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West Brom transfers: Evaluating every signing of the Guochuan Lai era

After eight consecutive seasons in the Premier League, the Guochuan Lai era has seen West Brom descend from a solid top-flight club to a middling Championship side.

While several mitigating factors have contributed to Albion’s fall, player recruitment under Lai has been criticised by the supporters as one of the primary reasons for the struggles in recent years.

Ahead of the upcoming season, where promotion is undoubtedly the aspiration, Steve Bruce will be active in the transfer window as he aims to build a side with character and quality, something Albion lacked last campaign. Last season’s 10th-place finish, Albion’s worst since 1999-2000, reflected a side that has lost its way.

So, The Athletic has looked at every permanent first-team signing since Lai’s first summer in charge in 2017-18 to assess how player recruitment has contributed to Albion’s fall.


The “let’s just say it didn’t work out” players.

Oliver Burke (£15 million)

As the landmark signing of Lai’s first summer as owner, big things were expected from the forward when he completed a £15 million move from Bundesliga side RB Leipzig in 2017. While he displayed electric pace and impressive physicality, Burke struggled to translate his exciting potential shown at Nottingham Forest during his first season with Albion.

He played a bit-part role in a campaign where Albion returned to the second tier for the first time since the 2009-10 season, but fans expected him to come to life in the Championship. He made just five more league appearances for West Brom, with loans to Celtic and Alaves. Burke departed for Sheffield United in 2020 and spent the second half of last term on loan at Millwall.

Zhang Yuning (£6 million)

If Burke’s signing is arguably the most unfortunate permanent signing of the Lai era, Zhang is undoubtedly one of the strangest. It has been reported that his transfer did not cost the club any money, as it was funded entirely by Lai, which comes as some consolation given he did not register a minute for the club. The striker is now back in his native China with Beijing Guoan, scoring 24 goals in 63 league matches.

Branislav Ivanovic (Free)

While it is perhaps harsh to add a 36-year-old Champions League winner into this category, his signing represented a rushed and below-par recruitment process in the summer of 2020 that culminated in relegation from the Premier League.

Despite making 13 appearances, he was part of a defence that conceded four or more goals on three occasions, including conceding five goals at home to Crystal Palace and newly promoted Leeds United, respectively.

Kenneth Zohore (£8 million)

Since signing for the club in 2019, Zohore has struggled to repeat the form displayed in his three-year spell at Cardiff City. Frozen out of the first-team squad for the majority of last campaign, Zohore’s 19-minute cameo in the 3-2 win over Luton Town for the second game of the Championship season proved to be his final act.

Two of his three goals for the club came in consecutive weeks in the 2019-20 season, with late equalisers from the penalty spot against Reading and Derby County. Had Albion lost those matches and therefore missed out on two points, Brentford would have won automatic promotion in their place.

Robert Snodgrass (Undisclosed)

The former Scotland international was Sam Allardyce’s first signing as manager as he looked to find experience and quality to bolster a side short on attacking productivity. Overall, the transfer was largely forgettable, and he departed a year later “by mutual agreement” after playing 15 times for the club.

He did play 90 minutes in Albion’s 3-2 win over Wolves at Molineux, though, so there is that.


Some contribution

Kieran Gibbs (£7 million)

Unfortunately, fans will remember Gibbs’ four-year period at the club for his time on the treatment table, particularly in his final two seasons. The 2018-19 Championship season was his best in an Albion shirt, scoring four times and providing four assists in 36 league appearances. It is a shame injury negatively affected his West Brom career, as he was often a solid contributor when fully fit.

Adam Reach (Free)

A sensible pick-up by Valerien Ismael as a capable performer in defence, midfield and attack, Reach made 34 appearances and scored two goals last season.

He has not pulled up trees since signing as a free transfer last summer, but he arrived at the club in his prime years and is a useful if unspectacular squad player. He will not go down as one of the best signings of the Lai era, but he certainly will not be among the worst.

David Button (£1 million)

The time has come for Button to come of age as a first-choice goalkeeper. Initially recruited in 2020-21 for £1 million to play second fiddle to Sam Johnstone, Button has had to make do with limited first-team action.

In his brief cameos, particularly in a solid performance in Albion’s win in the Black Country derby in 2021, Button has proven himself to be a goalkeeper capable of playing at Championship level. Expected to be Bruce’s number one heading into the new season, fans will be able to better assess the Button signing at the end of the next campaign, though, at his price tag, his signing looks sensible business.

Cedric Kipre (£900,000)

The powerful centre-back was an integral part of Wigan Athletic’s impressive run in the second half of the 2019-20 season, keeping clean sheets in 10 of the final 13 matches, and looked an astute signing when Luke Dowling recruited him for £900,000 ahead of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign.

Despite featuring heavily under Ismael between November 2021 and his sacking in early February, Kipre fell out of favour under Bruce and seems positioned to depart this summer. Depending on the return Albion receive for his services, Kipre could net the club a small profit with reported interest from Rangers.

Gareth Barry (£1 million)

A reliable performer across his 22-year career, Barry made 52 league appearances in three years for Albion. While injury cut short the 2017-18 relegation season, he returned to make 24 league appearances in the Championship, where he captained Albion to a 2-0 win at Villa Park against his former club.

Had Albion captured his services a few years earlier, he would likely have gone down as one of the better signings of the Jeremy Peace ownership, alongside the likes of Gareth McAuley. As it happens, Barry spent his twilight years at Albion struggling to get fit. His signing was not a disaster by any means, but he was past his prime.

Andy Carroll (Free)

Sections of the fanbase were disappointed to hear Albion would not renew Carroll’s contract, as his short spell earned him admirers during a struggling season. Carroll joined West Brom on January 28, having come to the end of his short-term deal at Reading, to provide reinforcements to the attack following a hamstring injury to Daryl Dike.

It is believed he was not offered a new contract as Bruce wants to recruit forwards who can play alongside or around Dike, who offers many similar attributes to Carroll, who provided a helpful stopgap in attack with three goals in fifteen appearances.

Kamil Grosicki (Undisclosed)

Grosicki made only 19 appearances for Albion, but for a reported £1 million, he added depth and occasional quality in the 2019-20 promotion-winning season.

In the three matches Albion won during Project Restart, Grosicki registered a goal or an assist in each, including in the 4-2 win over his former club Hull City. Though he barely featured in the following Premier League season, his contribution at a small price tag was valuable.


An understated but important role

Romaine Sawyers (£2.9 million)

Billed as the homecoming king, Sawyers’ return to Albion after six years away was a mixed bag. He played a pivotal role in the promotion season under Slaven Bilic alongside Jake Livermore, as he dovetailed Livermore’s all-action style with grace and creativity from deep.

While he was optimistic he would suit the Premier League pace, Sawyers struggled in his debut season in the top flight and barely featured after Sam Allardyce took the reins from Bilic. Now a free agent, the boyhood Albion fan was released primarily because Bruce must cut down his squad to focus on incomings. Still, for a fee reported to be in the region of £3 million, Sawyers’ transfer will go down as an understated but important part of Albion’s 2019-20 promotion season.

Kyle Bartley (Undisclosed)

A mainstay in the first team for much of his four-year period with the club, Bartley is part of the senior leadership team in the Albion dressing room. He has been a solid performer in the main, but with a year remaining on his current contract, Albion may listen to offers for his services this summer.

Charlie Austin (£4 million)

Put simply, Albion would not have won promotion without Austin’s 10 league goals in the 2019-20 season.

While he was an awkward fit alongside Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira, Austin scored vital goals under Bilic, including six in six matches as Albion collected 16 points from a possible 18. Now at Queens Park Rangers, the 32-year-old was not prolific in Albion colours but could be relied upon in crucial moments, particularly from the penalty spot.


There’s something there, but they have lacked consistency

Alex Mowatt (Free)

It all started so well for the Leeds United academy product, as Mowatt scored three goals in the first 10 matches of the season and Albion picked up 22 points while unbeaten. Unfortunately, his form dropped as the results under Ismael declined, taking him seven months to score another goal despite remaining a regular with Bruce at the helm.

Part of the issue with Mowatt’s decline in form is failing to find a defined role within the midfield, though his quality is undeniable. There is a feeling that John Swift could add a decisive edge in the final third which would provide the space for Mowatt further back to dictate play and pick passes with his cultured left foot.

Grady Diangana (initial £12 million)

If Bruce can resurrect the Diangana that thrived under Bilic in the 2019-20 season, Albion fans are in for a season where promotion is a real possibility. If not, the initial £12 million outlay may arguably rank among the most regretful decisions of the Lai era.

Fans have put his decline in form down to the lack of opportunities on the left wing. While this is undoubtedly a contributing factor, if the majority of Diangana’s minutes will come from the right, he must soon seize the opportunity.

Daryl Dike (£7 million)

In two cameos, both cut short by injury, Dike demonstrated all the impressive signs of a physical but technically gifted No 9 capable of effectively leading the line in the Championship. Owing to his impressive goalscoring record at MLS side Orlando City and Barnsley, it is no wonder that former boss Ismael was so keen to reunite with the USA international at The Hawthorns.

Consistency requires game time, so the club cannot correctly assess the signing without a run of consecutive performances next season. Still, he should be back to 100 per cent by the start of the 2022-23 season, as he is already away on a pre-season camp for players who finished last season with an injury.

Callum Robinson (Swap)

Robinson has been something of an enigma in an Albion shirt. He is capable of being one of the most well-rounded forwards in the second tier, as seen by his performances against Chelsea, scoring twice home and away against the eventual Champions League winners. On the other hand, he can often drift in and out of matches.

While he is yet to win over the Albion supporters fully, his permanent transfer from Sheffield United ranks among one of the most sensible transactions of the Lai era, with Burke moving the opposite way in a swap deal. Seven league goals and nine assists in 2021-22 reflect a player with the potential to contribute in the Championship, though opportunities may be challenging to come by next season with Dike’s return from injury and Albion targeting attacking reinforcements.


Solid

Ahmed Hegazi (£4 million)

While he was part of the side that suffered relegation in 2017-18, Hegazi was generally regarded as one of the few players who could hold their head high after a disastrous season collectively. He was an important player the following season as Albion finished fourth in the Championship but played a bit-part role in the promotion-winning campaign under Bilic in 2019-20.

While Hegazi was typically solid on the pitch, his dressing room and training ground presence was arguably his most impressive attribute.

“He has a quiet personality, but he’s ultra-professional in terms of his timekeeping and the extra bits he does to keep himself conditioned and make sure he looks after his body,” says Jimmy Shan, who was caretaker manager at Albion for the final months of the 2018-19 season.

“If you were to speak to people like Jack Fitzwater or Dara O’Shea, who are up-and-coming centre-halves, they would hold Ahmed in high regard because he trains how he plays, he’s fully committed and adds a real intensity to training.

“If I was working within the academy and a young defender asked me for advice, I would tell them to go and watch Ahmed Hegazi; watch how he trains, how he looks after himself and the way he performs because he is inspiring.”

Karlan Grant (£18 million)

Let’s face it, Grant was Albion’s player of the season for 2021-22. Though his all-round game often leaves a lot to be desired, and the £18 million paid for his services has strengthened a promotion rival, 18 league goals meant he finished comfortably as Albion’s top goalscorer last season.

While sections of the fanbase have called for Grant to be dropped in favour of Diangana, his ability to score goals consistently in the Championship means Bruce will not decide to leave him out of the starting line-up without serious consideration.

Had he been picked up for under £10 million, there would be an argument that he deserves to be regarded as one of the best signings of the Lai era. Still, he is yet to prove himself in the Premier League and played a significant role in Albion’s struggles last season, so his price tag knocks him down a grade or two.

Conor Townsend (£750,000)

“Conor Carlos” started last season in electric form as a wing-back and looked an ideal fit in Ismael’s aggressive 3-4-3. This came following a solid individual campaign in a disappointing season in the Premier League, where Townsend ousted Gibbs at left-back to become the nailed-on starter under Allardyce.

The second half of the 2021-22 season did not go so well for Townsend, but for less than £1 million, he is among the outstanding bargains of the Lai era.

Darnell Furlong (£1.5 million)

Like Townsend, Furlong started last season in solid form.

His ability to cannon the ball into the box from throw-ins caused a panic in the opposition area as they debated whether to clear for a corner or a free kick to prevent the inevitable scramble in the penalty box.

As the success of his long-throw declined, Furlong’s form dipped, and he struggled to recapture his strong early season form. With Albion expected to search for right-back cover, Furlong may encounter stiff competition to retain his starting right-back position.

Jay Rodriguez (£12 million)

Rodriguez was a popular figure at The Hawthorns during his two-year stay as he scored 29 goals in 82 league appearances. His double in the first 11 minutes of the 3-2 FA Cup victory at Anfield over Liverpool stands as his best performance in an Albion shirt, and he formed a deadly partnership with Dwight Gayle in the next campaign, scoring 22 goals while often playing second fiddle to his strike partner.

Though he returned to boyhood club Burnley before the club achieved promotion under Bilic, he was a standout performer during his two-year spell and is remembered fondly for his goals and a certain iconic moment against local rivals Aston Villa.

Semi Ajayi (£1.5 million)

Perhaps the player who has benefited most from Ismael’s departure, Ajayi has found a new lease of life under Bruce. The towering centre-back has exceptional pace for a central defender, making him a valuable tool for a side using a high defensive line. Under Bilic, Ajayi was a significant part of the side which won promotion in 2019-20, and with three years remaining on his deal, Bruce will hope he can have a similar influence on this campaign.

Sam Johnstone (£6.5 million)

Following Ben Foster was always going to be tough for the former Villa goalkeeper, but Johnstone proved a solid capture and developed into an England international. Though his first season with the club was inconsistent, Johnstone improved in the promotion-winning campaign under Bilic and then took his performances to a new level in the Premier League, where he frequently single-handedly kept Albion in matches.

While he was never truly adored by the Albion faithful, Johnstone was one of the best keepers in the Championship, and Button has a difficult act to follow. He was one of the more solid purchases of Lai’s ownership.


A class of their own

Matheus Pereira (£8.25 million)

In a league of his own, Pereira is one of the best signings Albion have made this century. The Premier League campaign arguably topped the brilliant Championship season that brought eight goals and 20 assists, where he established himself as one of the most exciting players in the club’s modern history.

While his hat-trick of assists and goal against Swansea in a 5-1 drubbing during the 2019–20 season was his finest performance in an Albion shirt, the enduring memory of his time in the Black Country came against Wolves, where two goals saw West Brom earn a memorable victory over their local rivals.

After proving himself in the Premier League, Pereira switched to Al-Hilal in the Saudi Professional League. He was part of the side that won the Asian Football Confederation Champions League in 2021 and featured in the Club World Cup against Chelsea.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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