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Analysis: Alex Neil isn’t returning to The Hawthorns so what next for West Brom?

By Matt Wilson | West Bromwich Albion | Published:

It sounded for all intents and purposes after this game that Alex Neil would be returning to The Hawthorns soon.

Alex Neil isn't returning, so does that leave James Shan in charge until summer? (AMA)

The Preston boss left the door open to an approach from the Baggies, and couldn’t confirm whether he would take charge of another game for the Lilywhites.

But after the ‘pantomime’ of Saturday – as it was described by the man himself – came the bombshell on Sunday.

Neil signed a new three-year contract at Deepdale, and appeared to use Albion’s interest as a bargaining chip in negotiations already ongoing.

Both clubs say there was never an official approach, but who snubbed who is still yet to be determined.

If it leaves caretaker James Shan to see out the season then, based on this game, that may not be the end of the world.

Preston may have been poor, and affected by the speculation swirling around their manager, but the Baggies were the best they’ve been in weeks, comfortable in possession and clinical up top.

It stemmed from Shan’s decision to switch to a 3-5-2 in order to get Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle partnered together.

They scored four goals between them, including a second hat-trick of the season for Gayle, to each move up to 21 goals for the campaign.

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Albion are the only club in the top four tiers of English football to have two players with 20 or more league goals this season and it’s been 61 years since they last had two players reach 21 league goals in the same season.

That was Ronnie Allen and Bobby Robson, two fine players and England internationals to boot.

Which makes it even more galling that the Baggies will not finish in the top two this season.

How many more goals would Gayle and Rodriguez have scored were they playing in a front two together the whole time?

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How many months were wasted with Gayle on the wing?

How many more wins would Albion have, had they played this system, in this way, for the whole season?

A back three used to give Baggies fans heart palpitations but not this time around.

Matt Wilson on Alex Neil, James Shan and the need for West Brom clarity

Instead of playing it around the back, Albion’s defenders clipped balls forward towards their dangermen who were more likely to stick it or flick it because there were two of them.

The team had heeded Shan’s instructions to play ‘no risk’ football and it worked a treat.

The front two were helped by a rejuvenated Stefan Johansen, who had his best game in Baggies colours since joining on loan in January.

Given the freedom to get forward and support the strikers, he popped up everywhere, causing a nuisance of himself and providing an attacking threat from midfield.

This was the player Fulham had last season. This was the player Albion thought they had signed.

Hopefully he’s hitting his straps just at the right moment, and with Matt Phillips making a welcome return off the bench, all of a sudden there is an attacking threat from midfield.

A bit further back Jake Livermore broke up play while Chris Brunt chipped delicious 9-irons in behind the Preston defence.

His ball for Gayle’s opening goal wouldn’t have looked out of place at Augusta National over the weekend.

Dwight Gayle guides his first goal into the bottom corner. (AMA)

Shan’s decision to tweak the back three, moving Kyle Bartley into the central role and Ahmed Hegazi to the left, also worked.

Bartley looked far more at ease in that sweeper role and all three centre-backs looked more comfortable defending, rather than playmaking.

The caretaker boss has now won 12 points from his six games, and should be proud of his contribution so far.

That’s top two form, and he has won three out of three at The Hawthorns after taking charge of a team without a home victory in 2019.

With just four games left until the end of the season, letting Shan see out the campaign alongside an experienced coach is becoming an increasingly viable option.

Particularly if he continues with this system and this approach.

In many ways though, it's becoming the only option left.

Albion only have four games left of the regular season before a three-game tournament for £150million.

That isn’t very long to implement ideas, and five weeks of uncertainty at the top has now narrowed the options available.

With two games coming up over the Easter weekend, this week is probably the last chance the board have of appointing a manager this season.

After that, and a new man simply won’t have enough time ahead of the play-offs.

Regardless of what happens next, hopefully there is a place for Shan in the first team coaching set-up next season, if that is indeed what he would like.

There are signs that this meticulous coach could make it as a manager himself in the lower leagues, if he would prefer.

The weekend’s developments means Albion’s search for a manager continues, and the uncertainty that has clouded the club for the past five weeks remains.

The situation has needed clarifying to supporters for a while now, and as the play-offs loom ever closer, surely the board must now publicly offer a plan for the fans to get behind?

Perhaps there are reasons why preferred targets have not arrived, but there is a vacuum of information that is putting the club’s promotion charge at risk.

While there were aberrations at Millwall and Bristol City, Shan has done enough to be given the rest of the season.

That decision certainly wouldn’t go down as badly with the fanbase after a 4-1 win, albeit against limited opposition who had their minds on other things.

By this point, the majority of fans are simply crying out for any plan whatsoever.

Matt Wilson

By Matt Wilson
Football MMPJ - @mattwilson_star

Sports reporter at the Express & Star, who primarily covers West Bromwich Albion.

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