With the media throwing out the idea of Chelsea’s November slides, the Blues take a trip to Birmingham to face a West Brom side that has surprised everyone this season with their good form. It should be terribly surprising, though, because they do have good players. However, even the most optimistic Baggies’ supporter would find it hard to believe that after 11 matches, they would be in 5th position and tied with 4th on points.
That’s no suggestion that West Brom won’t give Chelsea all they can handle on Saturday, as they have taken points from both Tottenham and Everton this season. However, their form has dipped slightly after losses to Newcastle and Manchester City, though you could argue that they could have gotten points from both. More telling is that West Brom have only dropped 3 points at home in total this season, and that was in their loss to City. Here’s what to look for Saturday.
Steve Clarke deserves more credit than I think he gets for what he’s done at West Brom so far.
The former right-hand man of Jose Mourinho has West Brom playing some really good football, but I think that sometimes the beauty of a manager is knowing when to tinker and when to simply fine tune what it is that a team already does well. Largely, this West Brom side is the same side that has finished comfortably in the Premier League since the arrival of Roy Hodgson.
Rather than taking the chance of stamping his mark on the squad, Clarke has managed to simply tweak the organization of the back four and add a few key players to players like Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long in the attack. Essentially, this side is very recognizable to the one that played under Roy Hodgson.
However, that also means that former West Brom manager, Roberto Di Matteo, should recognize a few of the men that will be attacking his Chelsea side.
If this West Brom team is similar to the one that played under Roy Hodgson, then it’s also very similar to the team that Di Matteo brought up from the Championship in 2009-2010. If things aren’t coming any more full circle, then consider that Di Matteo’s West Brom were known for playing good attacking football, and Roy Hodgson’s version of West Brom added a bit more steel at the back with the arrivals of Gareth McAuley and Liam Ridgewell.
Under Clarke, this side is a hybrid of both ideas, with the back line having only conceded 12 goals in 11 matches while also scoring 17 on their own. On their day, they are a very difficult side to beat, especially at home, where they’ve scored 12 and conceded just 4 in 6 matches.
The attack of West Brom is centered around the ability of their two main strikers, however they deploy them.
This season, Clarke has primarily played a 4-2-3-1, but with one twist. Because of his pace and ability on the ball, coupled with his ability to finish through the channels, Odemwingie has often found himself deployed in the wide areas as a wing forward, keeping up with the trend in world football. It’s paid dividends, with Odemwingie having scored 3 times this season.
His focal striker of choice has been Shane Long, who’s also benefitted from having a creative player in the number 10 role to the tune of 5 goals, and I would expect to see a bench appearance of the vastly experienced Markus Rosenberg in this match with his third-choice striker, Romelu Lukaku, unavailable for obvious reasons.
West Brom’s signing of the season might just be Claudio Yacob.
The Argentinian midfielder arrived on a free transfer this summer and has immediately had an impact on the way that West Brom play. While they have creative types in James Morrison and Zoltan Gera, an industrious type in Youssouf Mulumbu, West Brom didn’t really have an anchor point for their midfield.
Enter Yacob who’s taken on the job of playing as the deepest man in midfield and anchoring it. However, he’s also a very good passer of the ball and is incredibly important to the way that the Baggies set the tempo of the match. It will be important because his solidity in winning the ball and distributing it allows the rest of the midfield to play with a bit more freedom, namely Mulumbu’s ability to support the attack.
Last point, we must be aware of their counter attack.
The most interesting thing that I’ve noticed about West Brom is that they play a similar style of football to us, but they counter attack more frequently. Liverpool were beaten via set pieces and counter attack in the first match of the season, and many of West Brom’s goals have been a result of beating an opponent in the transition phase. With Long’s intelligence in the center and Odemwingie’s pace, they’re always a danger to get in behind.
Given Chelsea’s relative problems in dealing with counter attacking sides, it should be something to keep an eye out for, especially given how easily they’ve taken teams who push too many men forward apart in that phase of the game. The Blues should beware.