The Deputy God: Steve Clarke
A lot of times, when teams do well, players and managers tend to take the credit, and the plaudits go to them, not that this credit is ill gotten, it’s very well deserved, but a lot of attention is diverted from some of the other hard working members of the club, especially the back-room staff. Physios, assistants and coaches work silently in the background to ensure that the team works like a well oiled machine and gets results, week-in, week-out. One such under-appreciated worker is Steve Clarke. The Scot finished his playing career at Chelsea, the club that he loves, and soon became an assistant manager to Ruud Gullit at Newcastle. After leaving this post, he joined his beloved Chelsea, and had a stint coaching the youth teams there. Soon, he was promoted to the rank of assistant manager, behind Jose Mourinho. The duo enjoyed considerable success together.
As the second in command to ‘The Special One’, Steve Clarke performed a wonderful job, participating in a complete haul of English trophies in 3 seasons, and 2 Champions League semi finals. The team was built around solid organization, a tough defense, and a never say die attitude. This has characterized most of Clarke’s teams throughout his career, and in retrospect, the results achieved are unsurprising. Clarke’s defensive abilities are well noted, and it was during his tenure that Chelsea conceded a record low of 15 goals in a season (2004-05), and accruing a record high 95 points. It would be incorrect to suggest that Clarke single-handedly led Chelsea’s title charge that year, but his contribution to their success that season didn’t go unrecognized at the club.
Petr Cech, says he has benefited enormously from Clarke’s coaching during his time at Stamford Bridge, and never had any doubt that the 49-year-old would make it in to top-flight management.
“I was surprised that it took so long before he actually got (a job in management) because I would have thought that he might have got his chance at Liverpool.”
Clarke continued in his role at Chelsea even after Mourinho’s departure in 2007 and did very well with the players in a season where Chelsea lost the Champions League final on penalty kicks. He was retained at Chelsea, despite the fact that the manager, Avram Grant had been sacked due to his excellent work ethic, relationship with the fans and work after Mourinho’s departure. He eventually left later that year, to join his ex-teammate Gianfranco Zola as assistant at West Ham United. His appreciation in West London was outlined by the fact that the club initially rejected his resignation. In the 4 full seasons that he was an assistant at Chelsea, they conceded 15, 22, 24 and 26 goals respectively at an average of 21.75 per season. In the next 4 seasons, Chelsea conceded 24, 32, 33 and 46 goals respectively at an average of 33.75. While the high number of goals conceded in 2011-12 may be attributed to a change of style for a majority of the season under Andre Villas Boas, the ability of Chelsea’s rearguard to keep clean sheets has certainly diminished since Clarke’s departure.
West Ham United:
Clarke spent two seasons at West Ham. In his first season, West Ham managed an impressive 9th place finish and the partnership of Zola and Clarke came in for praise from all quarters. This West Ham team received a lot of praise for its brand of attractive football, built on a solid defense. Led by the wise old heads of Clarke and Zola, a group of impressive young players made an impression on the entire Premier League, picking up an impressive 51 points. This achievement is admirable due to the fact that it took place with a team that was hotly tipped for relegation. In the big games as well, West Ham notched up some impressive results, with none of the “Big Four” managing victories against them at Upton Park. Unfortunately, this success didn’t continue during their second season in charge at West Ham, with them narrowly avoiding relegation. Zola was sacked, and Clarke also left by mutual consent soon after.
Steve Clarke joined Liverpool FC as a coach soon after Kenny Dalglish took over as manager in January 2011. His enthusiasm impressed ‘King Kenny’ and the two of them formed a good partnership, managing to turn Liverpool’s season around. After Dalglish and Clarke took over at the club, Liverpool’s average points per game improved to approximately 2 (Manchester United, the champions that season had an average slightly below 2), and they showed significant improvement in their defensive play as well. The results were there for all to see as Liverpool climbed up the table by 5 places, into 7th place, with some impressive victories over Chelsea (0-1) and Manchester United (3-1). Once again though, Clarke suffered from the second season syndrome, and Liverpool slumped into 8th place in the BPL. Once again though, the club management, and players were full of praise for the man, and reports suggest that Clarke was asked to stay on, but he turned down the offer in favour of taking a management job at West Bromwich Albion.
West Bromwich Albion:
Clarke took over as the boss of the Baggies in June 2011. he replaced the current England manager Roy Hodgson at the club. Despite only a couple of weeks into the job, Clarke has already won a place in the hearts of many WBA fans as the performances produced on the pitch by the team have been nothing short of magical. The Baggies currently sit in 4th position in the BPL after a fine victory over European Champions Chelsea. Apart from this win, West Brom have also picked up points against Liverpool (3-0) and have a very impressive home record (only one defeat, to Manchester City, for whom Edin Dzeko scored an injury time winner).
Every team that Clarke has worked at has displayed terrific defensive ability. In terms of defending, Clarke makes his players work hard, and keeps things tight at the back with a very simple approach. The art of defending a zone and not getting drawn out of one’s position is one that Clarke boasts mastery over.
The graphic on the left demonstrates Liverpool’s approach against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge during their clash in February 2011. The tactically astute decision to play with 3 centre backs paid dividends against Chelsea’s narrow approach. The fact that the Liverpool midfield was organized as a straight horizontal line of 5 made it very difficult for Chelsea to get the ball to their forwards, who were Drogba, Torres (Chelsea debut) and Anelka on that day. This formation of the midfield also made it easier for Liverpool to negate the attacking influence imposed by Chelsea’s full backs, and allowed them to spring quick counter attacks.
This sort of positional defending by the midfielders has continued to be a feature of Clarke’s teams. It played a huge part in maintaining Chelsea’s fantastic home record of 86 unbeaten league games, and is visible even now at West Bromwich Albion.
Another aspect of his defensive organization is the way he makes wide men work to gang up on the opposition wingers. This ends up reducing the number of crossed balls into the box. When complemented with the strategy of blocking out space in mid-field, this tactic is very effective as it reduces the attacking avenues for the opposition greatly, and forces them to hold on to the ball in less dangerous areas, with less dangerous players.
In the graphic on the left (West Bromwich Albion v/s Chelsea-17-11-2012), we notice the way in which the Chelsea players are not left with much space to work in due to the way in which Clarke ensures his attacking players track back.
Some other key aspects of his defensive system include the movement. While movement is often considered in an offensive sense, defensive movement is something that is overlooked. Every time an opposing team moves the ball out to the flank, the entire defending team moves towards this flank collectively. A lot of teams fail to do this because they feel the need to cover the opposite flank in case of a switch in play, but Clarke always ensures his teams perform this action. It has the benefit of reducing space on the flank where the ball is present. It also ensures that defensive positions are covered, and spaces in the center are occupied. Even in the event of a switch in flanks and a quick cross, the defenders get a running start and this makes their heading easier.
Secondly, Clarke tends to adopt an approach where his players worry only about certain key areas of a pitch, leaving other areas almost open. Most modern coaches would tell you to abandon this approach, and press the ball all over the pitch. While this tactic is very effective in winning back possession quickly, Clarke’s approach minimizes the chances of scoring goals by a lot, simply because of the fact that danger areas are very secure. These key areas, or danger areas include wide zones, and the final third. This focus is the reason for his most effective players coming from these zones (Makelele, Lucas, Mulumbu, Gallas, Flanagan). The West Brom- Chelsea game from last night is the perfect example of this approach. Chelsea dominated ball possession in terms of numbers, but had it in the WBA penalty area only 6.31% of the time, highlighting the good work done by Mulumbu and Yacob in the defensive third.
Thirdly, his striker almost never drops deep while defending in open play. Again, this would be scoffed at by a lot, but it has certain benefits. It doesn’t allow opposition defenders to step out and play the ball very easily. Secondly, it gives his defenders the chance to play long balls which their striker has the chance to chase and score, increasing the probability of a counter attack, and thirdly, with the constant pressure of a striker on them, defenders are not very comfortable on the ball, and this allows the team to reduce the continuous pressure it may face at times.
A very disturbing trend that one has noticed in the BPL of late is the poor defending from set piece situations. Very recently, the Chelsea-Liverpool game served to showcase the fall from grace of two teams that were once very clinical in terms of defending set pieces. This is appalling, especially among the top teams as a set piece situation can very often make the difference between one point and three, and at times first place and second, just ask Manchester City and Edin Dzeko. What’s more interesting in noting the poor recent standard of set piece defending for Chelsea and Liverpool is that both were at their peak in this regard when they were under the tutelage of a certain Steve Clarke.
While a lot of teams employ either a zonal, or a man-marking system, Clarke seems to employ a mixture of both. While this may sound very complicated in theory, it is in effect, a very simple approach that makes the best of both systems. The players at the front post are generally taller and better headers of the ball, and these players are assigned zones. The benefit of doing so is that they get a running approach towards the ball, allowing them to head clear before the ball can enter the 6 yard box (a leaf out of the key areas approach). At the back post, we have the shorter and quicker players who go man for man. In case the ball evades the players at the near post, the defenders at the far post can stop a tap-in for the striker stationed there, simply because it is a man to man situation. The need for a running jump is eliminated at this juncture, as the ball isn’t very high by the time it makes its way to the back post.
These tactics aren’t really complex theories, but a simple common-sense approach that has been very effective for Clarke. In the game yesterday, Chelsea had 12 corners. Of these, 3 resulted in completed passes. Of these, 2 were taken short. This statistic demonstrates very simply the effectiveness of the tactic against a team that has already scored 9 times from set pieces this season.
All in all, Steve Clarke is a man who is very unjustly treated behind the media, as he has been a key figure wherever he has gone, and is much loved and admired by the entire football community. This underrated man of football is slowly carving out his place in the pantheon of great Scottish managers. Watch out for him in the near future at one of the top European clubs.