Fan Focus: Baggies Banter With Chris Lepkowski

Julian Finney

For this week's Fan Focus we turn to the Birmingham Mail's main man for all things West Bromwich Albion, Chris Lepkowski to give us the lowdown on Steve Clarke's men ahead of tomorrow's game.

In stark contrast to last season, West Brom have started badly this time around, picking up just two points from their first four games, mustering only one goal. Have performances been as poor as the points total suggests

Chris Lepkowski: In a word, yes. Albion have claimed two decent results away but they were relatively poor at Everton. The second-half at Fulham was better. They deserved the point there. Poor in the home games versus Southampton and Swansea.

That first and so far only league goal came in the last minute at Craven Cottage. Was the point deserved?

CL: Yes. Fulham clearly aren't fully firing either. It showed. Both sides were nervous, both sides played with fear at times. But a draw was a fair result at Craven Cottage.

Despite doing so well last season, the Baggies have bought and sold a number of players this summer. Do you think it is a case of the new players not quite gelling yet that has caused the poor results or is something else hampering the team?

CL: The players you mention were still drip-dripping into the club on September 2. Albion don't rush their transfers.

This is to be commended in many respects, but this year was different. Norwich, Cardiff, Swansea, Villa, Fulham were among the clubs who didn't hang around. They signed players -- for big money in some cases. Albion signed Nicolas Anelka, last seen warming Juventus' bench following a poor spell in China.

They had two new-comers against Fulham last week in Amalfitano and Anichebe. This week Sessegnon is likely to make his debut. These players don't 'click' overnight. The big problem in my opinion is replacing goals.

At one point on September 2 they were set to lose Odemwingie and Long, and fail to re-sign Lukaku - that's 33 goals. Long stayed. But there is a significant onus on Anelka, Anichebe, Vydra and, yes, Sessegnon too.

As far as transfers go, how do you rate West Brom's summer business in general and more particularly, ex Sunderland man Stephane Sessegnon?

CL: Anelka was excellent in pre-season, but since the real football started, he's been lacking in spark.

Amalfitano and Anichebe have played once. Lugano, aged 32, likewise. Popov we know about - and he's behind Liam Ridgewell at the moment, which makes you wonder why he was re-signed on loan in the first place.

Sinclair is still not up to speed and on loan. Vydra, also on loan, is raw and currently injured. Gera is recovering from a long-term injury and 34.

This is an Albion side with the present in mind. The signings have a short-term feel about them. If this was a big summer for Albion, what will next summer be? This summer's strategy makes little sense.

Who will Sunderland have to keep an eye on this weekend; one of the new signings or one of last season's stars?

CL: Stephane Sessegnon, perhaps?

Sunderland have done even more business than West Brom this summer. How do you rate the transfers on Wearside and is there anyone in the new look squad who you fear will cause the Baggies problems?

CL: Always been fascinated by Jozy Altidore. Promised so much as a youngster. Looking forward to seeing his progress. Fletcher, as always, is a huge threat. Borini? Maybe.

This summer Sunderland entered a new era in terms of the way they go about their transfer business, bringing a new scouting team and a Director of Football. West Brom seem to have a similar set up, scouting players around the globe. Am I right in thinking that and if so, do you feel it is a system that works well?

CL: The big misconception is that this is a foolproof formula for all or a misnomer for others. It isn't. What works for some, is less suitable for others. From a perception point of view, it works well while things are going reasonably on the field. That's wrong in my view.

Inevitably people point fingers if things go wrong. Again, simplistically, there is no right or wrong way of signing players. Good judgement is needed. If you have poor judgement then it makes no difference whether it's the manager or a sporting director who has chosen them.

Albion have been in a transitional period in respect of their technical director. Dan Ashworth left to take up a job at the Football Association. Richard Garlick took over this year. They use scouting networks, videos, other data to help them with this process.

If Albion sign five bad players is it because the sporting and technical director is deficient or the process below him which has failed? Or is it bad luck? Borja Valero, back in 2008, was deemed a bad signing. He's since been capped by Spain and been linked with moves to Barcelona, Arsenal and Spurs. Bad signing for Albion? Or just a bad time, or even bad luck? It's too simplistic to label one system as successful, another as a failure.

At WBA such a figure needs to do more than oversee a scouting network - he also needs to be the leg man between the 'head coach' and the Board. He needs to be a diplomat.

Sunderland's system might be different so cannot be directly compared, but more and more clubs are looking at this method. That said, the days of a head scout being some old guy with a border collie and a Ford Cortina are long gone. There's a science to it now, but it deviates. Albion talk about de-risking and due diligence when they discuss the process of signing players. Yet they signed a player (Anelka) who considered retirement after one game. Like I said, it's not an exact science....

Despite the poor start, it must be too early to talk about Steve Clarke being under pressure, or is it? Does last season's showing buy him additional time and how do you rate his managerial style in general?

CL: If Clarke is under pressure then it's for one reason: 2013. Albion have taken 18 points from 22 games since the turn of the year. The Baggies finished 8th last season, but they were nearer to 17th than 7th.

Personally, I hope he is given a chance. He needed players on July 2. He completed his squad on September 2. Two weeks on, Albion need several players to gel. Steve Clarke will be held responsible in many respects, but it's too convenient to blame him.

He didn't tell his central midfielder (Mulumbu) to lunge into a bad tackle against Southampton. Likewise he didn't direct Anelka to send a low shot wide when Albion were 0-0 versus Swansea. And he certainly didn't instruct his backline to defend like drains in those games.

Managers need periods of good and bad. I've always said there are only really four stories in football these days which genuinely prompt vast interest: Who is signing? Who is leaving? Who's playing on Saturday? Who is the next manager? We've had the transfer window... so that leaves the latter two. Football managers are no longer given time, and that's wrong.

Clarke is managing a side who had the 15th highest wage budget last year. Eighth was over-achievement. Fourteenth would have been a success. Albion will inevitably average one or two wins per month - it's the kind of club they are. Sad, but true. Three years of punching above natural weight have produced unrealistic expectations. T

That said, as a manager, Clarke needs to get back to doing what he did last summer. Be bold, trust your instincts, don't be scared. He did it then. He needs to do so again. He HAS made mistakes, and he will come under pressure. But, equally, West Brom aren't Real Madrid either.

Paolo Di Canio has overseen a similarly dismal set of results this season; any thoughts on him as a manager

CL: I'm speaking as somebody from the outside, but I look at it like this -- what on earth possessed a good club like Sunderland to appoint an inexperienced, volatile, explosive manager like Di Canio?

Martin O'Neill and Steve Bruce had faults, but both were safe. Di Canio? It's a gamble which made little sense. This is a man who withdrew a goalkeeper at Swindon because he made a mistake. Sunderland should not be appointing managers like this.

If they wanted a maverick there are plenty who are more experienced. Every time I read about Sunderland, I read about Di Canio... I'm not sure that's the perception your club should be striving for. Are you Sunderland AFC or Di Canio FC? On the plus side, at least Joe Kinnear isn't his technical director....

Finally, what do you think the result will be on Saturday and will both clubs turn their seasons round?

CL: I've predicted a West Brom win. I think Albion will face a tougher time this season but should be ok. Sunderland? Steven Fletcher is key. I hope, for Sunderland's sake, that Di Canio doesn't fall out with him too.

Excellent work as ever by Chris. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @ChrisLepkowski and read his columns on a regular basis in the Birmingham Mail HERE.

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