Five games in to his second season as head coach, Steve Clarke faces what could be his most important match yet at the Albion.
For a team that finished comfortably mid-table last season, the start of this season for West Brom has been somewhat uninspiring. Unable to score until the 92nd minute of the fourth match of the season tells a story. Positivity at The Hawthorns isn’t quite as easy to find.
But is it actually an overreaction? Several fans at the Albion, if not all of them, will say that the club don’t do things the easy way. Even last season, in the Albion’s best ever Premier League year, there were mumbles of relegation fears in January and February. Clarke, in his first season, led the club through that tough period and finished top of what could be called the ‘best of the rest’ section of the Premier League.
The main difference between last season and this season, however, has been the start. By November last year, Albion fans were talking of Europe. By November this year, going by current form, Albion could be stuck in the relegation zone. Three of Albion’s next six games are Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Sunderland on Saturday is a massive game.
Clarke will know that if Albion fail to beat Sunderland, the challenge to keep around the clubs in the relegation battle will be tougher. He will know that, even though this is only the fifth game of the season, this is genuinely one of the biggest games of his season. Win it, and pressure drops. Lose, then there is a distinct possibility that Albion could go in to November with only two points on the board.
The transfer window saw Albion bring in some real quality players that can make a difference. The onus is now on Clarke to get the team to work. Stephane Sessegnon will no doubt make his debut against his former club Sunderland, and he will be desperate to make a point. A player of real quality, his ability to create something out of nothing is something Albion have missed for some time.
Morgan Amalfitano showed against Fulham that his gift is his vision on the field. Scott Sinclair poses a threat through his pace. Victor Anichebe showed he can hold the ball up and bring others in to the attack as well as create the chances for himself. And then there’s Nicholas Anelka.
Anelka is somewhat a conundrum at the Hawthorns, and must be proving a headache for Clarke. For Anelka to fit in, the formation and style needs to change. Arguably, it changes to a formation that the rest of the team struggle with, and when you look at the team you even start to wonder whether Anelka is actually an expensive luxury.
Albion performed best last season playing 4-2-3-1, the defence is stable; Foster (when fit), Jones/Reid, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell/Popov. And then the real key to the Albion’s success, Mulumbu and Yacob in the middle pulling the strings, linking defence and attack. But then the headache starts for Clarke.
A choice of Brunt, Morrison, Dorrans, Amalfitano, Sessegnon, Sinclair, Long, Anichebe, Vydra, Rosenberg, Berahino and Anelka. Six midfielders, six attackers, four places.
Against Sunderland, I believe the Albion should line up with Anichebe up front, with Sinclair, Amalfitano and Sessegnon behind. Anichebe holding the ball up, with Sinclair and Sessegnon running in to the box is an exciting prospect. The 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-3-3 instantly. The inside forward role that Peter Odemwingie played so well could be filled by Sessegnon. Positivity could return to the Hawthorns. But will it?
For all the dearth of talent Albion have in that forward position, Clarke has persisted with 4-4-2. So much so that thoughts of Mike Bassett come to mind. But this isn’t a comedy, and Clarke doesn’t have the luxury to turn round and say he’s playing “four four f****** two” if it isn’t working. It may seem early to say it, but if Albion fail to win on Saturday and Clarke does persist with 4-4-2 to accommodate playing Anelka, then the pressure will be well and truly on.
Clarke is well liked at West Brom, by the fans and the players, but so was Roberto Di Matteo. Jeremy Peace, Albion’s chairman, will be looking at the club thinking about the money he spent on the final day of the window, breaking the transfer record. He’s given Clarke what he wanted. If Clarke doesn’t turn it round, then the good will from the support and players will not matter.
Sunderland and Paolo Di Canio find themselves in a similar position. After Saturday, they have Liverpool and Manchester United awaiting them, not to mention the North East derby only shortly after. Much like Clarke, Di Canio will view this match as the first real important match of the year because of the impact it could have on the rest of the season. They will want the three points just as much as Albion.
For Albion to win, then Clarke needs to revert to what worked best last year and play 4-2-3-1 and make the big call and drop Anelka to the bench. As good as Anelka is, the club is not in a position where it can try to modify its style for one player. They need to play to the strengths of Mulumbu and Yacob. They need to let Sessegnon and Sinclair attack. They need to give up the 4-4-2.
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