For a club that has just recently established itself as likely to be a regular fixture in the Premier League (as opposed to being a dreaded "yo-yo club"), there has been a fair amount of drama at the Hawthorns over the last 18 months or so. The fact that the current England manager was recruited from the Baggies has to rank as a pretty huge surprise. The downside of course being that it means that they have to adjust to yet another manager. Steve Clarke has been one of the more highly regarded assistant managers in the Premier League for some time after time at Chelsea, West Ham, and Liverpool but this is his first time as the front man for a club and it remains to be seen if the veteran of over 300 Chelsea appearances as a player has it in him to be the lead dog. We also have to see what sort of styles and formations he will prefer given that he has assisted managers as diverse as Jose Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish. Hard to know what to make of his potential impact on a team that finished last season a surprising tenth.
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The good news is that the Baggies have had a pretty solid summer. As a club that was surprisingly successful and doesn't have especially deep pockets, the key is not to have your roster gutted and WBA came away from the summer sales unscathed. That they added a few potentially interesting parts is just a bonus. They will have some measure of continuity that will help mitigate the risk of there being a new manager in place.
So, what does it all mean for the fantasy season? Click past the jump and find out:
Quick Recap of Last Season: The Baggies had a fairly steady season in 2011-12. They started out perhaps a shade behind the mid-table pack but never really came near the drop zone. As Roy Hodgson established a rhythm with the team over the second half of the season they slowly crept up from being in the 14th/15th range at mid-season to the safety and anonymity of 10th by the end of the season. It was also a season of changing focal points as injuries and ups and downs in form meant there wasn't one talisman for Albion. The torch went back and forth between Shane Long, Peter Odemwingie, and James Morison. That all of this happened with Chris Brunt, one of the Baggies most influential players the season before, not contributing consistently is impressive.
What's Changed: Nothing of significance has changed for the worse unless the change from Hodgson to Clarke is a major problem. Losing Nicky Shorey, who played very little over the second half of last season, to Reading and a few other odds and ends to teams in the Championship will not shake the foundations. Utility man Paul Sharner also left in a move that will hurt WBA's depth a bit but they had success over the second half of the season with minimal contribution from him in 2011-12.
On the way in, however, there have been some potentially useful moves - making Ben Foster's move from Birmingham permanent was a strong move and the additions of Marcus Rosenberg (permanent) and Romelu Lukaku (loan from Chelsea) to the strikeforce certainly gives Clarke some options. The presence of 4 potentially useful forwards in Long, Odemwingie, Rosenberg, and Lukaku may see Odemwingie move either out wide or into "the hole" behind the forwards to get as many goal-scoring options on the pitch at once. Just as important as the attacking additions, presuming that he adapts to life in the Premier League, could be Claudio Yacob. The Argentinian holding midfielder will at least provide some of the depth that Sharner took with him which will be important to maintaining the stout defense that saw WBA to their mid-table finish. Perhaps the most important change that could positively impact the Baggies, though, is the health of Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans - if their two most influential midfielders are in their best form then they could surprise.
Real World Projection: Things broke pretty well for WBA last season and despite them having a relatively successful summer, my guess is that they'll probably drop a spot or three in the final reckoning this coming season. You have to expect that of the teams that finished behind them that some combination of Sunderland, Aston Villa, and QPR will improve while of the teams ahead of them, only Fulham seem poised to go in the other direction. My prediction for WBA in 2012-13 is a solid 12th.
Fantasy Production: WBA's fantasy production in 2011-12 was solid but certainly not spectacular for a mid-table team at 2304.5 overall. The problem with WBA as a fantasy team, however, is that the points were spread out in a way that made most of their players risky propositions with different ones coming up with big performances from week-to-week rather than having a presence like Brunt the year before who was good for an average close to 10. Just to illustrate the point, WBA had ten 20+ point performances over the course of the 2011-12 season and they were spread among 7 different players (only Foster with 2 and Odemwingie with 3 had multiple 20+ point outtings).
Fantasy Gold: With Brunt injured, it just doesn't exist at the Hawthorns. To use an Olympic metaphor, there is a lot of fantasy bronze but not much gold going on here.
- Chris Brunt - There is a problem here. His production could improve significantly this season and he'd still not be a bargain. His price was so high coming off of 2010-11 than even a poor follow-up season didn't drop it to a point where he could be called a bargain. Tread carefully with him and maybe we can all hope he has a couple of mediocre matches early, his price drops into the 8s and then he regains his form. That's about the only we he is worthwhile outside of the occasional home match with a bad team.
- Peter Odemwingie - Another good player who is over-priced and will be even more so if he moves back in the formation to accommodate one of the new arrivals. When he's on, he can be amazing but trying to guess when those explosions will happen is maddening so I'd stay away until his price drops.
- Shane Long - If he's healthy and starting regularly next to Lukaku or Rosenberg then there is a good chance he could be a value play at forward with a starting price of 8.08. This is certainly not a slam dunk however. Long had a very good first half of last season but faded after getting injured and never really rebounded to his previous heights. Was the first half a mirage? Or did the injury make a significant impact even after he was able to play again? This will be one of the under-reported interesting storylines of the early season.
- Graham Dorrans - We've been waiting and hoping for Dorrans to be relevant as a fantasy player since the Baggies were promoted back to the Premier League. He was integral to their promotion campaign but has been injured and ineffective since they have arrived in the Prem. He showed some signs of life down the stretch last season which, if he continues it, will make him a potentially interesting fantasy play since he starts the season priced almost like a newbie at 6.67.
- Romelu Lukaku - If he plays, he has the potential to put points on the board like Kenwyne Jones (you know, before he became a shadow of his former self) for a cut-rate price of 3.71. If Brunt and/or Dorrans are healthy and giving a starting Lukaku good service then things could be even more interesting. The question is whether he starts with Long, Odemwingie, and Rosenberg also available. We'll certainly be watching in Week 1 to find out and we'll have our fingers on the Barn Door trigger if he starts.
- Marcus Rosenberg - Where Lukaku has a great deal of potential but hasn't proven much, the 29 year old Rosenberg has proven himself to be a solid but definitely not spectacular forward. He averaged a goal every third match or so in the Bundesliga which isn't bad but at his age and taking a step up in competition he feels like great depth as well as insurance in the event that Lukaku isn't quite ready to put his copious physical gifts to good use. Probably not someone who you should consider at the outset of the season.
First Five Weeks: Liverpool, @TOT, Everton, @FUL, Reading - With Liverpool and Tottenham still trying to get healthy and pull their final rosters together, things may have fallen nicely for the Baggies over the first five weeks. The first two matches still won't be easy but they'll likely be easier than if they were played in mid-October. Once past those two, then the sailing gets even clearer. The only downside, of course, is that there isn't much in the way of great bargains to be had on the WBA roster. Here's hoping Lukaku and Dorrans give us something to consider over the first five weeks.