Surprise of the season – West Bromwich Albion
When the big names in English football like Liverpool and Newcastle are struggling to get a foothold and move to the top of the table, there is one club which has defied all the odds and marched to the third spot in one of the toughest football leagues in the world. West Brom have enjoyed their best ever start in 32 years in the league. Not bad for a team which has just played 12 games under the new manager Steve Clarke. They have shown consistency under three different managers which includes Roberto Di Matteo, who went on to win the Champions League with Chelsea and Roy Hodgson, who is now managing the England national team. West Brom have been in awesome form so far with 4 wins out of four. Their latest match being a six goal thriller against Sunderland which the Baggies won 4-2. Last time they won 4 consecutive games was in 1980-81 season and ended the season as fourth best in the league. Their football has been excellent and entertaining even though they have been deprived of funds and had to rely on keen observation and bringing in budding young talent and developing them. Some may say its one of those lucky runs that the clubs have during every season. But this certainly has not been the case with West Brom.
“It’s certainly not been a lucky start, We’ve earned every point we’ve got. You could even say we’ve been unlucky not to get more points in some games.” Clarke mentioned in the club’s website and he is completely right.
They have shown versatility, hunger to win games and have never feared to take the big clubs head on. They have broken the idea of parking the bus and relying on counter attack while they face clubs like Liverpool and Chelsea as they came out successfully with a win. They were inches away from clinching a result against Champions Manchester City but for the late goal from Edin Dzeko who sunk the hopes of the Bagggies faithful. All the credits should go to the man who transformed from one of the best Assistant Coaches to Coach – Steve Clarke.
Steve Clarke – The Mastermind
Clarke began his coaching career in Newcastle which was managed by Ruud Guilt, who was his manager during his playing days at Chelsea. He then moved on to coach the Chelsea youth team and eventually ended up as the Assistant Manager to Jose Mourinho. He became a part of the successful Chelsea side which won the league twice. After his brief stint at West Ham as assistant to Gianfranco Zola, Clarke parted ways with the club and headed to the Merseyside where he and Kenny Daglish turned around Liverpool’s 2008-09 season. He helped the club in improving their defensive record as well as sharpening their attack. Liverpool averaged almost 2 goals per game post the appointment of Daglish and Clark. Following a string of poor results, both Daglish and Clarke were sacked by the club in 2012, which led him to choose West Brom, who offered him with his first permanent role as a team manager. 12 games hence, the West Brom board will be proud of the decision that they took.
The 49 year old Scot has stuck to the idea of squad rotation in which most of his teams success lies. He has fielded the same team only two times this season. Some managers have tried this before but not all have succeeded but Clarke has mastered it to perfection. He has been able to bring out the best out of his players even as he changes personnel for almost all the games. He understood the club’s over reliance on Peter Odemwinge for goals and made tactical buys in the summer transfer window. Although he was not able to splash the cash like his days in Chelsea, he was able to bring in midfielder Claudio Yacob, former Manchester United shot stopper Ben Foster and striker Marcus Rosenborg on permanent basis while Romelu Lukaku came in on loan from Chelsea. Clarke brought in formational changes as West Brom. They now opt for a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielders Yusuf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob looking after the engine work and provide the attackers with more freedom.
“Argentina has been one of the stronger nations in world football and has always given good players. We are happy to have one of them” Says Manager Clarke about his new recruit Yacob.
The goalkeeper Ben Foster said he had never heard of Yacob. Even the coach Steve Clarke had never seen him play. But Yacob, or “Silent Assassin” as he is known due to his unobtrusive way of doing his work in the field, has adapted well to the English Premier League showing signs of being a versatile and flexible holding midfielder. The player is very strong when it comes to tackling and has an excellent vision. His pass finds the intended target 90% of the times. Yacob has 86% tackling success rate and 19 clearances to his name so far this season. The Argentine has been solid in defense providing much needed assistance to the back four. He along with James Morrison can launch instant counter attacks and even afford to get back to fulfill their defensive duties.
“I can definitely see the comparisons with Mascherano,” said the Swede. “He’s such a physical player. For me, he is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. When you have someone like him and Youssouf Mulumbu sitting in front of you, it is a big help.” Says Jonas Ollson, the defender of West Brom who has immensely benefited with the arrival of the Argentine.
His partner in crime Yusuf Mulumbu, has also blossomed to become one of the important players of the Baggies side. He is delighted to follow the footsteps of his idol Claude Makelele of being a defensive midfielder. He displayed character and strength during the clash against Chelsea even as he suffered a hamstring strain in the latter part of the game. West Brom boast an impressive home record with 57% clean sheet at home. They have conceded 8 goals and scored 12 in their last 6 games. Clark also has a headache which he will be happy about. Two in form goalkeepers – Ben Foster and Boaz Myhill. Foster is presently out with an injury and Myhill has taken care not to let anyone score that easily.
If we look closer, we can see that West Brom’s midfield is divided into two: Defensive and Attacking. Mulumbu and Yacob head the defensive department while James Morrison, Peter Odemwinge, Zoltan Gera, Shane Long and Lukaku are the attackers in prime. James Morrison has been completely brilliant since his arrival in 2007 and this season has seen the arrival of a new and much improved form of him. He has combined well with the new recruits and scored goals from all parts of the field. While Morrison can play as both Attacking and holding midfield role, Clark has started playing Odemwinge in a role just behind the striker enabling him to attack from wings as well play in the central striker role, if needed. Odemwinge has already scored 4 goals so far this season and looks set to score more in the matches to come.
Irish striker Shane Long who is into his second season at the club has scored 6 times this season and has turned out to be one of the most important men up top for Steve Clark. He has shrugged off his injuries and has been a regular for West Brom this season. His team mate Zoltan Gera has praised Long for his amazing start to the season.
“I think he is one of the best strikers in the Premier League. He can hold the ball up, score goals, and works hard for the team,” says Gera.
Gera, 33, is now in his second spell at the club and seems to be enjoying the competition with Long. He has also encouraged the managers rotation policy stating it would increase the competitive spirit in the team.
“It is no problem because I trust in the head coach to know what is best for the team. You always need to fight for your place; there is no question about that.” Gera said.
Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian on loan from Chelsea, is a signing that Steve Clark has done with atmost interest and foresight. The youngster has impressed with his power, strength and a strong left foot. At 6?3? he has blistering pace, commanding physique and ability to break down defense with ease. He has scored 4 goals for the Midlanders which include some crucial match winning ones. It is really surprising to see that it took so long for a manager of Clark’s ability to become the lead man of a team. The real test for him will be coming up as the tricky winter period is set to begin. It looks to be seen as to how he handles this period which includes games against Arsenal and Manchester United.