Between 2004 and 2006, Slaven Bilić started his managing career with the Croatian under-21 side before taking over the senior national side. Notably, he steered them to the quarter-finals in the 2008 European Championship. He left them for Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow in 2012, then spent two years apiece managing Turkish club Besiktas and West Ham. At West Ham he broke their records for the highest number of points (62), highest number of goals (65) the fewest away defeats in a season (five) and the first time finishing on a positive goal difference (+14). In 2018, he was announced as the new head coach of Al-lttihad and in February 2019, he was sacked from the role at Al-Ittihad. Most recently, Bilić returned to England and took over West Bromwich Albion in June 2019 on a two-year contract.
With the season suspended until 30th April, West Brom’s title hopes are put on hold. Currently, West Brom are in second place in the Championship, only one point off table-toppers Leeds. However, they are six points clear of third-place Fulham. In this tactical analysis on the West Brom head coach, will give an in-depth analysis of the tactics he has used in his first season in charge with the Baggies.
Formations and personnel
Bilić has seen plenty of success through his go-to 4-2-3-1 formation. In fact, he has used this formation 30 times this season. It is something which Bilić has got his team accustomed to and rarely changes. By using two defensive midfielders it allows Bilić’s side to control the tempo of the game from deep and allow the attackers to have a high intense press which puts teams under a high amount of pressure. His attacking midfielders are set up to operate in a narrow formation which allows his full-backs to utilise the space on the flanks to get in behind a team’s defence.
In the image above, it shows us Bilić’s most-used formation and all of his key players that have been vital to his success this season. We will now go on to analyse his system in greater detail.
The core of Bilić’s side
Bilić sets up his defensive shape with two solid central defensive midfielders to create a low block. For West Brom, he has been using Jake Livermore and Romaine Sawyers for this key role. In possession, the pair will drop deep in front of their centre-backs and this creates a square between the four players. This allows them to set the speed of the game from a deeper position of the pitch. Often teams opt for one defensive midfielder to drop between the lines, however, Bilić commands for both to drop which keeps retention of the ball and starts attacks from deep. This has helped accumulate their high average of 54.7% possession which ranks 4th in the Championship this season. This can partially be down to both Livermore and Sawyers capability of retaining the ball and to move it quickly through the thirds.
Additionally, by Bilić playing his two defensive midfielders deep, it stops teams from pressing them proficiently. This ultimately isolates the striker in the low defensive block as we can see in the image below. If the opponents recognise this and the midfielders join the press, Livermore and Sawyers have great ability to beat the press and find free attackers and exploit the space.
The role of Bilić’s defensive midfielders is also fundamental to their transitional play. Having Livermore and Sawyers in defensive deeper positions allows more West Brom players to press higher up the pitch and increase their chance to win the ball back. By the defensive midfielders providing a press in the middle of the pitch it unsettles the opponents in the core of the pitch. Bilić has instilled this into this West Brom side to win the ball back quickly and regain possession.
Another use of using two defensive midfielders is that it allows West Brom to deploy a high attacking line. To press successfully, a high line needs to be in place to suffocate any space in between the lines, with Livermore and Sawyers covering the central area it allows the attackers to push on forward. In the image above against Millwall, Sawyers is covering and this allows West Brom’s attackers to advance higher up the pitch. They regain possession via a poor touch from heavy pressure and they create a goal-scoring chance.
Having two central defensive midfielders for Bilić is key in many aspects. It not only protects the defence and controls the striker but it is implementing a fundamental high press which allows West Brom to win back possession high up the pitch. However, it is hugely beneficial as Bilić opts for a progressive style of play by going through the thirds, this season they are averaging 78.78 progressive passes compared to 46.23 long passes per game.
A way Bilić brings out the best out of his attackers is by bringing them into narrower positions on the pitch. By operating his attacking midfielders narrow this beats the oppositions low block. He makes sure that they are extremely close together to create quick and decisive actions in the middle third and final third of the pitch. Top goal scorer Hal Robson-Kanu also benefits hugely by the attacking midfielders playing in this style. It doesn’t leave him isolated which a solo striker often can struggle with having little options around him. However, with Bilić’s tactics, they can intertwine well and create plenty of chances when going forward. More so they have scored the joint-most goals with 64 this season in the Championship.
In the image above, the three attacking midfielders highlighted are narrow in the centre of the pitch. The space between them and Robson-Kanu is close and this allows interchangeable passes. However, this is only due to the nature of the defensive midfielder’s role in behind them which allows them to attack with more freedom in the centre of the pitch.
Another example is when Bilić’s side beat Birmingham 3-2. For their equaliser, Austin was found on the edge of the box but it’s the attacking midfielders’ positioning which creates the goal. They receive the ball and they’re compact in the centre of the pitch which lets them easily exchange passes with one and another and this doesn’t leave Austin isolated on his own upfront.
With the mixture of his attackers playing narrow and central-midfielders staying compact, it suffocates the opponents in their half and keeps them trapped in dangerous areas. West Brom demonstrate this in the image above, as they regain possession against Luton on the edge of their box and get a shot at goal. They achieved this by overloading this area of the pitch by squeezing their players together. This leaves no space or time for the opponents to play it out from the back and it results in either West Brom winning possession in a threatening position or the opposition going long.
For the latter, West Brom are well organised with their centre-defensive midfielders and centre-backs and they can keep the striker under control. In the image below, Derby went direct into their striker’s feet and they force him to play backwards due to their low defensive block that includes both central defensive midfielders.
Since the attacking midfielders are used in a narrower role and operate centrally, it allows a vast amount of space for the full-backs to exploit on the flanks. The opposition often get sucked into the centre with the attacking midfielders and West Brom can shift the ball to the overlapping full-backs. In the image below, we can see Connor Townsend hugging the side-line, high and wide to receive the ball.
A benefit to this is if the opposition comes out to stop the full-backs it creates gaps in the defence and the attacking midfielders can utilise it. However, if the opponents give space and time to the full-back then he can drive into the space and either cross the ball or pull it back into the centre to a free player. Bilić does focus on crossing if the opportunity arises. He doesn’t always get his team to create chances from central positions as he will use the space out wide with his full-backs.
In this passage of play above, Townsend opts for the inside pass as the Wigan right-back is closing down his space out wide. Here it allows his teammate to use the space centrally and create a shot in zone 14. Bilić’s side are effective in creating spaces for his central players through the use of different tactics in other roles across the pitch.
West Brom’s weakness
As a result of West Brom’s narrow midfield and their full-backs in high advanced positions, this creates space on the wings which the opponents can exploit. Bilić’s side are often easily counter-attacked in the channels as the centre-defensive midfielders are keeping their shape with their centre-backs in the middle of the pitch and they’re never filling in for the full-back if they push forward. This ultimately leaves them vulnerable at the back.
In the image above, both of West Brom’s centre-defensive-midfielders are narrow and their right-back is massively out of position and this allows Brentford to utilise this and set off an attack out wide. Bilić allows this due to the physical size of his centre-backs and trusts they can deal with crosses coming into the box.
In the image above, Stoke find West Brom’s left-back stepping up the pitch. They feed the ball into the channel to create a 2v1 situation. Here West Brom allowed Stoke in behind their defence. However, Bilić combats this by packing the penalty with his players so it is hard for the opposition to find an open teammate when crossing it in. In the image below, West Brom have six players in their own box when they’re defending a cross by a Swansea player.
The FA are still reviewing what is going to happen with the EFL. They have recently expunged non-league football (steps 3-6) and it looks like it could be the same for the higher up divisions. This would be a real shame for Bilić as he was on course to gain automatic promotion in his first season at The Hawthorns. Bilić has created a great philosophy at the club and it is clear that the players understand their roles under his management.