The Premier League is back, and so are the mind-numbing, often unsubstantiated league table predictions. Who would have thought every single football ‘expert’ would have West Brom at 20th? Well, if you watched them throughout last season, surely not you.
Grady Diangana was excellent; Matheus Pereira bamboozled opponents; Romaine Sawyers oozed class; and Jake Livermore was immense. But with all these great players in mind, it is easy to forget the greatness of the man who led Albion back to the big time: Slaven Bilic.
Croatia (2006-2012)Embed from Getty Images
Bilic became Croatia boss just after the largely disappointing 2006 World Cup and immediately promoted three relatively unknown names from the under-21’s to the senior squad: Eduardo, Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka.
Not many people expected much from these three youngsters, nor from Bilic himself, but boy, how wrong they were. It was in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign that Bilic led Croatia to a first-placed finish, including home and away wins against England.
At the tournament itself, Bilic coached Croatia to three victories out of three in the group stage, including a 2-1 win against the eventual finalists. Despite bowing out at the quarter-final stage, Bilic and his team were met with great praise and encouragement.
There was not much expectation on Croatia to do well, especially with star striker Eduardo injured, and so Bilic remains one of the most highly praised Croatia bosses in recent memory.
West Ham (2015-2017)Embed from Getty Images
In 2015, Bilic returned to his former playing club, West Ham, after mixed spells at Lokomotiv Moscow and Besiktas.
In his first Premier League game on 9 August, the Hammers beat Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium. Just three weeks later, he became the first manager to lead West Ham to victory at Anfield since 1963.
This set the tone for what would become a record-breaking season for Bilic and West Ham: they achieved their highest number of points (62), the highest number of goals in a season (65), a positive goal difference for the first time in the Premier League (+14), the fewest games lost in a season (8) and the fewest away defeats (5).
To make things even better, Manchester United’s victory in the 2016 FA Cup final meant West Ham’s seventh-placed finish was enough to get them into Europe for the first time in the Premier League era.
Bilic still managed to guide West Ham to a respectable 11th-placed finish the following season, despite the well-documented fallout with Dimitri Payet occurring mid-season.
He was harshly sacked in November 2017 and left the team with a record of 1.33 points per Premier League game, the best of any previous West Ham manager.
West Brom (2019-present)Embed from Getty Images
Bilic was appointed manager of West Brom after the disappointing semi-final play-off loss to bitter rivals Aston Villa, instantly revitalising the club.
There was no-one better placed to confirm this than ex-CEO Mark Jenkins, who relayed to The Athletic reporter, Steve Madeley: “He is just great around the training ground. We managed to get him in and you think, ‘That’s good’ but after two or three months, you really do think, ‘How did we get him – why is he here and not at a Premier League club?”
We all know what happened after this: Bilic led Albion back to the Premier League on his first attempt by earning an automatic promotion place.
There had been some expectation that Albion would be in and around the play-offs, with the permanent departures of Jay Rodriguez, Dwight Gayle, Salomon Rondon and Craig Dawson weakening Bilic’s squad significantly.
Instead, Albion remained in the top two positions every game-week from September until the end of the season.
Now, as we look to the Premier League season ahead, there is the feeling among pundits and general football fans that Albion’s squad will not be enough to keep them up in what is the strongest Premier League lineup in years.
And yet, Bilic has exceeded expectations before, so there is no reason why this job at hand is any different.
In fact, there appears to be a mood around the camp which agrees with this school of thought. After signing, Diangana said: “We have the quality to do that and compete and if we go with the ambition of doing well and not just surviving we can exceed some people’s expectations.”
Also, in a recent interview with WBA TV, Bilic believes Albion “should go into the Premier League not as a Championship team that did well but as a confident member of the Premier League.”
If Bilic can work the same magic he has worked before, all things may point towards Albion’s Premier League survival.
If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in: Analysis of West Brom’s Premier League fixtures (2020/21).