Third? Third?! At the start of the season you wouldn’t have believed it. West Bromwich Albion have had a stunning start to the season. But should their early-season exploits be viewed as such a surprise?
After Saturday’s win at Sunderland, West Brom are third, behind the two Manchester clubs and ahead Chelsea, who lie one point behind the West Midlands club. After yo-yoing between the Championship and the Premier League for much of the last decade, these heady heights mark new territory for Steve Clarke’s men.
Before the start of the season, you would have had to navigate your way through a fog of pessimism around The Hawthorns; Roy Hodgson had just left the club to become manager of England after securing the Baggies a respectable 10th place finish, and the man they had chosen to replace him was the unproven Clarke.
Until this summer, Clarke had been the perennial number two; with assistant manager positions at Newcastle, Chelsea (where he was José Mourinho’s right-hand man), West Ham United, and Liverpool. At West Ham, he was the highest-paid assistant in the league, and at Chelsea, he aided Mourinho in capturing two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and a couple of League Cups.
There was a lot to be sceptical about upon Clarke’s arrival. Most number twos do not have a stellar record in jumping to management. Chris Hutchings failed at Bradford and Wigan, Sammy Lee was a flop at Bolton, and Terry Connor oversaw the relegation of West Brom’s neighbours Wolverhampton Wanderers last season.
However, it seems West Brom had little to be worried about following Clarke’s appointment. Not only was he inheriting a strong squad assembled by Roy Hodgson, he also made several shrewd signings; Ben Foster was bought in from Birmingham, and to bolster the attack the dependable Markus Rosenberg arrived on a free from Werder Bremen as well as the young, raw Romelu Lukaku who joined from Chelsea on loan. The deadwood that had started to accumulate within the squad was also dispensed with, with Nicky Shorey, Márton Fülöp, and Paul Scharner being sold or released.
In regard to tactics and shape, the Baggies look solid in defence and dangerous in attack as well. Shane Long has proven to be an excellent spearhead for Clarke’s 4-2-3-1 formation, a set-up which is arguably more mobile than Hodgson’s 4-4-2; wingers have been excellent at dropping in during defensive phases to form two compact banks of four, and bombing forward to support Long and his partner when attacking. In regards to the defence, Clarke has his team drilled as well as you would expect from a former Mourinho protégé.
It is still early days in the Clarke era, but the signs are encouraging. Wins against Liverpool, Everton, and Chelsea have contributed to a near perfect home record (the only defeat an unlucky 2-1 versus Manchester City), but form on the road has been relatively patchy. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that West Brom can last the season and break into the notoriously-select top four club, but for now, let’s enjoy the blue-and-white wave the Baggies are riding.