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Steve Bruce at West Bromwich Albion 2021/22 - tactical analysis

Steve Bruce at West Bromwich Albion 2021/22 – tactical analysis

After winning his first game out of six in charge on the weekend against Hull City, Steve Bruce has not had the best start to life at West Bromwich Albion. Bruce’s West Brom lost four out of his first games as a manager, including defeats to Sheffield United, Luton Town and Swansea City at The Hawthorns. At the time of writing, West Brom are now 13th in the Championship, eight points behind 6th-placed Luton Town. Trouble at the back has called into question how Steve Bruce set up his defensive tactics. This tactical analysis will look into West Brom’s defensive performance under Steve Bruce.

Sheffield United 2 – 0 West Brom

In his first game in charge, after taking over Valérin Ismaël, Steve Bruce led West Brom to a 2-0 defeat against Sheffield United. Looking at just the stats, it is clear why it fell apart for The Magpies.

Throughout the season, West Brom has averaged just over 50% possession. Against Sheffield United, West Brom left Bramall Lane with just 42% of the ball. Looking at one of the multitudes of great chances Sheffield United had in this game, it is easy to see why.

Example 1 – Sheffield United chance

Firstly, Karlan Grant dribbled the ball inside the box and looked to create a great chance; however, David McGoldrick intercepted the pass. Because of this, McGoldrick can pass the ball into his teammate to start their counterattack. However, as can be seen in the second frame, Adam Reach and Andy Carroll need to be moving towards the ball quicker. It can be argued that Carroll, a former-Liverpool striker, should not need to press as he is a target man. Be that as it may, Carroll and Reach should have, at least, pressed the ball-carrier whilst the pair were near the ball.

Darnell Furlong, number 2 for West Brom, neither presses nor recovers from his teammates losing the ball. This leads to him being taken out of the game as he is not doing anything defensively. George Baldock can pass the ball into Billy Sharpe. Semi Ajayi, a former Arsenal defender, does not apply enough pressure to Sharpe, leaving him way too much space to get a pass off. McGoldrick is now able to drive into the space left behind Ajayi. As a result, McGoldrick can get back on the ball in a 2v1 scenario. Then, McGoldrick can pass the ball into Iiman Ndiaye. Ultimately, Ndiaye shoots into the corner, but the chance is saved, brilliantly, by Wesley Foderingham.

This example makes it clear why West Brom had only 13.12 pressures per defensive actions (PPDA) compared to their season average of 9. West Brom’s players were not decisive enough.

What should Steve Bruce have done?

Admittedly, it is harsh to say this whole attack was the manager’s fault when Grant misplays a pass. Carroll and Reach do themselves no justice by simply not putting enough effort to help stop Sheffield United’s attack.

However, Bruce could have told one of his defenders to stick tight to Sharpe. This is because Sharpe is a great player when the ball is at his feet, but he does not have enough pace to burst away from someone like Semi Ajayi. Sticking tight to Sharpe may not have worked as he is intelligent enough to drag someone away from their position, but Bruce could also have given that defensive role to Alex Mowatt.

Being down to ten men, Bruce cannot be solely responsible for this even so there are more examples that he can take more blame.

Example 2 – Sheffield United’s first goal

One principle that almost every great team has implemented over the past ten years is not to give your opponents space within your third of the pitch. This principle is harder to act upon because West Brom were down to ten men after Jake Livermore got sent off in the 39th minute. However, Livermore was still on the pitch by this point, so there is no excuse to let your opponents have space close to your box. Looking at the frames, we can see that West Brom applied little pressure throughout all areas of the pitch. First, John Egan is allowed plenty of time on the ball on the edge of his box. Next, Oliver Norwood quickly passed the ball between Adam Reach and Karlan Grant towards David McGoldrick. Then, West Brom gave Jack Robinson an incredible amount of space within ten yards of the box.

West Brom still gave so much space to Chris Basham and Conor Hourihane. We can see the first of two mistakes by West Brom midfielder Alex Mowatt in the second frame. Mowatt was caught in front of his man George Baldock. When defending in a deep block, you follow one principle as a bare minimum. Defenders need to be in line with each other not to allow attackers to get in behind the defence. Mowatt didn’t follow a basic tactic; nonetheless, that mistake does not lead to the goal directly.

Reach and Mowatt make mistakes here. First, Reach should be pressing McGoldrick, similar to how McGoldrick intercepted Karlan Grant’s pass earlier. Reach should be putting some pressure on McGoldrick as he sees him clear as day. Next, Mowatt is caught higher up than he should be, plus he is bent down and not ready to fully sprint to get to the pass that McGoldricks end up playing to George Baldock. Because of these actions, McGoldrick found too much time, and Baldock is in too much space.

Because of Mowatt’s poor defending, Matthew Clarke was left to cover for him. Conor Townsend should have already been within reaching distance of Billy Sharpe. Townsend sees Clarke having to cover for Mowatt and has plenty of time to stop him sooner. However, it could be argued that one of the midfielders should be helping out the defence as no Sheffield United players are waiting outside of the box.

Then, Sharpe puts the ball in the back of the net.

What should Steve Bruce have done?

Bruce could have told Mowatt to play as a CDM rather than a makeshift central defender. Mowatt should have been filling the void McGoldrick found; Jake Livermore could have filled that space. Also, Bruce should not have allowed Sheffield United to have so much space close to West Brom’s box. This is because it gives the Sheffield United midfielders too much time to pick a pass out and cut through West Brom’s defence.

Example 3 – Sheffield United’s second goal

West Brom lost the ball in a fifty-fifty challenge, and Karlan Grant stopped playing. Grant needed to be pressing Oli Mcburnie because he was Grant’s defensive responsibility. Because of this, McBurnie can pass the ball into Hourihane. Next, Semi Ajayi played both Sharpe Morgan Gibbs-White onside. If he were in line with Furlong, both attackers would be offside, stopping the counterattack at the root.

More individual defensive mistakes show themselves. Furlong is trying to cover the passing lane. However, if he sticks to his natural right-back position, there is no need to. If Furlong had allowed Jayson Molumby to press, then Sheffield would have a more challenging time moving the ball around. Then, Reach is not helping out defensively, not for the first time. Reach should either be pressing McBurnie or Gibbs-White to help stop Sheffield from having the easy pass. Down to ten men, Reach should be chipping in defensively.

Jayden Bogle could have capitalised on West Brom’s defensive mistake here. McBurnie and Chris Basham could have easily got into the space left behind from Mowatt not dropping deeper. To clarify, it would make sense for Mowatt to be stood there if he is actively following McBurnie and scanning where he is. However, he does not do that, and if Bogle did pass the ball into the space, Sheffield would have had a different opportunity then what The Blades eventually created.

Matthew Clarke also takes up a strange position. He is not in line with his other three defenders, but he tries to intercept a potential pass to McBurnie. On the one hand, I can see why he is trying to step up as West Brom lost their second defensive midfielder in Livermore. Therefore, Clarke is trying to fill the CDM role. Despite that, Clarke must know that he is leaving a large amount of space in a dangerous area, eventually leading to Sheffield’s second goal.

Because of space left behind Clarke, Bogle makes an easy through ball to Gibbs-White. Then, Sharpe takes the ball of Gibbs-White and scores a goal that was unsavable for Wes Foderingham.

What should Steve Bruce have done?

This goal could be written off as simply a great play by Sheffield United, and there was indeed some tremendous attacking movement. Plus, West Brom were down to ten men by this time in the game. However, there needed to be an idea drilled into Bruce’s defence. There were so many times that West Brom players did not know whether to press, cover passing lanes or sit back.

Middlesbrough 2 – 1 West Brom

So, we have looked through Steve Bruce’s first game in charge. Bruce only had six days to implement his ideas into West Brom, so we will look at what has changed over the next couple of weeks.

Example 1 – Middlesbrough’s first goal

Marcus Tavernier’s great movement catches Dara O’Shea off guard. O’Shea is caught ball-watching, and Tavernier makes a run in behind the Irish defender. This was O’Shea’s first start since August after his ankle fracture, and it shows. For any Championship fullback, you are expected to concentrate at all times, especially in this scenario, but O’Shea leaves thee space. Former West Ham United winger, Grady Diangana and Adam Reach press Riley McGree, but McGree manages to thread the needle between the pair of oncoming defenders.

Steve Bruce at West Bromwich Albion 2021/22 - tactical analysis

Like Middlesbrough’s first goal, West Brom are not tight enough to the oncoming runners. The main difference between the two scenarios is that West Brom outnumbers Middlesbrough. Although, there is no point in having the three players, marked in blue, tracking back if they will not get in front of the runners. Paddy McNair could get on the end of the cross and score.

What should Steve Bruce have done?

Bruce should have clarified that Middlesbrough will try to throw more players forward. Therefore, the midfielders will need to help out the defenders rather than staying in West Brom’s rigid shape. O’Shea will have to take some blame for this goal. Despite that, Bruce must take some responsibility for not emphasising to his midfielders to drop back if West Brom were not going to press Middlesbrough.

Example 2 – Middlesbrough’s second goal

First, Conor Townsend gets beat far too quickly by Anfernee Dijksteel by just running at him. Because of Townsend’s poor 1v1 ability, Dijksteel is in a great position to cross the ball, and this is because there was a large amount of space behind Townsend.

Also, Middlesbrough matched up against West Brom’s defenders. Three Middlesbrough players had space to run into West Brom pushing further up the pitch. Only Kyle Bartley is stood side on to his oncoming attacker. This is bad as when, as a defender, you are stood square onto your attacker, like Semi Ajayi is here, it becomes harder to turn and follow the attacker’s run. Dijksteel could have crossed the ball between Foderingham and Semi Ajayi, which could have led to a good chance for Middlesbrough.

Further on, Isaiah Jones found an alarming amount of space in the box. The reason there is so much space is simple, and somehow there are more Middlesbrough players in the box than West Brom players. In addition, Semi Ajayi is accomplishing little by neither pressuring the threat, Dijksteel, or cutting out the passing lane between Jones and Duncan Watmore. Watmore was left entirely open in the penalty area. Despite this glaringly apparent defensive mistake, Watmore was not the player to score the goal.

Steve Bruce at West Bromwich Albion 2021/22 - tactical analysis

By the time Jones drives the ball into the box, two Middlesbrough players were wide open available to get the ball and shoot. This is simply because there are not enough West Brom players in their box. Dara O’Shea is also caught wrong-footed by the cross. Watmore is then given lots of space but fumbles the shot. But, to drive my point home, James Tavernier was also completely unmarked and slotted the shot in the back of the net.

What should Steve Bruce have done?

After a few weeks of training, Bruce surely covered defending coming from wide areas. Plus, Bruce must have known that Middlesbrough would attack with numbers, considering Boro’s league position and the situation at half-time. Because I assume a manager who has managed over 1,000 matches will have trained to defend from wide areas, Bruce should have told his midfielders to help the fullback being piled on at the back post.


Is Steve Bruce solely to blame for West Brom’s defensive problems? Short answer, no. There were lots of individual mistakes within the examples we analysed. Alex Mowatt, Dara O’Shea, Semi Ajayi, and Matthew Clarke made questionable decisions. However, Bruce most certainly has not helped West Brom’s defensive situation, having conceded eight goals from his first six games in charge. With a lack of clear structure, Bruce will have to implement his tactics into this side, which he achieved during their 2-0 win over Hull City.

Overall, there are many issues at West Brom and seeing Bruce trusting Taylor Gardner-Hickman shows that he is beginning to understand his squad available to him. Bruce’s CV includes gaining promotion to the Premier League four times under two different sides. Even though the way Bruce left Newcastle United was not on the best of terms, I trust Bruce to do a good job at West Brom so long as he keeps playing as WBA did against Hull.