The Premiership usually goes according to form.
Oh sure, some bizarre things can happen from week to week. Norwich City can knock off Manchester United and QPR can steal points off Arsenal. Look at last weekend: Swansea with two late goals beats Arsenal at the Emirates, and two late goals for West Ham left Rafa Benitez still winless at Chelsea.
That said, there are not too many shock finishes when May rolls around. Yes, a totally dysfunctional Newcastle was relegated a few years back, yet many of that club’s supporters believed a year in the Championship hit the “reset” button for the franchise and without it, their renaissance last season wouldn’t have been possible.
But let’s face it, West Bromwich Albion finishing fifth in the table and qualifying for the Europa League? I can’t think of a comparable. The club hasn’t played in the UEFA Cup since 1982. How long ago was that? Well, Ipswich finished second in the old First Division that season, and the top flight also included Brighton & Hove Albion, Coventry City, and Notts County. So yeah, it’s been a few years.
We’ve seen teams make unusual Champions League runs out of England, notably Leeds United in that 2000 season — that squad, despite the troubling legal issues and behaviour surrounding Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, was really fun to watch. Even a year later, Ipswich took a fifth place finish and played UEFA Cup football.
But I’m not sure there’s a story like West Brom. The Baggies have been relegated THREE times in the past decade, and finished 17th in 2004-05 with just six wins. Since their initial Premiership promotion in 2002-03, they’ve played only five of nine seasons in the upper tier, and the other four in the Championship. So the big questions, is how are they doing this? And just as important, can they keep doing it?
Only Manchester United and Manchester City have more points than the Baggies. West Brom is level with spiralling Chelsea and a Tottenham squad starting to play as consistently as it did in the first half of last season. But West Brom doesn’t look like a fluke, and unlike, say, in mid-October, it’s hard to suggest a squad’s had incredibly beneficial scheduling.
They have clearly made The Hawthorns a remarkably difficult place for opponents to win matches. You almost sense teams are going in playing for a draw, even the very good squads, and in Roberto Di Matteo’s last Chelsea match, he was criticized for perhaps approaching the match that way.
Another thing in their favour is that they don’t play another major threat to beat them at their stadium until early February when Tottenham come calling. West Brom hosts West Ham, Norwich City, Fulham, and Aston Villa before then. If they can stockpile some wins and grab 10 of those 12 available points and can sneak points here and there in away fixtures, they’ve got a shot to battle for that fifth spot.
Also key is Arsenal not getting it together, and West Brom has to hope that Swansea (a more talented team top-to-bottom, but lacking consistency at times) can’t keep this strong stretch going or add pieces in the January transfer window. Swansea, in essence, dominated West Brom in a 3-1 win last month, and the Baggies really stubbed their collective toes last weekend in a 1-0 loss to Stoke City.
Problem is, West Brom is the hunted in the transfer market, not the hunters. Just this week, manager Steve Clarke had to insist multiple times that the team won’t sell leading scorer Shane Long, despite rumours that Liverpool is attempting to put together a big offer to pair Long with Luis Suarez to stimulate a dodgy offence.
Peter Odemwingie’s been a very consistent scorer for the Baggies the past three seasons, but their defenders who aren’t stars, don’t earn the bigger salaries, and aren’t sought after by other clubs are carrying the weight for Clarke. Swedish international Jonas Olsson has been a force for West Brom, and Northern Ireland’s Gareth McAuley’s been a bargain coming from Ipswich.
I can’t see West Brom hanging in the race for fifth, but given they’re following up finishes of 11th and 10th the past two seasons, and the fact the Premiership seems exceptionally top-heavy this season with down years by Liverpool, Arsenal, and Newcastle, I think a top-eight finish is incredibly reasonable.
And if they get every break in the book, they’ll be playing matches in April and May that could impact who plays in Europe, and if you’re a West Brom supporter, it’s probably the most reasonable thing you can ask for.