Steve Clarke at West Brom - Should we be surprised?

Thirteen games into the Premier League season and West Bromwich Albion currently sit third following the Baggies best league start for fifty nine years.

Under summer appointment Steve Clarke’s guidance Albion have surged up the table with victories against Liverpool and Chelsea making fans and pundits alike sit up and take notice of one of the Premier League's teams who rarely mount a fight to finish in the top half.

It has been rather difficult to avoid jumping on the West Brom bandwagon this season with a team with very little financial muscle in comparison to the clubs around them outshining the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. However should we really be surprised at Albion’s success with Steve Clarke at the helm?

I say not, Steve Clarke has been arguably the best coach in England for the last six or so years, working carefully, learning his trade under the self proclaimed ‘Special One’ Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Clarke has used his vast knowledge of English football in order to adopt a style of management very similar to Mourinho which has become evident at the Hawthorns this year.

Clarke having worked as assistant to Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool for the past year and a half looked set to be one of the candidates for the vacant managerial hot seat at Anfield following Dalglish’s departure this summer with Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech after having worked with Clarke stating “I would have thought that he might have got his chance at Liverpool.”

Following Brendan Rodgers’ appointment at Liverpool it was Steve Clarke who took over from Roy Hodgson at West Brom and since then has along with making shrewd signings, instilled a playing style and mentality very similar to that which Jose Mourinho introduced at Chelsea at the beginning of their golden period.

Jose Mourinho built a successful team around a strong core, it started with arguably the original anchoring midfielder in Claude Makelele before Michael Essien took the mantle following his transfer from Olympique Lyonnais and Steve Clarke having been part of the backroom staff whilst this change occurred at Stamford Bridge has attempted and thus far succeeded in doing the same thing at West Brom.

Claudio Yacob signed on a free transfer this past summer from Racing in Argentina and has been a revelation in England’s top flight this season, his stereotypically Argentinean tough tackling complementing almost a European-esque elegance in his passing has seen him become West Brom’s lynchpin in much the same manner that Makelele and Essien were at Chelsea.

Yacob has eased in well to Albion’s midfield alongside Youssouf Mulumbu and James Morrison in Mulumbu’s recent absence through injury. Yacob gives Clarke’s more creative players for example Odemwingie, Zoltan Gera and Chris Brunt the freedom to work higher up the pitch and be comfortable that Yacob is in position to cover them.

These are the necessary qualities of an anchoring midfielder and their importance is becoming increasingly more evident in other Premier League teams that do not have one.

Romelu Lukaku signing for West Bromwich Albion on loan until the end of the season from Chelsea has also been a further example of Steve Clarke’s shrewdness in the transfer market and fantastic knowledge of the game as a whole, West Brom last season found themselves wanting when they were in attacking positions with the club developing a worrying overreliance on Peter Odemwingie for goals.

There has already been a significant improvement upon last year in terms of goal scoring at West Brom with the Baggies having already scored twenty three league goals this term after thirteen games whereas last season at the same point they had only managed a mere eleven.

Lukaku has made himself a significant component in Albion’s forward line this season having already registered four league goals this year, with his physical style of play proving to be a priceless asset for Clarke especially when coming off the bench in the latter stages of a game to put a tiring opposition defence to the sword. It seems only logical that Steve Clarke has analysed the effect Didier Drogba had on Chelsea under Mourinho and attempted to replicate it using Lukaku.

Shane Long’s haul of five goals in the Premier League this season has further aided West Brom’s charge into the top four with the Ireland international picking up right where he left off at the end of his debut campaign at the Hawthorns, his pace and nimble footed style of centre forward play has given Clarke an alternate dimension to explore when not utilising Lukaku’s physical presence and this level of versatility in such a key area of the pitch is exactly what any side needs to succeed.

If we once again look back to Chelsea under Jose Mourinho they had Didier Drogba, the physical striker who powered his way to goal, the technically gifted Eider Gudjohnsen and the quick, born finisher Mateja Kezman to choose from depending on the game situation Chelsea were in or the opposition they found themselves up against be it in Europe or domestically.

Steve Clarke has been unable to spend anything like the money Mourinho saw during his early days at Stamford Bridge but this has not stopped the Saltcoats born manager getting the very best out of his squad in exactly the same manner in which Mourinho has done during his career. You would not consider West Bromwich Albion’s defence consisting of former Preston North End right back Billy Jones, Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson and Liam Ridgewell one of the utmost quality however they are getting the job done so to speak.

The defence is given protection by the pair of Yacob and Mulumbu and as a result are allowed to focus on their own individual zones of defending, under Roy Hodgson West Brom were undoubtedly a difficult team to break down but as an opposing team heading to the Hawthorns you would always feel you would be given opportunities to score, however this season there is not this belief with teams facing West Brom and wondering just how they will be able to stifle the creativity of James Morrison and Chris Brunt as well as stopping Claudio Yacob dominating proceedings.

Tactics

The year 2012 has seen the birth and following expansion of the 4-2-3-1 system, used by a sizeable number of teams during this summer’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine the system has now found itself into the Premier League with Steve Clarke introducing it to West Brom. It is a system that allows a team versatility and options when going forward, they do not have to play out and out wingers but they have the option to push two of their three central attacking midfielders out wide if they so wish.

The two holding midfielders positioned further back on then pitch as previously mentioned in the case of Mulumbu and Yacob give the more attacking players freedom to do what they are good at and the central striker is given almost a free role with his sole focus being getting into positions in and around the penalty area.

West Brom have adapted to this 4-2-3-1 system with ease and this is not least due to the versatility of players they have at their disposal, credit must go to Roy Hodgson for this who during his career as a club manager has always looked to sign players who can do more for the team than play in just one position. James Morrison has the ability to move further back in the midfield and play alongside Yacob which we saw with great affect against Sunderland on Saturday lunchtime and Peter Odemwingie who was a striker in his younger days has the pace to move into the positions just behind the centre forward and attack the opposition defence either from out wide or through the middle.

Additionally Shane Long can play just off the striker should Steve Clarke want to start a game with both Long and Lukaku with the Belgian international being able to use his significant physical presence in order to win headers and as a result create opportunities to bring Shane Long into the game more going forward.

Steve Clarke also has the what some would call ‘nice’ problem of having two goalkeepers in good form, Ben Foster started the season very well for West Brom however following his injury deputy Boaz Myhill formerly of Hull City has come into the side and played extremely well in the last three of West Brom’s four straight Premier League victories and it will be interesting to see whether or not the former Manchester United goalkeeper Foster reclaims his spot as Albion’s number one.

Prospects

I think as the season goes on injuries will no doubt take their toll on every squad not least West Brom and when you look at the quality of the teams around them it is difficult to see just how West Brom will be able to hold onto their top four spot in the coming months.

There is a sense of waiting for West Brom to collapse amongst avid Premier League spectators however as yet there has been little if any signs of this happening and provided Steve Clarke can get through the January transfer window with his key players still at the club especially amidst talk that Romelu Lukaku may be recalled from his loan earlier than expected by Chelsea then there is no reason as to why the Baggies cannot keep up their assault on the rest of the Premier League.

We should not be surprised by Steve Clarke’s instantaneous impact on both West Bromwich and the Premier League, having been one of the most sought after coaches in recent years it is hard to imagine he hasn’t been given his managerial opportunity before now. Clarke having made the conscious decision to leave Chelsea when he may well have been in line for the top job had he stayed at the club long enough to see Luis Felipe Scolari sacked after a poor start to the season and this has furthered his career.

The experience he gained as first team coach at both West Ham United and Liverpool would have further built up his tactical awareness and the experience of great man management he witnessed during the Mourinho era at Chelsea have all coupled together to form one of the brightest managers in the Premier League at the moment.

Steve Clarke and West Brom find themselves looking at a tricky winter period with the month of December containing fixtures away at Arsenal, Manchester United and Queens Park Rangers and with United vying to keep pressure on rivals Manchester City and QPR buoyed by the appointment of Harry Redknapp as their new manager these could well be difficult tests for West Brom - But they will be ones Clarke will welcome and ones a team has to pass in order to fully assert themselves as more than just a team on a good run.

Can West Brom keep up their excellent form?

image: © stadiumguide

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