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Baggies causing a stir in top flight
Liverpool lost here. So did Everton. Manchester City was extremely fortunate to get away with a win. And on Saturday Chelsea also lost at The Hawthorns, a result that confirmed West Bromwich Albion as the great overachievers so far in the Premier League this season. WBA now sit fourth, just five points behind the leaders Manchester City.
"Can we think of the Champions League? I don't look that far ahead, I look from game to game," said manager Steve Clarke, who took over as head coach in the summer. "It’s a great time to be at the club and if the supporters want to dream a bit, they can. But within the camp, we will keep our feet on the ground."
It’s a sensible attitude: enjoy it while you can.
It’s not unprecedented for a smaller club to be hovering around Champions League slots with around a third of the season gone. At the equivalent stage two years ago, Bolton Wanderers was fifth. In 2006-07, Portsmouth was third. The year before that, Wigan was second. It happens. Wigan ended up 2005-06 tenth, Portsmouth was ninth in 2006-07 and Bolton fourteenth two season back. Luck and fixtures even themselves out; injuries and suspensions take their toll on smaller squads.
That’s not to say West Brom will necessarily plummet, just that other teams have been in a similar position before and suffered a reversion to the mean. Those who wish to pick holes will note that West Brom has already played Reading, QPR and Southampton, three of the bottom four, at home. But given the skepticism that surrounded the appointment of Clarke, who at 49 is in his first job as head coach, the fact that relegation already seems a distant prospect is in itself an achievement.
More generally, West Brom’s start endorses the policy of employing a director of football and a head coach, rather than one all-powerful manager. It’s a system that is common enough elsewhere in Europe, but since the days of Herbert Chapman, English football has been wedded to the notion of the manager who runs everything, from day-to-day training to transfer policy. What that leads to, as books such as Soccernomics make clear, is a condition of eternal flux: a manager comes in, sells a few players and signs a few players and, when he departs, his replacement, who may favor a wholly different type of soccer, insists on making his own changes to personnel.
Rationally it makes far more sense to have a director to set the philosophy, organize scouts to find players to fit that philosophy, buys those players and employs a coach who is happy working in that style. The memory of the autocrats such as Matt Busby, Brian Clough and Bill Shankly lives long, though, and when fissures open up between a manager and a director of football public and media sympathy tends to be on the side of the manager. (Shankly’s legacy, it’s worth noting, was maintained by Liverpool’s extraordinary continuity of approach, something ensured by the boot-room philosophy that saw appointments from within and overseen by a powerful secretary in Peter Robinson).
West Brom, though, has joined Swansea in showing what can be achieved on a relatively modest budget with coherent planning. West Brom was a Championship club when Roberto Di Matteo was appointed in 2009. He led it to promotion but was dismissed after a dire run of form made relegation possible and was replaced by Roy Hodgson, who gave way to Clarke after being made England manager. Little wonder that its sporting director, Dan Ashworth, will become the Football Association’s director of elite development.
Recruitment has been exemplary. Ben Foster, Claudia Yacob and Markus Rosenberg arrived in the summer for a combined fee of a little over £6million. Rosenberg, a 20-year-old forward form Sweden, has been used only as a substitute so far; Foster has been a regular, and is starting to rediscover the form that made him look the future of English goalkeeping four or five years ago; while Yacob has formed a high-class midfield partnership with Youssuf Mulumbu, himself a £175,000 signing from Paris Saint-Germain in 2009. In fact, the most expensive signing in the West Brom squad was Shane Long, bought for £6.5million from Reading in 2011.
The Ireland forward’s tireless running and aerial ability has been key to West Brom’s approach. Clarke has been intriguing on his use of forwards, essentially using either Long or Romelu Lukaku (on loan from Chelsea) to exhaust an opponent for 60-70 minutes -- then throwing on the other to go for the kill. Most players still see playing from the bench as an inferior role.
Edin Dzeko’s recent moans about being perceived as “a super-sub” are typical – but Clarke almost makes it sound as though the role of impact sub is the glamour one, coming on to pick up the glory after a teammate has done the hard work. It’s not a revolutionary idea but it is an example of the sort of thinking that can give a club an edge.
Clarke insists on discipline and organization and, at the moment, has allied that to a freshness that is bringing results. The real test now is how long West Brom can sustain their form.
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