Slaven Bilic had offers from all over the world last summer but he chose West Bromwich Albion. His return to English football was styled as unfinished business. The man himself spoke of the Championship being on his bucket list. That is not how everyone, West Brom included, sees England’s second tier. It is a league most are in a hurry to leave.
Bilic looks set to do just that if the current crisis allows the fixtures to be completed. The Baggies are only one point behind leaders Leeds and, more significantly, six clear of Fulham in third. A good run of results earned Bilic the manager of the month award for February. Nine months on from his appointments, how does he feel about the Championship now?
“It is one thing to talk about the bulls,” Bilic tells Sky Sports.
“It is something quite different when you are in the arena.”
He adds: “It is definitely different. I had always followed the Championship and I had listened when people told me that it was 46 games and you are playing all the time. I thought, OK. But when you experience that, then you really find out how manic it is.
“It is physically demanding but more than physically it is mentally unbelievably demanding too. Sometimes you think that the games are coming too soon.”
It is easy to understand that emotion given that Bilic spent six years as an international manager with Croatia, most memorably eliminating England during qualifying for Euro 2008.
Back then, he had months to prepare for games. Now it is days.
“It is eleven against 11 and the game lasts 90 minutes so some things don’t change,” he explains. “You still have to prepare your set plays and so on. But when you have been an international manager, it is very different and you do have to adjust. You cannot work the same way as a club manager in any league but especially not this league.
“It is not that the games are coming every other day. You have three days. You have sessions. You do have enough time for meetings and for preparations. But the problem is that when it is the fourth or fifth game on the bounce, sometimes the players do not have space in their heads to get as much information as is needed to prepare them for the game.
“The players can become mentally tired. That is when you have to just give them a couple of pointers rather than the proper in-depth analysis that you would like so you don’t confuse them. Sometimes you have to do less on this or that and just hope that less is more.”
Bilic is not new to English football, of course. He guided West Ham to seventh in the Premier League in his first season in charge, the club’s best performance in the competition in terms of points and goals. Still, he insists that the Championship is a very different challenge.
“The Premier League is a better league than the Championship,” says Bilic. “Of course it is. If you make a mistake against Premier League clubs then you get punished for that. But we played in the FA Cup against two teams from the Premier League this season and in terms of finding time and space on the ball there is less of it in the Championship.
“You can talk about quality but, make no mistake, physically you have to be on top of your game in the Championship. The players in this league are honest, they are proper and they run. If you are not ready to match that then your chance of winning the game go drastically down. Not a little bit down but drastically down. You cannot just rely on quality.”
West Brom have plenty of that but it has been a struggle and Bilic has had to make tweaks along the way. A dip over the festive period that coincided with the loss of Grady Diangana brought a winless run of seven matches that threatened to undermine their early work.
The turnaround since then was much needed.
“We changed our system a little bit and we made one or two personnel changes,” explains Bilic. “But, to be fair, the important thing was the fact that we reacted really well.
“It is always about the first win. The big one for us was against Luton at home. Then we went to Millwall and Reading and won, drew with Forest at home and beat Bristol City away. These were very demanding games but we were very good. The team has the confidence back. That is why we are in a positive situation with nine games to go.
“We are back where we were before Christmas and, of course, we want to stay that way, which will not be easy because the hardest thing is to be consistent. Especially in a situation where consistency doesn’t mean being average. It means being at the top. That is what it takes if you want to win any league let alone the Championship.”
From the outset, Bilic has looked to use his squad and has been praised by supporters for his in-game management, finding solutions to West Brom’s problems on the pitch. No team has scored more equalising goals. Albion have also picked up 24 points after conceding first – by far the most of any team in the Championship. They have a winning record in such games.
“There is no doubt that the strength of our bench has been one of the big things for us. It has worked really well, especially in situations where we have had all the squad fit. We have trained from the start of the season not to have a first eleven that you call the regulars. Instead, we have a group of 15 or 16 players who are all match fit when you need them.
“First of all, it has been very important for the points because we have been able to turn the games our way. But it is also important for our daily training. It breeds competition every day. It keeps everybody on their toes. The challenge with that is keeping everybody happy and having a good mood around the place, but so far it has been good.
“The players are good characters who have gelled together and shown fighting spirit. Our players are better on the ball than off the ball, we know that. But our aim is to make them work so they become a proper solid team. In the majority of the games we have done that because my staff have convinced them that they cannot just rely only on their class.
“You never know about the result but in every game we have felt that if we can match the opponent in terms of second balls and competing at set-pieces then we will have more chances to win the game because of our quality. This is a demanding league and we have had to show passion and physicality as well as quality to succeed.”
The job is not done yet and he knows it.
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