Turning the tables
While Steve Clarke's dismissal following the 1-0 defeat at Cardiff City came as a surprise to the majority, the Premier League form table does not lie and West Brom were rooted to the foot of it. Whichever way you look at it, it had been just three wins from 16 games. Caretaker boss Keith Downing had admitted: "Our form is relegation form but we need to make sure we turn it around and get back to the middle of the table." That came before the Boxing Day draw at Tottenham Hotspur but the new man, whoever he may be, needs to reinstall the belief that saw the Baggies see off Manchester United to collect three points at Old Trafford, as well as running Jose Mourinho's Chelsea close enough to be disappointed with a draw at Stamford Bridge earlier in the campaign. Many will point the finger at the controversial late penalty conceded against Mourinho's side as triggering Clarke's downfall but small margins have ultimately proven costly in the weeks that followed.
Alongside the 96th minute decision to award Chelsea that debatable spot-kick for the equaliser, there has since been a number of moments which have surely left West Brom fans pondering the what-ifs and the maybes. A denied penalty in the 2-0 defeat at home to Norwich City left Clarke feeling understandably bemused, as Stephane Sessegnon's goal-bound effort struck Martin Olsson's arm when they really should have been given the chance to equalise. While in the defeat by Cardiff, the Scotsman's final game, Shane Long was prevented from netting a late equaliser as David Marshall pulled off one of the saves of the season to keep out his header which seemed destined for the top corner.
West Brom unquestionably had their fair share of misfortune in Clarke's final few games at the helm but a conviction for winning football matches regardless of what is thrown at them is something that needs to return to the Baggies' dressing room in order to halt their downward spiral. Their inability to kill-off games, or indeed force a way back into them while trailing, smacks of a team lacking in confidence. The Baggies have lacked a cutting-edge in recent weeks and have also been unable to keep things tight at the back to ensure that they at least get a result against teams of a similar grounding.
Shane Long and the striking conundrum
After a proposed summer-switch to Hull collapsed on transfer deadline day, Shane Long's West Brom future has remained up in the air ever since. Recent reports have suggested interest from Championship side Nottingham Forest as they look to boost their play-off push in January but the Republic of Ireland international undoubtedly possesses enough qualities to star in a host of top-flight outfits, West Brom included. Long's contract at The Hawthorns is due to expire in the summer of 2014, meaning that whoever does take the reins could find themselves embroiled in an unwelcome distraction in the fight for survival.
During the summer, the failure to recapture last season's top scorer, Romelu Lukaku, combined with the departure of the club's record goalscorer in the Premier League era, Peter Odemwingie, presented Clarke with a striking headache he was just unable to solve, when perhaps the most suitable answer to his worries in front of goal was heading north to meet Steve Bruce. Back in May, Long outlined exactly why he would be set to have a number of suitors chasing his signature over the summer as he gave a masterclass in terrorising England defences, netting a towering header and causing endless problems in Ireland's 1-1 draw at Wembley. While just last month in November, the 26-year-old issued the Baggies faithful a timely reminder of his talents, claiming the man of the match award after netting a superbly-taken brace in the West Midlands derby 2-2 draw with Aston Villa.
In his four months in charge this season, Clarke failed to settle on his options in front of goal, with Long, Victor Anichebe, Saido Berahino, Matej Vydra and Nicolas Anelka all being rotated, although it is the Irishman's return of three goals which sees him occupy the top of the Baggies' scoring charts. Dropping into the Championship would be doing Long's abilities a huge disservice, as would leaving him on the bench when your team is in desperate need of a goal threat, so West Brom could surely do with concluding his future sooner rather than later. Bruce openly admitted he would "definitely be interested" if Long became available again, while Downing said that West Brom were hoping to hold onto him, as he told the Daily Star: "We are treating it that Shane is very much part of the set-up here. The club are actively trying to get him to sign a new deal and we are quite confident of keeping him."
A tough start to 2014
West Brom's opening five Premier League games of 2014 will pose a huge test to the man filling Clarke's shoes as he looks to improve on the miserly record of just seven league wins recorded this calendar year. A rude awakening could lie in store for the new man as he faces a particularly difficult looking set of fixtures beginning in January but if the Baggies are aided by the much-fabled 'new manager syndrome', then their outlook for the forthcoming year might just appear that little bit brighter.
Newcastle United (home), Southampton (away), Everton (home), Villa (away) and Liverpool (home) is a run of games that West Brom could quite feasibly take eight or nine points from if the new man has the desired impact but it is equally a set of fixtures that could leave them empty handed by the time they travel to Crystal Palace on 8th February. From this season's previous clashes against the aforementioned five, West Brom managed to take just two points - drawing with Everton and Villa - and barring their West Midlands rivals, they are all teams who entered the Christmas period with their European ambitions still pretty much intact.
Upon leaving the club, Clarke said in a statement: "Going into this season, expectations were high, perhaps unrealistically so but with it still being only our fourth consecutive season in the top flight, our primary objective had to be establishing our status in the Premier League." Despite achieving a highest top-flight finish in 30 years last season, the priority in the immediate future for West Brom is undoubtedly securing their survival and the tough run of games ahead will certainly provide a big test of the new manager's credentials to do so.
Utilising the loan rangers
Last season, the year-long loan deal for Lukaku proved to be a masterstroke for the Baggies as the striker netted 17 Premier League goals after joining from Chelsea. The move perfectly demonstrated the merits of loan deals - suiting all parties involved - and it is no surprise that Clarke tried to emulate that success once again. This time around, however, other than perhaps Morgan Amalfitano, who has looked bright on occasion, Clarke's summer ventures into the loan market are yet to truly pay dividends as Matej Vydra and Scott Sinclair are still vying to establish themselves at after injury-plagued starts to the season.
Vydra, a season-long signing from Udinese, shot to prominence while on loan at Watford in the previous campaign, hitting 22 goals and claiming the Championship Player of the Year award in the process. Injuries have made it a stop-start introduction to Premier League life for the 22-year-old but he did come off the bench to net a late equaliser in the recent 1-1 draw with Hull, reminding everyone at the club of his capabilities in front of goal. Vydra's return to fitness offers the Baggies a timely boost and another valuable striking option should he manage to stay injury-free for the remainder of the campaign.
Another of Clarke's loanees, Scott Sinclair, made his first Premier League start since September in the draw with Hull but his progress has somewhat stalled since he swapped Swansea City for Manchester City in the summer of 2012. Upon sealing his signature, West Brom were hopeful that the winger would be able to emulate the displays shown in Swansea's debut top-flight season, with sporting and technical Director Richard Garlick stating: "Hopefully he will bring a wow factor to the team - and is a player who will excite the fans." Although Sinclair was substituted at the break against Hull and Downing has since admitted that he "did not get the starting XI right", the winger could still prove to be an asset if he rediscovers the form of 2011/12.