Having navigated the final international break of 2012, the Premier League returns as we kick on towards the last weeks of the year. Already the league is beginning to take shape – the two Manchester clubs occupy the top two places, while Chelsea are just one point behind City in third. It is the team that occupy fifth place that is the most surprising.
West Brom have made their best start to a season for 30 years, under their third manager in three seasons, with Steve Clarke picking up where Roy Hodgson left off after last season’s 10th place finish. Clarke, to many was seen as an unknown quantity having never previously filled the role of manager. However, what he does bring to the table is 10 years experience as a coach and assistant manager having worked with the likes of Jose Mourinho, Gianfranco Zola and more recently Kenny Dalglish.
‘Boing-boing’ were words associated with the Baggies a few seasons ago because of their reputation as a yo-yo team bouncing from the Championship to the Premier League. Now, West Brom are certainly the model club in terms of structure. Clarke, like Hodgson before him, works under the title of ‘Head Coach’.
After chairman Jeremy Peace, the main man at the Hawthorns is the outgoing Dan Ashworth, their Director of Football, a position which is much maligned in England, due to some high profile failings. However, the Baggies are an example of a club that implements the model to a great degree of success.
Unfortunately, after five years in the position – just as his hard work is finally bearing fruit – Ashworth is due to take up the role of the FA’s new Director of Elite Development next summer. Although it has been reported that he is keen to take up the position as soon as the New Year but has been charged with finding his own successor before departing the club.
Operating on the second lowest wage bill in the top flight, the Baggies are a further example of a club following another much maligned philosophy as of late, the Moneyball strategy. Mainstay players such as Peter Odemwingie, Jonas Olsson, Youssouf Mulumbu, Graham Dorrans, Jerome Thomas and Steven Reid were all signed for small fees (or in some cases no fees at all). This summer, there was the story of Ashworth of traveling to Argentina where he climbed over a fence in Buenos Aires to watch Claudio Yacob train before subsequently signing him on a free transfer.
After 11 games, the Baggies find themselves fifth (halfway to the fabled 40 point barrier) but Albion will have their sights set on breaking into the top 10 this season rather than even contemplating relegation. Six wins those opening 11 games, five of which have come at home, West Brom beat Liverpool 3-0 in impressive fashion on the opening day of the season – the Baggies dud suffer a blip recently after an impressive start, back-to-back defeats against Manchester City and Newcastle were followed up with consecutive wins against Southampton and Wigan.
Clarke hasn’t been afraid to rotate his squad, with just three players starting all 11 games this season – Mulumbu, Olsson and Gareth McAuley. In the attacking third, the Scot has seen his strikers share the burden of goalscoring, Romelu Lukaku, Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie have contributed three goals apiece this season, while midfielder James Morrison has also scored three goals. One stat that sticks out about the Baggies is the fact that only Stoke and Reading have had less possession in the Premier League (43.1%).
Another of Clarke’s former clubs are the visitors to the Hawthorns this weekend, European Champions, Chelsea. West Brom beat Chelsea last season which proved fatal for Andre Villas-Boas. Roberto Di Matteo also makes are return to a former club, one which he led into the Premier League. Clarke and the Baggies are flying high, it is a question of can they keep it that way?