The majority of Albion Twitter is currently preoccupied with Matheus Pereira’s explosive statement, while others are just fighting the Al Hilal fan-base. I actually feel quite sorry for Adam Reach, who signed for Albion in the midst of it all.
And yet, the Baggies still need to make several additions to the squad before the transfer window closes at the end of August. We consider three positions Valerien Ismael should consider strengthening, and some players who fit the bill.
The first position that needs strengthening is right wing-back. During the Baggies’ 2019/20 promotion campaign, Nathan Ferguson battled it out with Darnell Furlong for the more conventional right-back position in Slaven Bilic’s 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 system. After Ferguson’s injury (and subsequent decision to turn down a new contract), Dara O’Shea became Furlong’s counterpart.
With Ferguson gone and O’Shea looking more assured at centre-back, especially in a three, that leaves Furlong as Ismael’s only natural option in this department. Matt Phillips could likely deputise, though his future appears to be at right-wing, or even centre-forward.
There is also academy product Ethan Ingram, who came on for the final five minutes of Albion’s recent demolition of Birmingham City. It is always difficult to gather where academy products are at, especially in pre-season, and how they would respond to being thrust into a promotion-hunting Championship starting XI.
Only Ismael, his team and indeed Ingram know if he is ready but in the case that he is not, here are three options the Albion board should consider signing to compete with Furlong.
Ethan LairdEmbed from Getty Images
Coming through Manchester United’s coveted academy, it is thought Ethan Laird impressed so much at right-back that Brandon Williams was converted into a left-back, with the academy coaches considering Laird’s grasp of the position indisputable.
Laird also impressed on loan at MK Dons last season, notching three assists across 24 appearances. Indeed, Laird impressed most with his attacking output, averaging over one key pass per game (1.1), compared to Furlong’s 0.8 in the Championship (19/20). In fact, according to SofaScore, Laird ranks higher than Furlong in an attacking sense, creatively and tactically.
Laird’s attacking output was aided by MK Dons’ choice of formation (3-5-1-1), which placed Laird at right wing-back, highlighting his suitability in Ismael’s 3-4-3 system.
Laird’s defensive stats were also similar to those of Furlong’s most recent Championship season, and in some cases, better; Laird averaged 1.0 interception per game, as well as 1.3 tackles, compared to Furlong’s 0.8 and 1.0, respectively. Furlong did win 59% of his ground and aerial duels however, compared with Laird’s 53%. Overall, though, both averaged similar stats across their respective seasons.
It is worth noting that MK Dons finished 13th in League One last season, while Furlong and Albion finished second in the Championship. The gulf in quality is vast and significant; however, Laird’s performances remain impressive for an 18 year-old in his first season of senior football.
Ultimately, the step-up up from mid-table in League One to a Championship side vying for promotion, after just 26 senior career appearances, might be too great. Man United might also hesitate to sanction such a move, since Laird would unlikely displace Furlong, who has nearly 100 appearances at this level.
Djed SpenceEmbed from Getty Images
Djed Spence came through the youth system at Middlesbrough and broke into their first team at just 18 years old. He made 22 appearances that season (19/20), stepping up to 38 last season. At just 20 years old, Spence already has an impressive 60 appearances for a solid Championship side under his belt.
As with Laird, albeit this time in the Championship, Spence’s defensive stats last season were not too dissimilar to Furlong’s most recent season in the second division. Like Furlong, the Middlesbrough man averaged 0.8 interceptions per game, whilst winning 1.2 tackles per game (0.2 more than Furlong). It is worth noting again, however, as with Laird at MK Dons, Middlesbrough’s style of of play was more conservative than Albion’s, as were their ambitions.
One attribute Spence is superior in, though, is passing. Though Furlong is solid defensively and has an impressive attacking output, his passing ability often lets him down. During the 19/20 season, Furlong’s passing accuracy sat at 70%, going as low as 54% in the opposition’s half. Spence, meanwhile, averaged 76% last season, with a more impressive 65% in the opposition’s half. Ismael has already spoken of how he expects his Albion side to be dominant and astute in possession, and his wing-backs are likely to be crucial in achieving that.
Spence notably lacks quality when it comes to defensive duels, though, winning a meagre 45% of his ground duels last season, and just 25% of aerial duels. Furlong, meanwhile, won 53% and 65%, respectively.
Overall, Furlong is the better and more experienced player. Ultimately, though, this suits Albion. Furlong does not need displacing, and Albion should not be looking to sign someone better. Albion merely need someone who is solid at Championship level, someone who Ismael would be comfortable starting with should Furlong get injured, have a dip in form, or simply need a rest. Seemingly, Spence fits that bill.
Transfermarkt value the Middlesbrough man at just £2m which, given his age and experience at this level, could represent a real bargain. In fact, given the dire financial outlook of the Championship, it would not be unreasonable to suggest he could be available for less. If there is no route for Ingram into the first-team, Albion should consider signing Spence.
Ryan NyambeEmbed from Getty Images
The third and final option on this list is Ryan Nyambe, who currently plies his trade at Blackburn Rovers. Like Spence, Nyambe is very experienced for his age, entering his fifth season at Championship level, despite being just 23.
According to SofaScore, he has improved season-on-season, too. In 18/19, he averaged 6.57; in 19/20, he averaged, 6.68; last season, he recorded an average of 6.76. Clearly, he is on an upward trajectory.
In fact, his career appears to be in a similar position to that of Furlong when he signed in 2019; being the number one right-back at a mid-table Championship side, improving year-on-year, ready for a bigger challenge. In addition, Transfermrkt value the right-back at £2.5m, £800k more than what Albion payed for Furlong two years ago.
Given Nyambe’s performances for Blackburn, his signing would represent yet another bargain for Albion in this position. Indeed, his defensive stats last season were often better than Furlong’s 19/20 Championship campaign:
Nyambe vs. Furlong (Defence)
SofaScore rating: 6.76 vs. 6.79
Passing accuracy: 80% vs. 70%
Interceptions per game: 1.2 vs. 0.8
Tackles per game: 1.7 vs 1.0
Dribbled past per game: 0.4 vs. 0.4
Clearances per game: 1.4 vs. 1.6
Blackburn and Nyambe, however, like Middlesbrough, were much more defensively-oriented than Albion. As result, Nyambe’s attacking output was very low:
Nyamve vs. Furlong (Attack)
Assists: 4 vs. 1
Goals per game: 0 vs. 0.1
Shots per game: 0 vs. 0.8
Big chances created: 2 vs. 6
Clearly, in terms of defence and attack, both of which are crucial to the wing-back position, Furlong is the better option. However, Nyambe’s defensive stats are certainly impressive and he would perhaps be better suited to games against quality opposition, such as Fulham, Sheffield United and Bournemouth. Nyambe has also played centre-back for Blackburn, which would provide Ismael with even more options in that department.
Albion are in an awkward position when it comes to finding cover for the right wing-back position. Furlong’s suitability in Ismael’s system, as well as his talent and experience at this level, makes displacement unlikely and unnecessary. A season in the Championship is notoriously long and gruelling however, so any prospective player would be given opportunities outside of an injury to Furlong, or a dip in form.
There is little doubt, though, that they would be joining as Furlong’s understudy. Albion must also consider the place of potential academy graduates, too. Even if Ingram is not yet ready for the first team, his long-term path into Albion’s starting XI must not be hampered with any potential signing.
This makes Ethan Laird the most suitable option; at just 19 years old, he would likely relish the step-up in quality from his previous loan destination, whilst also accepting that he would not start every game. His stats in League One were impressive for his age, and those at Manchester United clearly rate him highly.
Ultimately, however, Albion should stick with Ingram if he has shown the potential in training. If he has not, a loan move (e.g. Laird) would be the sensible option.