By Tim Palmer
Steve Clarke to West Bromwich Albion is an intriguing appointment.
The most obvious reason is because it is his first job as a ‘No.1’, after twelve years as an assistant. Therefore, question marks undoubtedly remain over his ability to transition into the more demanding position. Clarke certainly doesn’t lack in Premier League experience, however, having spent twelve years working for top flight sides. Indeed, in the official Chelsea biography, Jose Mourinho speaks of Clarke’s knowledge of England as near-encyclopedic.
Secondly, Clarke succeeds England’s new manager Roy Hodgson, who guided West Brom to a comfortable tenth place. The challenge for Clarke at West Brom lies in ensuring the side looks to improve upon that placing, having reasonably secured their position as a top-flight club after years of yo-yo relegations.
Finally, Clarke’s appointment continues the relatively obscure model of football management (in England at least) employed at Albion, where duties are shared between a head coach and sporting/technical director, which is currently Dan Ashworth. Once touted as a potential candidate for the same role for England’s new Football Centre at St George’s Park, Ashworth’s role encompasses the scouting network, data analysis, academies, fitness and rehabilitation department, which allows the manager to focus on the first team.
This in part has contributed to the relative continuity at the club despite three managers in two years. To contrast, that is the same record as Liverpool, and the lack of stability on Merseyside is light years away from the ease of transition at West Brom. Clarke will be able to take over a settled squad, despite clear differences between his predecessors, Hodgson and Roberto Di Matteo.
Originally, the Chelsea caretaker took over in 2009 from Tony Mowbray, and immediately won promotion through winning the Championship with an expansive playing style modeled on the Italian’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. This formula was maintained in the side’s impressive start to the 2010/11 Premier League season, but a lack of defensive shape and discipline saw the departure of Di Matteo and the arrival of Hodgson, who instilled a zonal defence system that secured Albion’s defence and hence their place in the top flight. Hodgson’s demanding style of management revolves around team shape, evidenced by Jonathon Wilson’s interview with Fulham midfielder Simon Davies.
“Every day in training is geared towards team shape on the match-day coming up. I’ve been working with the manager three years now and every day is team shape, and it shows… I don’t want to give any secrets away, but he gets the 11 that he wants on a match-day and he drills everything in that he wants. It’s certain drills defensive, certain drills attacking, and we work very hard at it. There are no diagrams. It’s all on the pitch with the ball, nothing unopposed.”
Therefore, West Brom have become the embodiment of Hodgson’s style – deep in defence, and quick on the break with direct play to the attackers. This bodes well for Clarke, arriving to an already settled side which should at least concede few goals.
Clarke’s preferred style remains unknown due to his lack of experience as a head coach, yet his previous work does shed some light – Clarke has a reputation for intensive coaching on the training ground, playing a behind the scenes role in establishing primarily the defensive shape and system for managers including Jose Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish. Liverpool in particular picked up a reputation under Dalglish not only for scoring little but conceding little as well, and this was largely associated with Dalglish’s move to bring Steve Clarke on board in his original appointment.
The overriding theme in acclaims for Clarke’s work is that he is a coach that connects with his players and creates enjoyable training sessions centered on passing and tempo. The words of Alex Dyer, who worked alongside him at West Ham, may predicate what Clarke will seek to implement at West Brom.
“He likes to play the ball on the ground with quick passing and play at a high tempo. He is very encouraging with the players but likes things done with a good attitude to the training. He is calm in what he does but the lads know they can’t stand there having a chat. There is no wasting time. He is very organized. His sessions are planned to the tee.”
While the basic footballing tenets of Clarke’s philosophy may differ from Hodgson, it seems there are similarities between the old and new of Albion, with both prioritizing organization and hands on approach to training. This will suit the mood of continuity at West Brom, but this year’s tenth place was perhaps an overachievement: the squad is fairly limited, and Hodgson’s parting words warned of the need for greater investment.
In this sense, it is important to remember Clarke’s appointment remains ultimately a risk. He will need to handle the transition from right hand man to central figure, while ensuring the squad is kept together and continues evolving. One of his first issues will be to deal with the transfer speculation around midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu. The Congo midfielder appeared in thirty four of Albion’s league games this season, and his positional acumen in the midfield zone will need to be replaced, perhaps with Newcastle’s Danny Guthrie, who is available on a free and has been linked with the club.
On a broader note, Clarke represents the second ex-Chelsea coach to take over a top flight side, after the appointment of Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool. This, coupled with the failed tenure of Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea, demonstrates the significant influence the Portuguese leaves in England.
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