Sébastien Pocognoli has much to prove at West Brom
The latest Belgian international to join the Premier League is leftback Sébastien Pocognoli. The 26-year-old Liègeois has joined West Bromwich Albion as a replacement for Liam Ridgewell who after several seasons at the Hawthorns has moved to MLS side Portland Timbers.
It’s difficult to believe that it’s eight years since the likeable Pocognoli broke through at Racing Genk whom he joined having spent the majority of his formative years at Seraing (where he played with a young Kevin Mirallas and Jonathan Legear) and subsquently Standard. He left Sclessin because he felt that the club at the age of fifteen because he felt didn’t place enough emphasis on young players. How that would come to change. Pocognoli took his chance after the winter break in 2006 and quickly became one of the most important players under Hugo Broos with his enterprising attacking approach, scoring a header in just his second game against Westerlo from a Steven Defour cross.
Boosted by the fact the club were prepared to invest him in as their first choice at leftback, he proved the following season that he was no flash in the pan. Genk finished second to Anderlecht after letting the title slip away towards the end of the campaign. Pocognoli was seen by many as the best leftback in the league that year, carrying out his role to provide plenty of crosses from the left to great effect. He was also often entrusted with the side’s free kicks and corners. It was no surprise that he began to attract interest from Lazio, Ajax and AZ among others. ‘Poco’ as he is known opted to move to Alkmaar where he linked up with compatriots such as Maarten Martens and Mousa Dembélé. In my view the two seasons he played under Louis van Gaal were the best of his career, marauding forward down the left-hand side as AZ won the title in 2009.
Due to AZ’s severe financial problems in the wake of the collapse of owner Dirk Scheringa’s bank DSB, Pocognoli had to be sold and he went home in the winter of 2010, meaning he would finally play first-team football for his home-town Standard Liège. With the Belgian league being more combative than the Eredivisie, his return to Belgium was marked by a poor disciplinary record. It was at Standard that the friendly and humble but feisty Pocognoli had his “Graeme Souness” moment. Following a 2-6 away win in the Walloon derby against Charleroi on a sweltering hot August day, which saw the supporters being hosed down to keep them cool, he planted a Standard flag in the centre circle. His manager Ron Jans felt it was a lack of respect for les Zèbres, Poco apologised and had to pay a fine of €650.
For a long time Pocognoli has been on the edge of the Belgian team but had never managed to cement a place as the long-term leftback in spite of Belgium’s long-standing weakness in this area. Georges Leekens had imposed upon him that his chances of doing so would be enhanced were he to leave for a stronger league and so Pocognoli joined his former teammate Felipe at Hannover 96. Leekens’ successor Marc Wilmots would keep a close eye on him having played and managed in the Bundesliga himself. The ill discipline we spoke about was evident on Pocognoli’s Bundesliga debut in the Nordderby against VfL Wolfsburg when he was sent off after 33 minutes but returned from suspension to finish the season in the team.
It was a turbulent first (and last) full season for Pocognoli. He was again a regular in the first half of the season despite his attacking nature being at times causing friction with Mirko Slomka but the club were struggling and the former Schalke boss was shown the door in December. An injury to Andre Hoffmann saw Pocognoli return to the team against FC Bayern where a good performance would go a long way to winning Wilmots over. However, he had little impact going forward and he was at fault for two Bayern goals. A knee injury in the spring put paid to the end of Pocognoli’s season and while he has his supporters, me included, his lack of match sharpness and his indifferent form for die Roten meant that Wilmots felt he could only put the leftback on standby for the World Cup in Brazil.
While reports that Hannover were looking to get rid in the January window were wide of the mark, they were prepared to let him go this summer having signed Chilean international Miiko Albornoz. The former Genk player who cut his teeth against wing wizards such as Ahmed Hassan and Sergio Conceição was a popular figure due to his teamwork and tenacious attitude, which should prove a hit in the Midlands but ultimately came up short. A return of one assist in 30 appearances for a leftback reputed more for his ability going forward than in defence was insufficient although it is worth noting that key strikers Didier Ya Konan and Mame Biram Diouf were far from ever-present during the campaign.
Alan Irvine & #WBA staff spoke to Lukaku and Mirallas about Pocognoli during recruitment process
— Chris Lepkowski (@chrislepkowski) July 12, 2014
West Brom spoke to Mirallas, who knows Poco inside out as we alluded to earlier and ex-Baggie Romelu Lukaku before deciding to make their move. Their new head coach Alan Irvine is highly regarded in the game and with a new-look back line this season, Pocognoli won’t be the only player having to bed in. He is a player who has never quite made it but has plenty of time on his side at 26. He has a lot to prove but few would begrudge him a successful move to England where he is in good company in terms of Belgians. Seeing so many potential international teammates at such close quarters on a regular basis will no doubt impress upon the ambitious defender. Bonne continuation et bonne chance Poco!