West Bromwich Albion: A Look at the Baggies' Unlikely Rise This Season
Forget Everton, forget West Ham, it has been West Brom's stunning start that deserves the most plaudits.
The small-scale Midlands club that hasn't won a significant trophy since 1968, nor appeared in a cup final since 1970, lies in fifth position in the Premier League, behind fellow upstarts Everton only on goal difference.
But even the renowned cash-poor Blues have top-class players like Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar in their ranks. The casual football fan would have been able to impress his friends by naming three West Brom players before the season began.
Here is a look at the Baggies' unlikely rise to prominence this term, and why the ultimate underdogs may just be here to stay.
Having served in the shadows of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Gianfranco Zola at West Ham and Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, Steve Clarke was given his first real opportunity to sit in the hot seat this summer by a club who had just lost their manager to the national setup.
Clarke had gone down with the Dalglish ship on Merseyside, sacked along with his fellow Scotsman for his role in Liverpool's stunted progress over the course of the past two seasons.
But offered redemption at West Brom, he has seized the opportunity with both hands.
The cool and collected manager has instilled a sense of self-belief in his squad—that three points is no more than they deserve week in, week out.
Midfielder James Morrison spoke of his impact in a recent interview, revealing "Steve is very knowledgeable in his team talks and the way we’re going to play" (via Daily Record).
"The boys all enjoy coming into the training ground every day and that just rubs off on what happens in the games."
Not afraid to make bold decisions, Clarke dropped his goal-scoring hero Peter Odemwingie for last weekend's trip to Wigan and was duly rewarded for the switch in personnel with a 2-1 victory.
Of course, credit must be given to the Baggies' previous coach, now-England manager Roy Hodgson, who laid the foundation for a winning blueprint.
But it has been Clarke who now has the team playing confident, calm football that perfectly captures the man's own personality.
Under Clarke, West Brom have predominantly deployed a now standard 4-2-3-1 formation, a setup that Clarke's former mentor Mourinho has utilized for most of his career.
New signing Claudio Yacob plays the holding role in midfield, while the more physically gifted Youssuf Mulumbu operates in the box-to-box role alongside him.
Clarke has tended to rotate his three attacking midfielders, with forward Peter Odemwingie often dropping back to allow Shane Long to play in the lone striker role.
With the speed and technique of both Long and Odemwingie at his disposal, he has the Baggies playing deep, counter-attacking football with quick passing and very little use of the flanks.
A good example of this is highlighted in the above diagram, which shows just how swiftly West Brom were able to attack on the break at one stage in their opening weekend win over Liverpool at the Hawthorns.
With the Baggies having seized possession thanks to a misplaced Steven Gerrard pass, James Morrison's touch and through pass to a clear Shane Long swiftly succeeded in splitting the Reds' defence in half, subsequently forcing Daniel Agger into a red-card challenge and a penalty for the visitors.
Though it must be said that when 6'3" striker Romelu Lukaku is on the pitch, the team often becomes far less narrow, allowing balls to be pumped into the aerially dominant Belgian from the wings.
Of all the teams in the Premier League, West Brom have had the third-fewest possessions, with an average of only 43 percent per game.
They are also among the bottom six teams in pass completion percentage and pass attempts per game.
But acknowledging these less than impressive numbers, it must be said that it has not been an attractive style of football that has caught the eye, but rather West Brom's ability to grind out wins with an uncanny effectiveness.
(All stats via WhoScored.com).
West Brom spent a net total of £2.2 million on transfers this past summer, as more of a focus was placed on acquiring free agents and loan signings in the market.
Ben Foster was the only player for whom they paid a transfer fee, though the English goalkeeper had already been on the team's books from last season, which Birmingham City had allowed him to spend on loan in the Midlands.
The greatest coup, though, was undoubtedly the signing of Argentine midfielder Claudio Yacob, a player who Clarke readily admits he had never seen play before this term (via The Sun).
He has adapted to the English game quicker than some expected, providing excellent cover for the defence when the team are on the back foot, and making the simple, but necessary passes going forward.
Romelu Lukaku has also been a real bonus during his spell on loan. His desire for first-team football had gone unsatisfied at Chelsea, and he arrived with a real point to prove.
Other loanees Goran Popov and Yassine El Ghanassy are both yet to force their way into the first team, but are worthy candidates when the busy winter fixture pileup comes knocking.
The club also managed to shed a great deal of unwanted weight from its wage bill in the summer, as a total of seven notable players, including Nicky Shorey, Paul Scharner and Keith Andrews, were moved on.
But in essence, the makeup of the squad remains similar to what it was last season, which should further increase the praise directed in Clarke's direction.
He has gotten the best out of a number of players who many thought had little more to give.
(All figures via Transfermarkt.com).
There have been several key players who have stood out for the Baggies, in all areas of the pitch.
Keeper Ben Foster has shown a steady assurance between the sticks and has ironed out the flaws in his game that saw him prematurely shipped out of Old Trafford early in his career.
In defence, veterans Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson have formed an effective partnership in the middle, keeping pressuring opposing sides out with good positioning and a real effectiveness in aerial situations.
The two have become familiar with the other's style and traits, starting every Premier League game together in central defence, flanked by the equally reliable Liam Ridgewell at left-back.
Claudio Yacob's calming influence has already been noted, but special mention must also go to the vastly underrated Youssuf Mulumbu.
Both midfielders have completed more than 85 percent f their total passes, while also leading the team in passes attempted.
James Morrison has been effective in the No. 10 role, if sitting in a much deeper position for games than the typical trequartista.
Forwards Peter Odemwingie, Shane Long and Romelu Lukaku have shared their team's goals among themselves, with all having scored three times in the league this season.
The tricky Long also leads the team in assists with three.
(All stats via WhoScored.com).
But West Brom have already faced a number of the league's sternest opposition in Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City, picking up an impressive seven points from those four games.
They have proven a real barnacle at home this season as well, having won five of six on familiar turf. But last weekend's win over Wigan was the first time they have picked up three points on their travels.
Naturally, West Brom's excellent start to the term will count for little if the club finish 12th come May. But they have put themselves in a very good position to consolidate and move forward in the future.
The examples of Burnley and Hull City will loom large. But the Baggies are an experienced team with a number of Premier League veterans who will be sure to prevent them from joining the ranks of clubs who failed to maintain their early momentum.
What have you made of West Brom's excellent start? What league position can the club realistically aim for?