Steve Clarke, but is their rise sustainable? And will they be able to recover from their mini-blip before their bubble bursts?
Firstly, let’s just state that the club is one of the best run in the entire division (with maybe only Swansea pipping them), from the scouting department, to technical director (outgoing to the FA) Dan Ashworth to former manager and now England head coach Roy Hodgson. After finishing tenth in the top flight last season with an energetic side, there were solid foundations to build upon, but nobody quite expected their start to the league this campaign.
Many, rather rashly, tipped the side to struggle under Clarke’s stewardship this season in what represents his first managerial role. Plenty of respected number two’s have stepped out of the shadows before only going on to fail in the big chair (Carlos Queiroz, Brian Kidd and Colin Harvey to name but a few), but it always seemed odd to tip West Brom to completely fall apart under any new boss, let alone consign them to the relegation scrapheap. Was there ever going to be less than three teams worse than the Baggies’ this term? Of course not, but the 49-year-old has far exceeded even his biggest supporters’ loftiest expectations.
The team currently sit in fifth place just behind Tottenham and three points ahead of their nearest challenger, Everton in sixth. During their climb up the table, which went unnoticed at first, they’ve claimed the scalps of Liverpool, Everton and Chelsea which is easier said than done. They’ve kept a respectable tally of four clean sheets, comparable with most sides in the division and only failed to trouble the scorers on two occasions, the same as both Manchester clubs.
Nevertheless, there are a few worrying signs that this brief soiree in the sun is not meant to last – they have kept just one of clean sheet (v Southampton) in their last 11 games across all competitions. They have have picked up only one point (v Tottenham) from a losing position all season and they have lost their last two games in a row against Swansea and Stoke.
Their strength at the moment is borne out of consistent team selection and getting the best out of a small squad. They are a counter-attacking side that knows their limitations in possession and tries to play it quickly and through the middle, with their power and urgency causing plenty of problems for the supposedly better teams in the league so far. They look hungry to succeed and they can play the nitty, gritty stuff aswell as a probing, threatening passing game and they have an end product.
However, when Clarke made six changes at the weekend, looking for a reaction the the poor performance away to Michael Laudrup’s side, it was clear that several players coming into the side looked a bit rusty. Such runs of form with only a thin squad are not made to last. It is possible to raise your game in certain weeks, but each and every week is going to prove testing.
They were helped in the summer by the fact that they didn’t lose any of their first-team regulars, while the acquisitions of Romelu Lukaku (on loan), Ben Foster (on a permanent deal) and Claudio Yacob have all been excellent and they have superb strength in depth up front in Odemwingie, Long and the aforementioned Belgium international, meaning they can rotate, as Clarke has done, to good effect.
The former Liverpool and Chelsea assistant boss sounded like he was trying to head off a slump in his press conference earlier this week before his side travel to Arsenal at the weekend, telling reporters: “I think the spirit at the club should be high at the moment and I said that to the players after the game on Saturday against Stoke. We were disappointed to lose but all I said was that they should be pleased with their efforts given where we are. If at this stage in the season you’d have said that we’d have 26 points and we’d be level on points with Chelsea and Tottenham, towards the top of the league, I would have grabbed that. I’ve tried to tell the players that we’re not in a bad place and we have to remain positive. There’s no way we can allow negative thoughts to come into our heads.”
To his credit, Clarke has consistently rejected any notion of getting carried away and you suspect that he knows that it will be extremely hard to keep them in the top six for the rest of the season, but he’ll be heartened to know that each defeat which has been hailed as their end of their run has prompted a response so far – after the 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage to Fulham, they then beat Reading, QPR and drew with local rivals Aston Villa away from home, while after their narrow 2-1 loss at home to Manchester City which was then quickly followed by a 2-1 defeat to Newcastle saw them go on and win their next four on the trot.
As with all surprise packages, observers are simply waiting for the tipping point where they drop off and return to also-ran status; it happened with Newcastle last year, everyone kept waiting for them to relinquish a top six place and return to mid-table, the position many thought the newly-promoted side would occupy at the beginning of the season, but they just kept going.
As the side heads into the festive period, they have been dealt a reasonably decent-looking run of fixtures – an out-of-form Arsenal away, West Ham at home, Norwich at home, strugglers QPR away before a tricky test awaits them at Old Trafford and they see in the new year at home to a Fulham side in free-fall.
It’s entirely conceivable to see them take around 10 points from a possible 18 during that sequence of games and you suspect that their season hinges on how they come through out of the end of it – will they stop the rot early, or has their blistering start merely been a blip? Intriguingly, it looks too close to call at the moment, but the lack of pressure or expectation surrounding the Hawthorns should stand them in good stead to keep progressing as the campaign goes on and they look certain to improve on last season’s points total and league finish at the very least.