When Tony Pulis was appointed West Bromwich Albion manager in January 2015, it was met with a collective sense of equanimity among Baggies supporters. Pulis, perhaps rightly so, was seen as the one-man rescue act, the baseball cap-wearing saviour to haul the club out of a particularly desperate patch.
When the former Stoke City and Crystal Palace boss arrived at the Hawthorns, they were one point above the relegation zone and had experienced a turbulent year which saw the dismissals of three managers: Steve Clarke, Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine.
The club’s board eased the prevailing sense of doom at the club in securing Pulis’ services, especially as he fended off fellow contender Tim Sherwood, a man many would consider to be the antithesis of ‘steady Eddie’ Pulis.
Two years later and Pulis has indeed established West Brom as an entity in the top-half of the Premier League table. This season, he is on course to secure the club’s highest-ever points tally in the top-flight (they need another six to beat the 2012/13 season’s tally), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t already looking to the future.
According to reports, Pulis spent his weekend in Portugal scouting Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho. The powerhouse midfielder seems to have been on the cusp of a Premier League move in each of the last dozen transfer windows and came close to joining the Baggies last summer. However, Sporting rejected an offer of £20million and insisted the midfielder wasn’t for sale.
Despite the Portuguese club’s uncompromising stance, the failure to land him nevertheless contributed to a breakdown in Pulis’s relationship with the board. Pulis is determined to avoid further friction but is insistent that, to take West Brom to the next level, they need to invest in quality. Here’s a look at why Carvalho is one of West Brom’s transfer targets for the summer.
Carvalho would bring steel to Baggies midfield
At this point, the majority of Premier League followers will recognise Carvalho as a defensive midfielder with an imposing presence in the centre of the park.
For Pulis, he’s an immensely attractive package: strong in the air, tactically astute, composure on the ball and a deep understanding of how the game is played, and how he can stop the opponents playing. He is also quick for a big guy and, with an insatiable work-rate, would gel naturally with West Brom’s mentality and style of play.
Interest in Carvalho was revived when he lived up to his hype at Euro 2016. The 25-year-old came into the starting line-up for Portugal’s second game – a scoreless draw with Australia – and won plaudits for his display.
Seemingly playing the game in slow motion, Carvalho impressed with his measured passing and solidity in midfield, providing an assured foundation to allow the attacking players flow forward. Of course, considering it ended as a 0-0 draw, his team-mates further up the pitch didn’t excel in their duties, but Carvalho’s performance still attracted praise.
However, it was in the final where Carvalho showed his real potential. Having been suspended for the semi-final, Carvalho was reinstated by Fernando Santos and played all 120 minutes in the Stade de France showpiece. Carvalho won 100% of his aerial duels and made seven clearances, proving himself as an effective defensive shield in the face of France’s emphasis on speedy attacking football.
In addition, with Portugal set up to counter, Carvalho’s speed of thought and passing range became a main facet of their play. Carvalho showed a willingness to release the ball almost immediately after receiving it or when France were dispossessed. This is why he fits as a Pulis type of player: he doesn’t waste time or complicate matters. Instead, he retrieves the ball, sees a pass and shifts it on. It’s not always the most thrilling brand but, then again, neither are West Brom.
Why William Carvalho would be an upgrade on the current crop
The Baggies have reasonably strong options in central midfield, but Pulis is always keen to add depth to his squad. Claudio Yacob and James Morrison have been fine servants to the club, with 443 appearances between them, Jake Livermore has impressed since signing from Hull City in January and Darren Fletcher has continued to act as the heartbeat – the Scot has been ever-present since arriving from Manchester United in January in 2015.
However, he’s not getting any younger and Pulis has admitted to the midfielder looking tired at times this season, explaining why the coach is intent on pumping new blood into his squad.
The reason why Carvalho has attracted interest from the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool in the past is that he’s consistent and doesn’t have many significant weaknesses. Comparing him to West Brom’s current midfielders, he comes off rather well. His 13 key passes completed this season can only be bettered by Fletcher’s 17, although the Scot has always possessed a natural inclination to get forward, while you’re more likely to see Carvalho securely stationed in front of the defence.
Carvalho has also won 52 per cent of his total duels this season and 64 per cent of his aerial duels. Fletcher, Livermore and Yacob have 27, 44 and 57 per cent respectively in the latter category, so it’s clear Pulis is gravitating towards Carvalho’s excellent presence in the air, which would help them maintain their impressive record of scoring and creating chances from set-pieces, two categories they currently top in the Premier League.
Perhaps the most illuminating stat, though, is Carvalho’s forward passes. With 1412 this season, he has managed to nearly double Fletcher’s tally of 733, while Livermore and Yacob have totalled 253 and 497 respectively. Combining that with an impressive 88 per cent pass completion rate, Carvalho’s ability to turn defence into attack with astute, cultured passing is clearly a contributing factor in West Brom’s interest.
With Carvalho in the starting line-up, Albion would have both a bolstered midfield and a player who understands the importance of moving the ball quickly and intelligently.
How he fits into the bigger picture
— Jennifer (@JddEmpire) April 25, 2017
Carvalho may not be the greatest attacking weapon, but he can act as a vital cog in West Brom’s overall attacking philosophy. Pulis is expected to invest in another proven finisher to add more cutting edge in the final third, while adding another dynamic presence on the wing seems to be a priority with Wolverhampton Wanderers winger Helder Costa linked in recent weeks.
Carvalho showed during the Euros how he can be an effective outlet in bringing wingers into play. The majority of his passes during the tournament went out to the wing to bring players like Nani and Joao Mario into the frame. At the Hawthorns he would likely be instructed to carry out a similar job, ensuring that the Baggies get the best out of Nacer Chadli and Matt Phillips, who have both enjoyed stellar campaigns.
Ultimately, because Carvalho has established himself as one Europe’s most efficient holding midfielders, landing him would be a real coup for Pulis and West Brom. Indeed, the fact that Pulis used a rare weekend off to personally watch him suggests that the 25-year-old features high on his shopping list for the summer.
His fee may be a stumbling block, though. Valued at £25million, Carvalho would cost nearly twice as much as Chadli, the club’s current record signing, and may face stiff competition from other interested parties. If they do manage to sign him, the deal could go a long way in taking West Brom to the next level.