We will discuss Albion’s midfielders and forwards in a separate piece.
In this article, we will assess West Brom’s overall clean sheet chances and then present a player-by-player rundown of their backline.
We’ve again roped in the help of Matt Wilson, an Albion die-hard and the former assistant sports editor at the Express and Star.
What is West Brom’s clean sheet potential?
West Brom had the third-best defensive record in the Championship last season, having conceded 45 goals in 46 matches, but they’ve looked shaky at the back on occasion.
The Baggies recorded 14 clean sheets over the campaign, a modest tally that was eight short of Leeds United’s total and seven fewer than Sheffield United managed in 2018/19.
Bilic’s troops curiously didn’t record their first shut-out at The Hawthorns until February of this year, with only five of their 14 clean sheets arriving on home soil.
No club in the English second tier conceded on fewer occasions (18) than West Brom on the road but ten clubs shipped fewer goals than Albion (27) on their own turf.
Some early-season goal-fests at The Hawthorns partly accounted for that, with scores of 3-2, 4-2, 4-2, 2-2 and 2-2 all recorded in the Baggies’ first seven home matches.
Perhaps that was a hangover from 2018/19, when Albion shipped a whopping 62 goals despite finishing fourth.
Albion tightened up in the final third of last season, registering nine clean sheets in their final 17 fixtures and conceding on just 12 occasions.
Personnel choices at the back may have been a factor in this, as we’ll discuss below.
A change from zonal to man-to-man marking at dead-ball situations earlier this calendar year was also a turning point, as Matt Wilson explains:
For most of the season, they were relatively solid from open play but struggled with balls into the box because of a zonal marking system. But they fixed that after Christmas and the majority of their clean sheets came from February onwards.
Albion’s overall home and away record in 2019/20 was as follows:
CS = Clean sheets
Player by Player
Starts: 46 | Clean sheets: 14
The only ever-present player in West Bromwich Albion’s squad last season, goalkeeper Sam Johnstone hasn’t missed a single league game since joining the Baggies from Manchester United in July 2018.
A total of 111 saves made was 20 higher than Leeds’ two shot-stoppers managed combined but seven fewer than Fulham’s goalkeeping duo recorded.
Johnstone had only registered nine clean sheets in his first year with the Albion but did better that tally in 2019/20, thanks to the late-season improvement at the back.
The Baggies don’t look likely to be the second incarnation of Sheffield United, however, and save points will be just as important as shut-outs for Johnstone in the Premier League.
A £4.5m price tag beckons but, while clean sheets may be limited, we could have another Neil Etheridge on our hands: Johnstone has saved six of the last 13 penalties he has faced.
The former Express and Star journalist Matt Wilson told us:
Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone could rack up a few save points. He kept 14 clean sheets last season (the highest in the league was 16) and his save percentage was sixth-best.
Although Johnstone could work on commanding his area, and I’m not expecting too many clean sheets, there’s no denying he’s a fantastic shot-stopper and on top of that, he’s saved six penalties in the last two seasons.
Starts: 22 | Substitute Appearances: 9 | Goals: 2 | Assists: 1
None of West Brom’s full-backs made more appearances than Darnell Furlong last season but by no means will he be assured of a start come Gameweek 1.
All but three of his 22 starts came before the end of January and the 24-year-old defender was mostly on bench duty thereafter, with Dara O’Shea taking over at right-back.
The reason? Balance.
Bilic has a policy of starting one attack-minded and one more defensively solid full-back, with the latter hanging back to prevent an overrun on the break.
Furlong’s chances of a start may largely hinge on who gets the nod down the left flank, then, although his manager could well dip into the transfer market to reinforce his options on either side.
Speaking about the switch at right-back in February, Bilic said of Furlong:
It’s about balance. We wanted to find the balance in the team. At one stage of the season we were lacking creativity, we were not dangerous enough – we weren’t creating much.
When Grady (Diangana) got injured, Matheus (Pereira) got suspended, some players had a dip in form and we were not fluid enough. Then we needed him, from the back, and he was also doing well.
In this moment, now, we have to find the balance between defence and offence. That stability at the back – that’s what we’ve found in Dara.
As I said, he’s still a very important member of the team. He will play. It’s not that I’m not happy with his overall game, especially if we’re talking about the season – his first season at the club. But we needed something different there, and that is the reason. The only reason.
Furlong does offer a threat if selected, with only winger Matt Phillips (127) – who played eight more games – trumping him (126) for open-play crosses among the Albion squad last season.
Furlong’s rate of chances created (one every 89.6 minutes) and shots (86.1) was the best among Albion’s backline, although over a third of his attempts did come from outside the area.
He was also the only West Brom defender to create a big chance in 2019/20 and carved out six of those gilt-edged opportunities in all.
Both of his goals were headers from corners.
Starts: 16 | Substitute Appearances: 1 | Goals: 3 | Assists: 0
As we discussed above, Dara O’Shea was the man Bilic turned to when he wanted to tighten up at right-back.
The young Irishman, who progressed through the club’s academy, hadn’t made a single league appearance for Albion until just before Christmas 2019, when he came off the bench to replace the injured Kyle Bartley.
O’Shea was thrust into the starting XI in the Championship equivalent of Gameweek 29 and played 16 of his side’s final 18 league fixtures, with all bar one of those run-outs coming at right-back.
A centre-half by trade, O’Shea’s future may well be at the heart of the defence but he could still be the go-to defensive-minded option at right-back next season, depending on who else Bilic brings in over the summer.
While not much of a goal threat from open play, the 6’2″ defender scored three times in the run-in, with all of his goals coming from dead-ball situations.
Starts: 19 | Substitute Appearances: 8 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 1
With Kieran Gibbs suffering injury after injury and Nathan Ferguson unavailable from the back-end of January, 27-year-old Conor Townsend was the man Bilic turned to as he sought to plug the gap at left-back.
Townsend didn’t start his first Championship match of the campaign until November and it wasn’t until the turn of 2020 that he was allowed a sustained run in the team.
The former Hull City and Scunthorpe United player started 14 of Albion’s final 20 matches at left-back, with his displays improving in the spring but still not enough to make him a sure-fire starter.
Indeed, when football resumed in mid-June after a three-month break, Townsend didn’t even make the 20-man matchday squad for the first two post-restart games.
Not as productive as Gibbs in attack or a particularly outstanding defender, it seems doubtful that he’ll start 2020/21 as Albion’s first-choice left-back and indeed the Baggies have already been linked with moves for Antonee Robinson and Rico Henry in that position since sealing promotion.
Townsend hasn’t scored a league goal for West Brom since joining two years ago and had only four shots in the whole of 2019/20.
Starts: 14 | Goals: 1 | Assists: 2
A name FPL managers will be familiar with, Kieran Gibbs made 137 Premier League appearances for Arsenal before making the switch to the West Midlands three years ago.
Whether he’ll be making a return to the top tier is another question, however, with Albion reportedly open to offers for the 30-year-old former England international.
With his wages poised to rise as a result of promotion, his contract set to expire in 2021 and injury problems blighting his previous season, Gibbs may well move on this summer.
He was reduced to just 14 starts in 2019/20, with a back problem and recurring hamstring injury limiting his involvement.
Three attacking returns in less than 1,000 minutes of pitch-time highlighted his potential but Furlong bettered him for underlying chance creation and goal threat statistics.
His defensive deficiencies were something that our Albion correspondent, Matt Wilson, picked out when he discussed Albion’s current crop of full-backs:
Dara O’Shea and Darnell Furlong will battle for right-back, with the young Irishman being more defensive, and Furlong more attacking.
At left-back, Kieran Gibbs provides Premier League experience and great technique, but he is injury prone and doesn’t always cut out the cross. Conor Townsend is currently the back-up, but Bilic might sign a full-back this summer.
Starts: 42 | Substitute Appearances: 1 | Goals: 5 | Assists: 0
With uncertainty abounding elsewhere, arguably the pick of West Brom’s defensive assets from an FPL perspective is Semi Ajayi.
A permanent fixture at centre-half for much of the campaign, Ajayi started 42 of the 45 Championship matches that he was available for.
The goal count particularly stands out, with his five strikes in 2019/20 taking his total to 16 over the last three seasons.
Ajayi was someone Matt Wilson picked out when we asked the former Albion reporter for Fantasy options to consider for 2020/21:
Central defender Semi Ajayi could be a potentially fruitful cut-price option. Although promoted teams are vulnerable to conceding (and as a fan I’m expecting a few hammerings), Ajayi has seriously impressed since his move from Rotherham and I wouldn’t be surprised if he picked up the odd bonus point in games Albion play well. He also loves a goal, scoring five times last season and eight times in the season before that.
The towering stopper registered more shots in the opposition area (24) than any Albion defender this season, with seven of them coming from within the six-yard box.
Just to put that in perspective, however, six Premier League defenders bettered that ‘shots in the box’ total in fewer minutes – and against better opposition – in 2019/20.
Starts: 37 | Substitute Appearances: 1 | Goals: 2 | Assists: 2
While Ajayi’s goal count caught the eye, Kyle Bartley actually bettered his fellow centre-half for big chances (seven v five) in 2019/20.
The minutes-per-shot averages weren’t too dissimilar, either; Bartley’s was 163.4, Ajayi’s 151.3.
The 29-year-old stopper, a former £4.0m bench fodder option at Swansea City, looks the better bet when it comes to the Bonus Points System, too.
Bartley bested all other Albion defenders for clearances, blocks, interceptions (13.2 minutes per CBI), while none of his teammates recorded more successful passes (83% accuracy at an average of 39.9 per match).
What he may not offer, however, is security of starts: after being a regular for much of the campaign, Bartley was benched in seven of Albion’s last 13 fixtures.
Matt Wilson explained:
In my opinion, Ajayi has what it takes to step up to the Premier League.
Bartley is slightly older and slightly slower, so even though he’s commanding, he could struggle against more nippy strikers.
Ahmed Hegazi started playing towards the end of the season and was one of the better players in the run-in, so he could start in defence alongside Ajayi.
Starts: 14 | Substitute Appearances: 2 | Goals: 1 | Assists: 0
FPL managers may remember Ahmed Hegazi from his blistering start in 2017/18, when he plundered 23 points in the opening two Gameweeks.
A regular for Albion in his first two years in the West Midlands, the Egyptian had to be more patient in the season just gone.
An injury led to his unavailability at the start of 2019/20 and he was mostly on bench duty thereafter.
The final quarter of the campaign saw him play more of a prominent role, however, with starts in nine of the Baggies’ final 13 matches – and two of those no-shows were enforced.
The Egypt international’s minutes-per-chance average was only a so-so 244.2 last season, almost exactly the same as it was in the Premier League in 2017/18 (241.9).
Speculation still surrounds his future and he may not even be a West Brom player come September but a £4.5m price tag likely beckons if he does stick around, which would seem to be the case for most of the players discussed in this piece.
The only other out-and-out defender who made a league appearance for West Bromwich Albion last season was Nathan Ferguson.
The versatile teenager made 21 starts and was a regular in the first half of the season, appearing at both right-back and left-back.
A more natural – if slight – centre-half, he scored once and assisted another Albion goal in his 1,748 minutes of pitch-time.
Ferguson was targeted by Crystal Palace in January and, although the move broke down because of a problematic knee injury that required exploratory surgery, it always looked likely that the young prospect would leave in the summer, with his contract running down.
The Eagles subsequently snapped him up as a free agent in July.
Former Cardiff City full-back Lee Peltier didn’t make a single appearance after signing on a short-term deal in January, while back-up goalkeepers Ali Al-Habsi and Jonathan Bond were also unused in the Championship last season.
Al-Habsi departed the club at the end of June, while Bond is also out of contract this summer.
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