BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The Premier League previews on Fan Fuel head back to the Midlands, where West Bromwich Albion have established themselves as the region’s top club in the last two seasons.
These are rarefied times at the Hawthorns. Since Roy Hodgson became manager of West Bromwich Albion in 2011, the club have had their most stable period in the top flight after years of jumping up and down between the Championship and the Premier League. Steve Clarke had a fantastic first season as manager, proving why he was such an astute advisor to Jose Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish.
West Brom were a team that were tactically astute in defence, and lethal on the counter attack last season. While the core of the team has remained intact at the Hawthorns, the prevailing thought in football circles is that Clarke should add more to the squad in order to repeat the success of last season. Pre-season has been fairly low key, and predicting West Brom’s season is shrouded in a bit of mystery.
In defence: Ben Foster is the main man between the sticks. Foster kept a record ten clean sheets for West Brom in the 2011-12 season, and by those lofty standards he had a slightly disappointing season last time out. Still one of the best shot-stoppers around, Foster’s errors in decision-making could have been costly if West Brom were lower down the table. Goalkeepers do tend to have a poor season once in a while, but if Foster gets complacent this year, Clarke can call up on a reliable deputy in the form of the Welsh national team goalie, Boaz Myhill.
Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley were the first choice pair at centre-back last season, and the duo should maintain their places in the starting eleven this season. Olsson was rarely beaten in the air, though he was caught out in the pace stakes at times, especially when opposing forwards interchanged quick passes. Olsson’s passing however was instrumental in starting many of the Baggies counterattacks. McAuley lost some of his potency in the air, but made up for it with good positional sense, and is very effective in shepherding forwards away from the danger area. Uruguay captain Diego Lugano has been bought in, and while he is not the supreme defender seen at the World Cup three years ago, he does bring in experience and composure as the backup centre-back. Youngster Craig Dawson will also have a role to play as centre-back at various points during the season especially as he provides a goal threat, while Romanian Gabriel Tamas will have a limited role.
Billy Jones was a revelation at right-back last season. Jones can still be naïve defending his flank, but his pace and ability to sidestep past opposing players in the attacking third made for many exciting moments in attack. At times Jones almost played like a livewire attacking winger, and if he can maintain his form this season, Clarke will rely on him to provide some assists. On the left flank is the reliable Liam Ridgwell. Ridgwell has cut out the errors that dogged the formative years of his career, and while he is not the most offensive minded left-back, he does provide stability to the backline with his aerial prowess and reading of the game. Clarke might have more to worry however, if either of his first choice fullbacks get injured or suspended, because Steven Reid and Goran Popov aren’t necessarily the most reliable options in defence. The former has always been a great proponent of attack, while the latter’s temperament and discipline is extremely suspect.
The midfield: Argentine Claudio Yacob sneaked under the radar when summer transfers were analyzed last season, but turned out to be one of the most crucial players at West Brom. Yacob fulfils his role of screening the defence to perfection, and his short passes and triangular moves ensure that the Baggies midfield is always moving forward with the ball. His form did tail off towards the end of the season, but after the experience of his first full year in the English top flight, Clarke will count on Yacob as one of his key players this season.
James Morrison was one of the most consistent performers for West Brom last season. Touted as an exciting right-winger when he was finding his feet at Middlesbrough, Morrison is now a more complete midfielder. He can still deliver a peach of a cross, but is more focused on using the ball economically in possession, and his long-range shots can be very accurate resulting in crucial goals.
The most dynamic of West Brom’s central midfielders is without a doubt Youssouf Mulumbu. The Congolese man can tackle supremely well, almost always managing to win the ball, is equally adept at short and long passes, and when the occasion demands can embark on lung busting runs into dangerous areas. He can beat defenders smartly by opening up his body with his back to goal and subsequently creates chances for his teammates to score. When Mulumbu grabs a game by the scruff of the neck, West Brom invariably tend to do well.
On the attack: Romelu Lukaku’s return to Chelsea after a successful loan spell at the Hawthorns leaves a 17-goal gap in the Baggies attack. The young Belgian was a sensation last season, revelling in the opportunities that Clarke gave him. Brilliant in the air and equally lethal with his finishing on the ground, Lukaku provided enough evidence to remind why many at Stamford Bridge were counting on him to be the next Drogba.
Shane Long is still at the club, and though the Irishman was overshadowed by Lukaku’s exploits, he still had a decent season. Long guarantees sincerity of effort whenever he plays, and can be extremely difficult to handle for most defenders on his best day, though he tends to dally when running on to through balls. One player who is an expert at finishing through balls is Nicolas Anelka, and the mercurial French striker is back for another stint in England. Anelka has always performed best when away from the spotlight, and at the age of 34, still possesses intelligence of movement to be a success against defences in the Premier League. The recently concluded loan signing of last season’s Championship player of the year, Czech striker Matêj Vydra significantly bolsters the strike force. Peter Odemwingie still remains at the club despite burning many bridges with his attempted move to QPR in January. It would be a huge surprise if Odemwingie is still at the Hawthorns after the transfer window closes, but if he is, then it would be in the best interests of everyone involved to move and incorporate the speedy Nigerian into the team.
Odemwingie’s talents are extremely crucial in light of the team possessing no natural wingers. Captain Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans are more accustomed to moving infield, and can be described in the classical sense as left-sided midfielders and right-sided midfielders. Yet, they both provide significant goal threat from deeper positions, the duo are excellent crossers of the ball along with being set piece specialists. However, in games where West Brom have to chase a goal, the pair can be easy to mark out of games because of their lack of vertical play.
Conclusion: West Bromwich Albion are a well-run club, who will never spend beyond their means to survive. It’s a policy that has served the club well, and chairman Jeremy Peace is unlikely to change their approach despite the glamour and riches of the new overseas TV deal.
Steve Clarke couldn’t have asked for more in his first season in charge of the club. However, there is a threadbare feeling to the squad, and if a few injuries take place, it could have a significant bearing on the form of the team. As has become the norm, the Hawthorns will be a delightful venue to watch football in the Premier League, though Clarke will have to be extremely meticulous in the use of his resources to ensure anything close to the level of success achieved last season at West Brom.