West Bromich Albion, under new and first time manager Steve Clarke, were a complete surprise package last season. They had the club’s best start ever to a Premier League season and were placed in the top five of the table for almost seven weeks until October. Eventually, points were dropped but the competitiveness of the league meant that West Brom were able to stay in the top half of the table for most of the season. They managed to finish 8th ahead of Swansea and West Ham on the most dramatic final day of the season. A 5-5 draw against Manchester United, which was also Alex Ferguson’s farewell game will surely be a one to cherish for Steve Clarke and a certain Belgian.
Romelu ‘Fridge’ Lukaku scored a hattrick against the champions on the final match day and took his goal tally for the season to 17. He also managed four assists in 35 appearances(15 sub). While the Baggies banked on Lukaku for whatever success they achieved, Chelsea were the real winners, as one of their players finally announced his arrival to England in style. Lukaku won’t be at the Hawthorns this season, and that was the major obstacle for Steve Clarke to build on from where he left off last season. Departures of Zoltan Gera, Marc Fortune and Jerome Thomas on free transfers were a source of worry too, as the squad was thinned considerably.
In comes Nicolas Anelka. The ‘nomadic’ Frenchman who previously played for 5 different clubs in England returned to his favorite hunting grounds after a dismal spell in China. The pre-season produced a lot of promise from the clinical striker as he bagged seven goals in five matches and is set to become the new face of West Brom in 2013-14.
The strikers department is almost filled with the arrival of Anelka and with around 20 days to go until the windows shuts close, Clarke will be hoping to secure some valuable loan deals or even some actual transfers to add to squad depth. The lastest acquisition, Uruguay captain Diego Lugano, on a free transfer might turn out to be another rabbit out of the hat for Steve Clarke.
Formations and defensive issues
West Brom lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation for majority of their games. There was an occasional 4-4-2 when the need for two strikers upfront arised. Both these formations brought them equal success, balancing out the wins and the losses. But for the foreseeable future, it appears as though Steve Clarke will stick to the 4-2-3-1. This formation has been the latest mantra in football and most of the teams are adopting it, majorly because of the versatility, flexibility and the dynamism it offers. But to field a 4-2-3-1, one must have that perfect balance between defense and attack, and when executed perfectly, it is one of the most fearful setups in football.
A 4-2-3-1 demands a lot from the players to work as a team. The more individuality the players portray on the pitch, the more tactical tweaks are required by the formation. Real Madrid can be a good example of this. Players other than Ronaldo work their socks off to compensate the defensive shortcomings arising from his individual play. There is a lot of reliance on the midfield duo in this formation to maintain a balanced structure, both in defense and attack. Chelsea, who had the triumvirate of Mata, Oscar and Hazard last season were excellent initially. But, the lack of defensive awareness among the trio and the extreme attack mindedness exposed the midfield weaknesses. The Chelsea midfield was not anywhere near world-class and as a result, Di Matteo lost his job after his team got knocked out of UCL.
Coming to West Brom, they play a slightly narrow 4-2-3-1, with Claudio Yacob and Yusuf Mulumbu as the midfield duo. While they good at what they do individually and as a pairing to a certain extent, the lack of squad depth forced the manager to field the duo week in week out. The is a need for another central midfielder who can ease the burden on the duo. Statistics point to the fact that Yacob and Mulumbu form one of the best midfield pairings in England.
Both averaged around 1.5 interceptions per game and Yacob made 3.6 tackles per game compared to Mulumbu’s 2.3. What the duo does best is maintain the flow of the game. Both the players average around 48 passes per game combined and a pass completion rate of 86.5% combined. Their defensive game though, needs a bit of a brush up, as they are frequently found overrun in the middle of the park. This points us to another defensive issue.
Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley: The towering CB duo
The fullbacks Ridgewell and Jones are not as adventurous as those in other teams. This can be attributed to the towering central defence duo of Olsson and McAuley. Both the centerbacks are not known for their speed and this restricts the use of a high block from the manager.
The major problem the Baggies face is that they get overrun often when playing higher up the pitch, and if they opt to play a low block, they are practically impenetrable and face the challenge of building useful attacks of their own. The defending stats of Olsson and McAuley might show the signs of a solid pairing, but they are hugely misleading as they fail to show the whole picture. When defending deep in their own half for long periods, West Brom has failed to weave a decent attack into the opposition half for any sort of goalscoring opportunity.
The solution to this would be to find that required balance when playing a medium or high block. Playing a young, speedy defender to trackback when offside traps fail would be a good start. The over-dependence on Mulumbu and Yacob to play most of the matches backfired last season with a win-less run for almost 8 games from Christmas. Chris Brunt and James Morrison had put in shifts in the deep role during the absence of Mulumbu or Yacob and those games didn’t end well for the Baggies. The rumours of Craig Gardner and Chris Baird moving to the Hawthorns would be sensible as both these players are much more suitable to play in that position than Brunt or Morrison.
There are not many options for the 3 attacking mid positions. Dorrans, Brunt, Morrison, Odemwingie and Anelka are the ones vying for those three spots. Some new signings in this department will help in overcoming the gruelling challenges league football poses. The addition of Scott Sinclair from Manchester City too would be a step in the right direction. The 24 year old inverted-winger had a torrid time warming the bench for Man City after a superb season at Swansea. While his move from Manchester is still in the pipe, his direct football and pacy cut-ins will provide a decent option for Steve Clarke. Also, some rumors on Udinese striker Matej Vydra moving to the Hawthorns on a year long loan deal are making rounds.
Nicolas Anelka: The new face of West Brom.
The signing of Diego Lugano has undoubtedly strengthened the defence, but the real tweak must be done in the tactics. Players like Anelka, who come with a lot of experience help in making this tweaking job much easier. Anelka possesses those defensive qualities which are needed when played on the wings and he can also aid in the counter attacks getting more fluidic and effective. With no Lukaku rattling opponent defenders, the route-one approach can’t be used much often. So, working the ball on the ground effectively will be the prime objective. There is no doubt that Steve Clarke is a good manager. He has proved himself that he is. Stepping into his second season as a manager, there is only so much to achieve for Clarke. He has a good squad, a couple of signings could make it even better and West Brom are looking at another finish in the top ten.