West Brom: Bad Luck, Poor Players & Confusing Selection Meant Clarke Had To Go
Just a year and a half after his appointment, Steve Clarke has been given the boot following a wretched run of results which leaves West Brom languishing at the bottom of the Premier League table. The defeat at Cardiff on the weekend was the final nail in the coffin and now Albion are left seeking a new manager.
The big question is: did he deserve to go? It’s hard to make accusations when in truth, the blame lies with a mixture of different things. Firstly, the statistics don’t lie. The team have won only seven of their 34 Premier League games during the calendar year – a 20 per cent win percentage accumulating a total of just 31 points. Their last league victory came in early November and they’ve lost the last four matches on the spin. Granted, that doesn’t make great reading.
But how much of that is Clarke’s fault? The controversial refereeing decisions awarded against West Brom this season have been well-documented and certainly had a significant impact on the points picked up. A prime example was at Stamford Bridge when Albion had done terrifically well to come back from one goal down but the match was turned on its head in the dying seconds. Andre Marriner pointed to the penalty spot, wrongly, after Ramires had fallen over onto Steven Reid’s leg. That was three huge points taken away. Just like that. Then at the Britannia when Youssouf Mulumbu was blatantly clipped from behind by Charlie Adam inside the box. No spot kick given and it ends a draw. Those are the fine margins in football and while I don’t want to clutch at straws, referees’ incompetence is hardly down to Clarke.
Then you have the group of players. Ultimately, the manager can only offer limited instructions and once the players cross that white line, there’s nothing he can do. It’s down to the squad to perform and put training sessions, drills and tips into practice. Certain players massively underperformed in key games during Clarke’s tenure, notably against Norwich and Cardiff. In South Wales, the team looked dejected, fed up and fatigued. There was no work rate, pressure or genuine concern until Cardiff scored and by that stage it was too late. It’s a complete contrast to earlier in the season when the group were excelling against the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal (picking up four points from those two fixtures). There was a feel-good factor permeating the side but that has faded. Undoubtedly, the players were playing for Clarke on Saturday and they failed to deliver. Now we see the harsh consequences.
And then you have to sit back and analyse the club’s summer transfer business. Is Sporting and Technical Director Richard Garlick just as much to blame? Money was made available but the role of ‘head coach’ doesn’t involve player recruitment. Romelu Lukaku, who was so heavily influential on loan last campaign, looked poised to re-join us but seemingly at the last minute he chose Everton instead. We should have tried a lot harder to secure that deal. His goals have not been replaced. Shane Long was on the verge of joining Hull but fortunately, the deal broke down. Why on earth we were even contemplating selling our main striker, with Peter Odemwingie out the exit door to Cardiff, was baffling. I still don’t think we had a ready replacement should Long have gone. Then we paid way over the odds for Victor Anichebe, the injury-prone forward from Everton who was brought in, presumably, to bang in the goals. So far he hasn’t been given a fair chance and only has one goal as a result. Nicolas Anelka, also known as ‘Le Sulk’, was a risky yet exciting transfer and on a free, it seemed silly to complain. But he’s ageing and seems to have disappeared of late. First he sustained an injury and now, reportedly, he is out with illness. He is yet to score and in the games he’s featured in, Anelka has been underwhelming poor. I dread to think how much money we are paying him. This stems from the loss of former Sporting and Technical Director, Dan Ashworth, who left for a promotion to go and work for the FA. Ashworth was a fantastic servant and scouted the likes of Youssouf Mulumbu and Graham Dorrans for bargain prices. These are two players that the club can make considerable profit on in the future. Other teams in the division have improved such as Swansea and Southampton while we have stagnated. The gap is now clear from the league positions.
But, having said all that in defence of Clarke, he is partially at fault. His team selection this season has been extremely confusing. There are times when he overused specific players, omitted specific players and delayed substitutions for no apparent reason. For example, Long was chosen to play against Newcastle which was a game too far for the Irishman. He was isolated, tired and ineffectual. Clarke failed to realise the issue and started Long the following match against Manchester City. The same thing happened and Anichebe was subbed on with half an hour remaining. He scored his first goal and proved why he should have started. Clarke also opted for Chris Brunt too many times over the emerging Saido Berahino; the Baggies’ top goal scorer. The supporters were clamouring for his name to be read out on the starting team sheet against Aston Villa but the local lad come good was confined to the substitutes bench. And when Berahino did get an opportunity, he was shunned out wide and not utilized as the leading frontman where he plays for England Under-21s. He’ll plunder goals aplenty there and is not a winger but due to the presence of Anelka, Anichebe and Long – Berahino has played second fiddle. Clarke’s lack of substitutions – or lack of timing – really bugged me. He would often wait until 85 minutes to offload a substitute. The likes of Anichebe, Berahino, James Morrison and the on-loan Matej Vydra were not given sufficient time to influence proceedings under the guidance of Clarke. Case in point: Vydra was handed longer than usual against Manchester City, around half an hour, and played a prominent part in Albion’s first goal. It was a similar pattern against Aston Villa and Clarke was responsible for that. He can’t help what the players actually do with the ball on the pitch but he can influence performances with the correct team selection and deployment of tactics.
This campaign was always going to carry higher expectations and targets following such a successful previous year in 2012-13. Clarke inherited Roy Hodgson’s setup and guided us to our best ever finish in the top-flight (8th). That was a magnificent achievement and the club could have qualified for Europe if not for a shoddy second part of the season. This did inevitably mean 2013-14 would require even more hard work and excellence as fans begin to become adjusted to top-half finishes. But in times like these, we musn’t forget where we have come from and the progress that has been made. It is testament to West Bromwich Albion’s development as a whole over the last several years that now the fans are talking of Europe and beating Manchester United at Old Trafford. This stuff just would not have happened four or five years back. So definitely the pressure increased on Clarke and he and the squad didn’t meet it. In an online poll ran by the Birmingham Mail, fans were asked to vote on whether they think the board has made the right or wrong decision. The results were telling and revealed 78% agreed with the board’s decision to fire Clarke. This does surprise me somewhat but obviously those against the sacking are in the minority.
What about Clarke as an actual person, coach? Did the fans like him? I think so. I certainly had nothing against him. I’d grown to like his methods of management and his cool, calm, composed persona. He’s a likeable enough guy with a hard working attitude and leaves the Hawthorns a better coach than when he first arrived. He made the transition from assistant coach to head coach look relatively easy, especially in his debut season at the helm. But his flaws were his tactics. They were dubious at times and why he fielded such a negative team at Cardiff – with conservative tactics – I don’t quite understand. Another drawback was the way he dealt with the Peter Odemwingie saga back in January. That sort of incident is never easy to control with the media following your every move. But in the end Clarke was caught in two minds. Do I forget this happened and start Odemwingie regardless because I know he’s a top quality footballer who’ll score us goals? Or do I acknowledge what happened and completely leave him out as a result, sending out a clear and brutal message to the player, fans and media? He did neither. Instead, he tentatively drifted Odemwingie in and out. No-one was quite sure what was happening and whether the Nigerian would stay or leave. Now Clarke is no longer associated with the club, I’m sure he’ll admit he could have dealt with that a lot, lot better.
But that’s the rigours of football. It’s a ruthless, clinical game and now West Brom must look to the future. Who will be the man to take the club forward and build on Clarke’s work? Albion chairman Jeremy Peace has kept his cards close to his chest regarding a new appointment and knowing him, it will be someone who hasn’t even been mentioned yet. Leading candidates include: Martin Jol, Roberto Di Matteo, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Paul Clement, Mike Phelan, Ian Holloway and Sean Dyche. Of course, these are just rumours and there is probably little substance behind the names. Personally, I’m leaning towards Solskjaer and Clement purely because they’re both young and promising coaches. Jol, Holloway, Dyche and maybe even Paulo Di Canio, are all no good. Peace isn’t stupid and you’d imagine he has someone lined up before the clash with Hull next weekend. If not, Keith Downing will temporarily take the reins but the sooner an appointment, the better. The waiting game is the worst.
Whoever does come in has one heck of a job on their hands. Albion have too good a squad to go down and they’re in a false position in the league. On the whole, the performances this season haven’t actually been that bad but the team has been unlucky in parts. Urgency is key against Hull and if we start on the front foot then we stand a far greater chance. A possible six points from the last two outings have gone to waste and the players must resurrect this against a Hull side that are no pushovers. They’ll be hard to break down and are quick on the break so Albion must be aware of that. Vydra and Berahino deserve chances in the starting line-up and it will be interesting to see if the new boss excludes anyone important or equally, introduces a surprising inclusion. Players such as Morrison, Zoltan Gera, Scott Sinclair and even George Thorne, when he returns from his loan spell at Watford, are on the periphery of the squad and will want to impress in training.
With the January transfer window on the horizon, it’s important Albion make their transfer business efficient and effective. Graham Dorrans and Markus Rosenberg are certain leavers while we must look to recruit reinforcements in defence and attack. A new left-back is vital as Liam Ridgewell needs competition; Goran Popov is not adequate back-up. The midfield is packed and needs polishing up while a few youngsters will need to be shipped out on loan to gain first-team football. If the club can bring in a new manager and tweak the squad – getting rid of some dead wood - by the end of January then it gives us a fighting chance for the remainder of the season. The next couple of weeks are critical to shaping our season.
Over to you, Albion…