the experienced players who may not start the Premier League season in the starting line-up, such as Marton Fulop, Somen Tchoyi and Simon Cox, it is clear that we have the potential to go on a decent run in this competition if we avoid some of the bigger clubs in the draw. This is often the competition which clubs sacrifice to allow them to focus on their respective league or the FA Cup, but the reaction of Albion fans to our exit at the hands of Ipswich Town in the quarter-finals last season after naming a weakened side shows that if you are able to reach the latter stages of the Carling Cup, it is still a competition which supporters would like to see their side win.

Overall, I think we have a lot to look forward to this season. There is always a certain sense of optimism going into the first week of any new season, but there is plenty of reason for it on this occasion, with an experienced manager at the helm and a number of quality additions joining a squad who performed very well in the Premier League last season for much of the campaign.

Despite this, I'm sure most Albion fans (myself included) would settle for a lower mid-table finish without having to worry about relegation going into the final few games of the season, and maybe even a cup run as well!

Thanks for reading, please feel free to leave a comment with your expectations for the season or speak to me on Twitter @tomharper94.

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