While David Moyes and Everton have been rightly lauded for their performances this season, many have overlooked the efforts of Steve Clarke and West Bromwich Albion. Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea has ensured that the West-Midlands club’s days of slipping under the radar are numbered.
With the patronising tag as the season’s “surprise package” just as Newcastle were dubbed at this stage last season, Steve Clarke’s side currently occupy fourth position and are only five points off top spot.
In comparison to last season’s overachieving Newcastle side, West Brom’s accomplishments so far probably eclipse that of Alan Pardew’s team, when pre-season expectations are taken into account. Most pre-season predictions perceived The Baggies as car-crash in the making: team with no obvious star player plus inexperienced manager equals relegation struggle.
Yet Steve Clarke has thus proven he has the managerial style to back up his widely-acclaimed substance as a coach. An opening day 3-0 dispatching of a possession-obsessed Liverpool, soon put pay to pre-season apprehension, with Saturday’s result the jewel in a crown of impressive score-lines against the likes of Everton and Tottenham.
So why are West Brom performing so well? For one, they have a system and style of play in which every player is comfortable. Not only is the formation suited to the team’s personnel but it keeps the opposition guessing. The ability for the team to interchange between 4-2-2-2 and 4-2-3-1 gives West Brom variability in their attack, making them difficult for opposition defences to read. Unsung yet technically adept players such as James Morrison, Zoltan Gera, Chris Brunt and Graeme Dorrans can provide quality service from wide areas or guile through the middle. Further element of surprise is provided by the ever-willing runners Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie, who can operate out-wide or upfront.
That said, this West Brom team is something of a hybrid of unpredictably and familiarity, behind the attacking four is a group of six players that seldom change. In front of the back four sit the capable duo of Youssuf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, a pairing who juxtapose tough-tackling and technical ability so brilliantly. While Mulumbu is surely one of the most under-rated players in the league, Yacob is unquestionably one of the signings of the season. Not a bad pair, eh.
Finally Steve Clarke has the thing that so many managers crave (and no, it’s not Jose Mourinho’s phone number). It is of course a settled back-four, and (until Ben Foster’s injury) goalkeeper. Full-backs Liam Ridgewell and Billy Jones are steady and offer support going forward, when necessary. Increasingly there is trend for managers to seemingly forget full backs should also be able defend as well as contribute to attacks (rumour has it Southampton’s full backs are fined if they go within 30 yards of their own goal) but in Ridgewell and Jones, West Brom have two that generally strike a good balance. Solidity at the back is provided in the shape of Jonas Olsson, Gabriel Tamas or Gareth McCauley; towering centre-backs with sound knowledge in the basics of defending.
Throw in the astute loan signing of prodigious powerhouse Romelu Lukaku and maybe West Brom’s success is not so astonishing after all. The deplorable “surprise package” label stereotypically describes a team with little talent somehow managing to gate crash the top of the table party. But the reality at West Brom is that of a sensibly managed, cohesive and competent team that can produce some marvellous football. Just ask Chelsea.
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