West Bromwich Albion had conceded minutes before Valerien Ismael called Kenneth Zohore’s number in the 71st minute for his second Championship appearance of the 2021-22 season.
With Harry Cornick’s goal cutting Albion’s three-goal lead to two, Ismael gave simple touchline instructions to the Dane, who was due to replace Karlan Grant: win your battles and keep the ball. So far, Ismael’s side had dominated the proceedings and looked set for a comfortable first win of the campaign.
Zohore’s cameo, however, was disastrous. The striker worked on the pitch and was off the pace, made worse by his teammates who had bought into Ismael’s aggressive and pressing style. Long balls in his path bounced yards from his head, chest and foot, with Luton defenders surpassing his effort and intensity. The lack of penetration due to Zohore’s inability to stick the ball gave Luton the impetus for the rest of the game. In the end, Albion was lucky to escape the Hawthorns with a 3-2 win.
A striker who tricked former Albion technical director Luke Dowling into parting with £8m for his services looked unfit, indifferent and utterly overwhelmed. He will no longer play for the first team for the remainder of the league season.
With that in mind, Steve Bruce is under no illusions that it will take an impressive effort on Zohore’s part to win over fans. Other than his negligible impact last season, there isn’t much else to write home about the striker who arrived at the club with the clout to replace Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez, who had combined for 45 goals in the league the previous season. Two of his three league goals in an Albion shirt, which were penalty kicks, were key late equalizers in the 2019-20 campaign that helped with promotion, but his signature so far has been an absolute failure.
Zohore is no longer a prospect with his career ahead of him. He is now 28 and in the final year of his contract. If his performances don’t improve dramatically this season, the striker who led Cardiff City to promotion in 2017-18 could find himself running out of options in English football.
But if the fans and his coaches know it, so does he. Despite his struggles, Albion is optimistic that an injury-free season where he can develop his fitness and confidence could inspire him to play a valuable role in a campaign where promotion to the Premier League is the ambition.
It was a positive start to the 2022-23 campaign for Zohore, who, along with several of his teammates who ended last season with injury, arrived in Portugal a week before pre-season. Accompanied by Daryl Dike and Alex Mowatt among others, Zohore went through an intense rehabilitation program to bring him closer to fitness ahead of Bruce’s first pre-season as Albion manager. According to club sources, Zohore arrived at camp looking skinny after spending the second half of last season sidelined with thigh and muscle injuries and worked hard during the seven-day camp to make good impression during the pre-season.
Early signs are positive for the Dane – good news for the coaching staff, who are quietly confident they can inspire him to play a vital role next season. Zohore is under no illusions that Dike, who also looked sharp in pre-season training, will start the season as Bruce’s favorite number 9. affected schedule – there will be times when Zohore may need to be called.
With Bruce’s already impressive options in creative positions bolstered by the arrivals of John Swift and Jed Wallace, the pressure for the centre-forward to be so involved in all facets of the game is eased. Under Ismael, who relies on his forwards pressing aggressively from the front, Zohore was a misfit. For Bruce, who generally likes to build through midfield and license creative players to create opportunities for forwards, Zohore’s role is simplified.
Although he was never prolific, the best conditions for Zohore to thrive are with players around him to tune in and play alongside him. At 6ft 2in there is a subconscious temptation to label him a target man, but most of his best work for Cardiff came when he was allowed to run behind and chase balls.
Opta’s data provides a statistical snapshot of how Zohore’s game went from playing a starring role in a promotion-winning Cardiff side to becoming a misfit and scapegoat with Albion.
In the 2017-18 season, Zohore completed 1.38 dribbles per 90 minutes with 1.14 shots on target and recorded 1.08 dribbles completed and 1.32 shots on target the previous season. He scored 21 goals and assisted 10 in those two seasons with Cardiff, averaging a goal every three matches.
During the 2019-20 season under Slaven Bilic, his 1.38 shots on target per 90 was comparable (with the caveat that penalty goals count as shots on target), but the number of successful dribbles dropped significantly, falling to 0.83.
Although a sample of 24 minutes combined from two league games last campaign is not enough to analyze effectively, Zohore did not register a single dribble but played 12 aerial duels at the rate of one every two minutes . Although he needs to improve this part of his game, stats and video footage prove that he played his best football when he was allowed to play with the ball at his feet.
With Dike’s forces in the same vein, Bruce could see Zohore as an in-game substitute, on par or as capable cover if the United States international is rested or injured. Arguably, there have never been better conditions for Zohore to succeed since his arrival in the Dark Country.
After such an unsuccessful period since signing in 2019, the club wouldn’t prevent a move if there was a reasonable offer for his services. Still, Bruce is willing to wipe the slate clean and allow him to prove himself again if an opportunity elsewhere doesn’t present itself. For the sake of his career, it’s up to Zohore to prove that he can still deliver at this level.
(Top photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)